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High fibre: has Australia reached peak linen? | Fashion

We eat off linen tablecloths and sleep on crumpled linen sheets. Our sofas are upholstered with it, our curtains draped from it, our children’s clothes are cut from it and so are our own.

According to the global linen supply market 2019 industry research report, the global linen supply market was US$7.5bn in 2018 and is expected to hit US$9.6bn by the end of 2025, at an annual growth rate of 3.1%.

Google searches for “linen” always increase in the summer but this November saw Australia’s highest-ever interest in the textile.


Gemma Riberti, head of lifestyle and interiors from global trend forecasting agency WGSN, says: “Linen is certainly having a moment, driven by the overarching trend taking over fashion and home, towards celebrating craft and artisanality … Linen’s rawer, irregular hand resonates well with consumers that seek more honest and authentic lifestyles in reaction to ever-digitised lives.”

We’re certainly not the first generation to be wrapped up in the fabric. Linen, cultivated from the flax plant, is one of the oldest fibres in the world. Ancient Egyptians used fine-woven linen for burial wraps and to project class status. From the middle ages through to the 18th century, linen was used for domestic textiles, clothing and bedding.

Linen cross-back dress from the Australian brand Albus Lumen.



Linen cross-back dress from the Australian brand Albus Lumen. Photograph: Supplied by Albus Lumen

It has eco-friendly credentials, too. The flax plant can grow with just rainwater, without irrigation or pesticides, and when left untreated (ie not chemically dyed) it is fully biodegradable. So it should be no surprise that as consumers become more focused on sustainability, this natural fabric has resonated.

And of course linen’s surging popularity can also be attributed to its practicality. Felicity Brand, head buyer and merchandiser of Australian boutiques Mode Sportif, says: “Linen is key to keeping cool from a functional perspective and that is probably why Australian brands excel at it.”

Little surprise then that sought after Australian resort wear brands such as Matteau and Albus Lumen are very much linen based. Like fashion, several Australian homewares and bedding companies that specialise in linen have also emerged in the past few years, including Cultiver, Bed Threads, Mother Daughter and In Bed, and children’s linen needs are met by Mini Marley and Children of the Tribe.

In Byron Bay, free-range families roam in packs and life is carefully curated for immediate Instagram gratification. For Emma Lane, co-founder of The Farm in Byron Bay, the portrayal of an effortless, linen-clad life has led to a cult-like social media following.

Always pictured swathed in billowy linens, she loves linen for its sustainability and its natural, muted colours. “Even in its natural form (ecru, ivory, grey…) it’s so much more beautiful to me.” Aesthetically it matches her bohemian fashion sense and being a mother of four, the durability compared with other fabrics is a bonus, plus “it looks good crumpled”.

However, linen’s popularity lies not just in its sustainability, its durability or its simplicity. It owes its popularity to its ability to combine these zeitgeisty sentiments with its status as a premium textile (and a high price tag).

Jane Goldney of The Drapery, an eco-friendly fabric retailer in Adelaide, provides an insight into how linen denotes luxury. She says European-sourced linens have sold particularly well since 2013. Though more expensive in terms of supply and production, Goldney says consumers are willing to pay a premium for “quality and tradition”.

A designer and sustainability consultant, Dr Clara Vuletich, has little doubt that linen’s desirability in Australia is linked to its perceived status. Certified cotton, for example, can be cheaper and sustainably credible, but because it is mass produced and versatile it feels less like a trend and more like a mainstay. Linen sourced from northern Europe has a lovely history that pre-dates the Industrial Revolution, and a provenance story which swells its price tag.

In Bed’s linen sleepwear range.



In Bed’s linen sleepwear range. Photograph: Saskia Wilson/In Bed

Although you might be able to justify the higher cost of linen because of durability and breathability, essentially you’re also buying into the cultural backstory which, like any luxury product, is part of its allure.

Buying linen from northern Europe is similar to “investing” in heritage brands. Linen is very much a prestige fibre that still feels rare compared with cotton.

But all this might be changing. Though most flax for fibre is still produced in northern and western Europe (France is the world leader), the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) says most of it travels to China for textile processing. Likewise, Goldney observes that with the continued growth in the market, “There is more competition from lower priced linen manufacturers, we guess, mainly in China.”

On the high street, brands have also increased their linen offerings, with Country Road creating a dedicated “linen edit” this summer.

Small linen towels from brand Lovely Linen on a bathroom rack.



Small linen towels from brand Lovely Linen on a bathroom rack. Photograph: Lovely Linen

Speaking to Meriel Chamberlin, textile scientist and founder of Full Circle Fibres, she warns, “If we swapped out cotton for linen we’d end up having to farm it as intensively as we farm cotton, with the same pressure on price that comes with being a commodity rather than a luxury … Fibre is part of it but not all of it, and if you don’t know your supply chain, you just don’t know the actual impact of your product.”

So as the decade draws to a close, have we reached peak linen? Low cost linen from China poses a risk to its status as a premium textile. Modish Instragrammers will, inevitably, move on to the next feel-good thing. Until then we’d best remember as Chamberlin points out: “Everything has an impact, so make it well and buy it once.”

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