Linen Season Cometh

Linen Season Cometh

A London linen draper's card, c.1810
British Summer Time is here! In reality, this technicality merely heralds the coming of slightly less cold temperatures, but it nevertheless signifies a momentous shift in the British social calendar. Soon our coats will be banished to the back of the wardrobe, our SAD-induced hibernation will lift, and the light and colour will return to grey old London Town. The changing of the seasons also points towards the return of summer's most trusted companion: the linen suit. At Kipper & Chalk our appreciation for linen knows no bounds, so we thought it best to put together a concise guide to the wonders of this flaxen fabric.

The wonderfully elegant Bryan Ferry

To start with, linen is both extremely strong and lightweight, which makes it the perfect fabric for summer field frolicking. Whilst it may not be as stretchy and flexible as cotton, its longer and tighter-wrapped fibres mean that it should last longer in your wardrobe. On top of this, the fact that linen does not contain any animal fibre renders it impervious to pesky clothes moths and carpet beetles. This durability does not necessarily mean that linen isn't a soft fabric; the softer, more casual washed linens crease up nicely and provide a certain degree of louche to the wearer. For references, see Don Johnson in Miami Vice, Sam Waterston in The Great Gatsby, and Jack Nicholson's brief turn in Easy Rider.

A Kipper & Chalk original, perfect for summering in the Hamptons

Linen fabrics are made from the flax plant, part of the genus Linum in the family Linaceae, and the word itself comes from the Latin name for flax, "Linum Usitatissimum". This is, of course, just technical jargon. The important thing to know is that linen has been in use for a very long time, having been discovered in a cave in Georgia dating back 36,000 years. Whilst it may not be as sumptuous as the linens of today (such as Dugdale & Bros' washed linen bunch, 'Lagan Valley'), it's still an impressive discovery. Notably the use of linen was widespread in ancient Egypt, with white linen robes used as protection from the heat, and of course as a key part of the mummification process.

An Egyptian mummy wrapped in ancient linens

The processing and harvesting of the flax plant is likely too detailed to go into without enrolling in a degree in agricultural studies. However, some of the technical terms used to refer to these processes are archaic and delightful. A few honourable mentions are rippling, winnowing, retting, scrutching, and of course heckling (using the heckling comb). 

A teal double-breasted number, using Dugdale 'Heirloom' linen

The growing process has inevitably been industrialised on a mass scale, but the highest quality linen is still hand-harvested, and as flax can be grown in cold temperatures, some of the longest-running linen industries are found in Western Europe. Both Ireland and Belgium are renowned for some of the highest quality and most sought-after examples, and the majority of our linen bunches here at Kipper & Chalk are Irish, with a few Italians dotted here and there. 

The inimitable Tom Wolfe

The applications of linen in casual dressing are seemingly endless. If you've been paying attention to the red carpet premieres at Cannes recently, you may have noticed Mr Brad Pitt wearing some stellar examples, including a cantaloupe orange slouchy suit and a brown jacket-and-skirt combo. For those with a penchant for a more traditional form of flair, the cream linen suit is one of the most sophisticated ensembles that the heat of summer allows. The late great American novelist Tom Wolfe was seldom seen outdoors without his impeccable white two-piece. And of course, every summer those natty Italians can be seen sporting richly coloured linen jackets down in Florence for Pitti Uomo.

Pitti Uomo, Firenze

So now you know the very basics of linen; perhaps enough to impress the more sartorially-inclined at a dinner party, and hopefully enough to pique your interest in louche summer dressing. We're ready when you are. 
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