Linen is one of the most eco-friendly natural fibres offering diverse applications, says Ashok Athalye.

Linen used to be the most widely used textile material for apparels during the primordial era. Owing to its strength, durability and long-lasting property, the ancient Egyptians were considered using it even as a currency. Thus, linen was an intrinsic and intimate component of human life and it was valued so much that cleaning of household cloths in public place probably led to the popular usage 'washing dirty linen'.

Linen, which ruled the northern hemisphere garb for thousands of years, lost its importance in the last few centuries as another natural fibre cotton, also initially marketed as white gold, gained prominence during British colonisation of Asia and the advent of industrialisation. Availability of vast land mass for cultivation of cotton in the Indian sub-continent, tropical weather conditions, cheap labour and ease of downstream processing boosted popularity of cotton and it became the most popular textile substrate around the globe within a short period.

Linen, which enjoyed a lion's share among the natural farm-cultivated textile substrates until the 17th century, was reduced to hardly 1 per cent of total textile fibre consumption by the mid-19th century. However, the last few decades have witnessed revival of linen and usage of this long and thick fibre in apparel and home furnishing segment.

Linen is best grown in cold and moist climatic conditions and Western European weather is considered the most conducive for the best quality linen. France, Belgium, the Netherlands and other neighboring countries contribute about 80 per cent of global linen fibre production of about 1,500,000 metric tonnes (MT), while the remaining comes mostly from Egypt, Russia and China. Though, linen fibre cultivation is less in China, it has the highest linen yarn spinning capacity, amounting to almost 80 per cent of global production.

The United States is the largest consumer of linen-made textile material worldwide, followed by Europe and India. However, their consumption pattern is different. In the United States and Europe, about 30 per cent of linen is used in clothing and the rest in home furnishing, while in India it is exactly the reverse. India is considered to be one of the fastest growing market for linen and blended textile material and about 30,000 MT was consumed last year and is believed to be growing at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of about 15 per cent in the last decade. Linen's ability to absorb sweat and keep the body cool makes it a perfect fabric for India.

Further, with growing awareness about sustainability and various aspects of a textile material in terms of its environment impact, water footprint, biodegradability and longevity, the focus is shifting to linen as it is one of the most eco-friendly natural fibres.

Cotton and linen are both natural fibres of cellulosic origin containing anhydroglucose units, but there are a lot of differences between them in terms of physical, environmental and usage performance. Apart from the use of linen fibre in textile application, its other parts are also used as varnish for wood preservation and linseed oil, the omega-3 fatty acid extract from its seed, as a nutrient for animals.