Le Neubourg, France
From Farm to Fashion, the Creation of a Fabric Fit for a $6,000 Dress
Linen has become a high-end staple on the designer-clothing racks. This year has seen Stella McCartney’s blue silk/linen blazer for $2,145, a denim-like cotton/linen Valentino dress for $2,290, and a nouveau trench coat from Derek Lam for $1,450. Lanvin is selling brides a wedding gown made of cotton and linen for just under $6,000.
A Lanvin gown in a linen blend sells for just under $6,000 at net-a-porter.com. ..Yet these thousand-dollar linens have humble roots. Two-thirds of the world’s linen originates in a narrow belt of farmland that stretches from northern France to the Netherlands. Mixed in among wheat, sugar-beet and corn crops are 200,000 acres of flax fields. “It’s the muddy part of fashion,” says Bertrand Coulier, head of Le Neubourg farmers’ cooperative in Normandy, which begins the process of turning flax into fabric. The savoir-faire in the region has helped elevate linen to a high-fashion fabric. Linen, the garb Egyptian mummies wore to their tombs, has long been synonymous with wrinkly weekend wear. Now, a more modern linen—woven into a jersey, blended with Spandex, or vintage-looking in its raw state—has become an environmentally friendly alternative to the old standards of cotton and wool. The latest linen blends are less wrinkly, less transparent and more versatile. “Linen is like a rare wool,” says Eric Vanfleteren, who runs La Linière Saint-Martin, comparing the niche fabric to alpaca or cashmere. La Linière Saint-Martin, also in Normandy, combs and grooms linen fibers to prepare them for weaving. (He also supplies short linen fibers that are used in U.S. dollar bills.) Céline’s influential designer, Phoebe Philo, has used linen in several collections since taking over the label three years ago. Linen made it into the fall haute couture runway show of French designer Maxime Simoens last month. Fashion brands are telling consumers more about the origins of their clothes. Linen, because it comes from such a limited region, is able to ride this movement. It is often marketed in the U.S. as “Belgian linen.” Earlier this year, Japanese fashion brand Uniqlo sold a linen line in that was identified as grown in France. Serge Bensimon, founder of the French casual-wear brand Bensimon famous for its linen canvas sneakers, recently visited the northern French linen fields. Linen makers also tout the facts that all parts of the flax plant are used, including the edible seeds, and that linen doesn’t require chemicals in its basic production. Recent volatility in cotton prices has closed a historical gap with linen prices. Cotton prices more than doubled in the past year, hitting a high of $2.30 a pound in March, according to the National Cotton Council of America, though last month they returned to last year’s level of around $1 per pound. Le Neubourg, one of France’s biggest linen cooperatives, sold linen at $1.27 a pound on average last year. Unlike cotton, linen isn’t traded on a commodities market. Its price depends merely on the supply from a more or less bountiful harvest and the demand from linen spinners. Last year, at the Normandy cooperative, one hectare’s worth of linen—enough to make 4,000 shirts—sold for 2,500 euros (about $3,550). Yet to produce one pound of linen requires twice the land and twice the manpower cost of cotton. “It takes up 15% of my fields and 50% of my worries,” says farmer Pascal Prevost. “We’re like wine makers who put their souls in the bottle.” Flax is a high-maintenance fiber—one reason its production is so limited around the world. Each summer, about three months after sowing, the slender stems grow waist-high and a blue flower blooms on each plant. When the plants dry out and turn golden in the sun, the flax is ready for harvest. There’s a sound that also tells farmers when flax is ripe for picking: The linseeds inside each dried pod make a hushed rattle when the wind whips up. Large machines pluck the plants from the soil, unearthing even the roots, which contain linen fibers. “The quality of the linen starts in the fields,” says Jean-Baptiste Voisin, a farmer and president of the Le Neubourg cooperative. Flax Facts View Full Image Emmanuel Fradin for The Wall Street Journal Bundles of dried flax are delivered to a facility in Le Neubourg. .Flax is among the oldest fiber crops in the world, dating back many thousands of years. Linen was the most popular fabric for sails until cotton took over in the mid-19th century. The U.S. and many other countries print currency on paper of linen and cotton. Researchers are developing linen fibers as a substitute for carbon fibers. Skis, tennis rackets, a violin and a bike are in the works. Linen thread is stronger than cotton but not as elastic; its inability to spring back to shape is why the cloth wrinkles easily. .The maturing of harvested flax is what makes the process so specific to northern France, Belgium and the Netherlands. Farmers let the rows of plucked flax lie in the sun and rain for several weeks. The alternation of sun and rain in this European coastal climate propagates a fungus that grows on the flax stems, rotting them to help separate the linen fibers from their husk. In warmer countries such as Egypt, this step—called retting—can be done in water, but it results in polluted water. The dried flax is rolled into large bundles and delivered to the cooperative in Le Neubourg. The cooperative belongs to the 350 farmers who deliver their flax for scutching, when machines extract the linen fibers. The flax goes into one end of the long machine looking like hay and emerges as long strings of raw linen. Getty Images A Derek Lam trench coat in a denim that is 68% linen. .Mr. Voisin grabs a handful of linen fibers and squeezes it. “When it wrinkles, it’s because it’s rich in oil, a sign of good quality,” he says, opening his fist to show the creases. At the end of the scutching line, the cooperative uses five criteria to measure quality: oiliness, color, strength, fineness and homogeneity. The longest fibers can measure three feet. Since China began building linen-weaving companies 20 years ago, the bulk of linen fibers have headed east to be turned into various textiles. The Le Neubourg cooperative has teamed up with two other nearby cooperatives to sell fibers to weaving companies, giving them greater bargaining power. Together, the three cooperatives account for 30% of the world production of linen fibers. Chinese companies buy 80% of their supply. Yet the cooperative keeps the finest tresses for European weavers, Mr. Voisin says. The European spinners—Safilin and Linificio, based in France and Italy, respectively—sell much of their fabrics to high-end fashion. “This will go into a postal bag,” Mr. Voisin says, handling two different bunches of linen strands, “and this will go to Cerruti,” the high-end Italian weaver.