One of nature's strongest vegetable fibres, flax was also one of the first to be extracted, spun and woven into textiles
Flax fibres obtained from the stems of the plant Linum usitatissimum are used mainly to make linen. The plant has been used for fibre production since prehistoric times. It grows best at northern temperate latitudes, where moderately moist summers yield fine, strong but silky flax. In Poland, a hectare of flax plants yields 1.5 to 3.5 tonnes of fibre.
Like cotton, flax fibre is a cellulose polymer, but its structure is more crystalline, making it stronger, crisper and stiffer to handle, and more easily wrinkled. Flax fibres range in length up to 90 cm, and average 12 to 16 microns in diameter. They absorb and release water quickly, making linen comfortable to wear in hot weather.
CNR-ISMAC, Biella, Italy
The leading producers of flax fibre are France, Belgium and the Netherlands. Other significant producers are China, Belarus and the Russian Federation. The total area dedicated to flax cultivation for fibre is estimated at around 120 000 ha in Europe, and some 320 000 ha worldwide.
Production and trade
In 2007, the European Union produced 122 000 tonnes of flax fibre, making it the world's biggest producer, followed by China with about 25 000 tonnes. China is also a major buyer of raw flax for processing, with imports of 60 000 tonnes a year, including most of Europe's flax fibres. Bulk linen production has shifted to Eastern Europe and China, but niche producers in Ireland, Italy and Belgium continue to supply the market for high quality fabrics in Europe, Japan and the USA.
Uses of flax
Fine and regular long flax fibres are spun into yarns for linen textiles. More than 70% of linen goes to clothing manufacture, where it is valued for its exceptional coolness in hot weather - the legendary linen suit is a symbol of breezy summer elegance.
Linen fabric maintains a strong traditional niche among high quality household textiles - bed linen, furnishing fabrics, and interior decoration accessories.
Shorter flax fibres produce heavier yarns suitable for kitchen towels, sails, tents and canvas. Lower fibre grades are used as reinforcement and filler in thermoplastic composites and thermoset resins used in automotive interior substrates, furniture and other consumer products.