When we hear stories of linen being passed down generations it can give us a wonderful sense of continuity and community with our grandmothers, and their grandmothers, all down the line - it’s a concept I cherish. Rural living in my grandmother’s time was quite self-sufficient, food was local, vegetables were home-grown. Transport was by horse, bicycle or dizzyingly modern steam trains, lighting was with lamps and candles. Their blankets were wool, their pillows were feather, and their sheets and pillowcases were linen, all local. I remember overhearing my aunts earnestly discussing a length of tweed they had bought for a skirt: They knew the island it came from, the weaver, the wild, natural dyes. I grew up feeling this was a good way to be.
Our lives now are better in so many ways, we have many choices, but there is a dawning awareness of the true costs of convenience and cheapness. Microfibers are found in fish, and in food too, because they are indestructible. The very first poly sheets ever made are still somewhere on or in the soil or ocean even now, while the natural fiber sheets they replaced have returned to the earth and left no trace at all. Man-made fiber bedding goes on and on, durable although it pills, discolours and often retains a faint disagreeable smell and clammy hand. It is cheap to make, yes, but a short-term benefit has become a long-term problem.
We are beginning to see natural fibers for our households and clothing in a new light. Wool, linen, cotton, silk - all of them have a much lighter impact on the planet than bamboo/rayon, polyester and nylon, though the latter are far harder wearing. Natural fibers biodegrade, artificial fibers do not.
Sometimes people ask me why their linen sheets wear out. It isn’t a question which would have been asked one hundred years ago.
Natural fibersdo wear, no matter how strong they are. We know that linen can be handed down through the generations, which is true if it is part of a collection also built up over generations. Women before marriage used to stockpile new linens of their own, augmented by inheritance from mothers and grandmothers, and these were tended, mended, turned sides-to-middle and patched in a way we don’t do today - very different from a single set which is taken from the bed on Saturday morning, washed in a machine, tumble dried and put back on. In times gone by, linen bedding was made from heavier weight fabric, so it could take time to achieve the softness we expect in bedding today. Our expectation now is immediate softness, so sheeting is produced today in a lighter weave.
The wear issue does relate to cost. Yes, linen is expensive, because it is labor-intensive to produce. Linen is valued for its virtues in use - its strength, its luster, absorption, cool hand, its feeling on the skin and its unmistakable appearance. There is nothing like the feeling of linen, and maybe the greatest blessing is that it sits lightly on the conscience, using far less irrigation to grow than cotton for instance, needing little in the way of pesticides - its natural foe is the gentle fieldmouse rather than insect pests. Modern practice is to ret it with dew, in the field, which causes zero pollution in waterways, and at the end of its useful life it returns peacefully to the earth. It has served us for thousands of years, and continues to do so.
There is more awareness recently, a much more rigorous examination on a personal and a consumer level of the power of conscious choice. A drop in the ocean? It’s the way changes have always begun.
We have strayed off the path for only a couple of generations. It can’t be beyond our ingenuity to pay the price, undo as much damage as we can, and turn our focus towards living in harmony with the only earth we have.
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