Linen is a Bitch

Don’t get me wrong, I love sleeping on and under linen. I love ironing linen and putting my best plates and glasses on a crisp linen tablecloth. I even love sewing linen: It moves around a lot as you sew. I like the fact that it demands my full attention. So that, like a Buddhist, I am fully present.


The wonderful Beth Moran let me have a look at (and feel of) some linen threads the week I did her weaving workshop and as I’ve already described it feels like razor blades. On reflection though I think a better description would be that it feels like the grass you get on sand dunes.

Gratuitous beach shot

In industrial weaving  the threads are kept wet to prevent stretching. A “Size” or mild adhesive is used and temperature needs to be around 20° with a relative humidity of 75% – 80%

So I don’t weave linen at home. But having learnt how to vegetable dye wool, I thought “How great would it be to have a range of table-linens both inspired by the colours of Ireland and created using plants native to Ireland?”

The first step was Onion Skin dyeing. Actually, the first step was trying to find Alum Mordant in Ireland. This makes the fabric more receptive to dye.

In theory you can buy Alum in a chemist. In practise, bar faking an illness you’ve never heard of so you can get a prescription, you no longer can. Talk to Doctor Interweb instead, where you can find lots and lots of natural dyeing websites, blogs and online shops.

Something I noticed while researching this was that very few of these sites were talking about dyeing linen. Wool was the fibre of choice, or sometimes organic cotton. Given that dyed flax fibers have been found in a prehistoric cave in Georgia (Roughly 36,000 years old) it can clearly be done. The problem is that linen is a cellulose fibre and needs to be brought to a high ph alkaline level in order to take the colour. This can be done using either an ammonia or stale urine bath. Nice.

I didn’t, in fact, check the ph of my water before mordanting, but I gave the fabric a good hour long simmer in alum & water, then left it to cure overnight before dyeing.

I brought onion skins and cold water to the boil, then brought it back down to a simmer and added the linen. I gave it a good hour’s rolling simmer until the fabric was an egg-yolk yellow. It was a rare sunny day so I line-dried that batch of linen while I dyed a second batch in the same dye bath.

Line-drying future napkins

When the second lot were done I added a handful of walnut shells to the dye bath and then gave my first batch another go. The result is very slightly darker, but tonally way more interesting. There seems to be a lot more depth to the colour and honestly I’m not sure if it was the double bath or the walnut that did it.

The next step then is to check it’s colour fast. I want to use this linen for napkins so it’s vital they can be washed at a high temperature. Guess what? They can’t!

To Be Continued….


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Filed under Linen, Natural Dyes

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