If you’re looking for a classic upholstery fabric, you can’t do much better than linen. Made from the fibers of the flax plant, linen has been around for thousands of years (it was even used as currency in ancient Egypt). It’s still loved today for its beauty, feel, and durability. Considering getting a sofa or chair upholstered in linen? Here’s what you need to know about how it’s made, when it works, and when you might want to go with a different fabric.
How It’s Made
The process of making linen hasn’t changed much—it’s still incredibly labor-intensive (well, the good stuff is at least).
- First, the flax plants are harvested. The best quality linen fibers come from plants that are pulled up with the roots intact – not cut off at the soil level. There’s no machine that can do this, so linen is still harvested by hand.
- Once the stalks have been pulled from the soil, the fibers have to be separated from the rest of the stalk – another process where machines are no help. The stem of the plant has to rot away (a technique called retting). This is most commonly done by weighing the flax down and submerging it in a slow-moving or stagnant body of water (like a pond, bog, river, or stream), until the stems rot. The quality of the final fabric is dependent upon the retting process. In fact, this is one of the reasons why Belgian linen is so legendary—whatever is in the River Lys in Belgium works wonders on the stalks (flax growers from France, Holland, and even South America send their flax to be retted in the River Lys). There are other ways to get the stalk to rot, like spreading the flax in a grassy field, submerging it in large tanks of water, or relying on chemicals, but these all create lower quality fibers.
- The retted stalks (called straw) are dried and cured for a period of time (anywhere from a few weeks to months). Then the straw is passed between rollers that crush any woody stalks that still remain.
- To separate the remaining bits of wood from the fiber, workers scrape the fibers with a small wooden knife in a process called scutching. And it’s slow moving: Scutching yields only about 15 pounds of flax fibers per day per worker.
- Next, the fibers are combed through a bed of nails (a process called heckling) that removes the shorter fibers and leaves the longer ones. It is these long fibers that are spun into quality linen yarn.
Where Is Linen Made?
While Belgium, France (Normandy), and the Netherlands are considered to have the best climates for growing flax, it can be grown elsewhere in Europe. Flax is also grown in Russia and China, though the fibers grown outside of Europe tend to be of poorer quality. One exception to this rule is flax grown in the Nile River valley, which benefits from the rich soil found there.
While processing is usually done near where the plants are harvested, linen weaving can happen anywhere. Many say the mills of Northern Italy produce the best linen, though ones in Belgium (of course), Ireland, and France also produce high quality fabric.
Linen has a well-deserved reputation for eco-friendliness. Flax is easy to grow without fertilizer or irrigation and it’s naturally resistant to disease and insects, requiring little use of chemicals (as a comparison, cotton uses seven times more chemicals than linen). Flax also uses one-fourth the water that cotton does during processing and produces little waste, since every byproduct is put to use. Even better, linen possesses a natural resistance to bacteria, microflora, and mildew, making it a great choice for those with allergies.
It Stands the Test of Time
Linen’s durability is legendary. It is the strongest of the plant fibers (approximately 30 percent stronger than cotton) and its strength actually increases when wet. (Random trivia fact: Money is printed on paper that has linen fibers in it so that it’s stronger.) But durability is just one factor to consider—linen might not stand up super well to heavy everyday use. It’s not very stain-resistant and the fibers will weaken if exposed to direct sunlight. That’s why linen may not be the best choice if your room is flooded with sunshine or your children and pets tend to be on the messy side.
Don’t Get Fooled By Thread Count
Some retailers brag about the high thread count of their linen fabric, but they neglect to take into account the thickness of the yarn. Flax fibers are naturally thicker than cotton, which means fewer threads can fit in a square inch. That’s why a high thread count doesn’t necessarily translate to a better quality linen fabric. The important thing to remember is that a thick, densely-woven upholstery fabric will hold up better than one that is thinner and/or loosely woven.
How Linen Looks and Feels
There’s a good reason why summer clothing is often made from linen: It feels cool and smooth to the touch. But while the long linen fibers are good because they don’t pill and stay lint-free, they’re not very elastic. As a result, the fabric doesn’t bounce back when bent, resulting in those infamous linen wrinkles. While many prefer the casual look of crumpled linen, people who want a crisp, wrinkle-free look should probably avoid 100 percent linen. Blending linen with other fibers like cotton, rayon, and viscose can increase elasticity, reducing how easily it wrinkles.
Linen also doesn’t take dye well, explaining why it’s usually found in its natural color: off-white, beige, or gray. As a bonus, those natural colors don’t fade easily. If you see pure white linen, know that it’s the result of strong chemicals that aren’t very friendly to the environment.
One last note about how linen looks. You’ll notice that a lot of linen has something called slubs, which are lumps or thick spots in the yarn. These aren’t defects, and in fact, some people appreciate the look of slubbed fabric. However, the best quality fabrics will have a consistent yarn size, and be relatively free of them.
Taking Care of Linen
Like every upholstery fabric, linen benefits from regular maintenance. Vacuuming at least once a month to remove surface dirt will help it last even longer (nothing wears out upholstery more quickly than rubbing dirt into the fabric every time you sit down). What to do if a spill happens? Although linen does not take dye well, it seems to hold onto stains. It’s also not the easiest fabric to clean, and the best advice is to follow the manufacturer’s instructions. When in doubt, call a professional upholstery cleaner.
If you have a 100 percent linen slipcover, they should be dry-cleaned to avoid shrinkage (although some blends may be washable—check those manufacturer instructions). Even if your slipcovers are washable, it is best to avoid bleach, as it will weaken the fibers and may change the color. If bleachable white slipcovers are what you want, consider a heavy cotton fabric instead.
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Ron Hopkins says
Just bought a Linen sofa, Im nervous about it staining easily. Can I spray it with a fabric guard like Scotchguard?
Hi Ron, Each stain guard should have information on the types of fabrics it is approved for. The best way to go about protecting it is to not go the DIY route and call a company that can apply it for you – they’d be familiar with what fabrics they can protect.
N. R. Coward says
What do you know about the importance of backing linen to upholster my sofa? As I research fabrics, some I’ve found include an acrylic backing. Would this help linen keep its shape better? Please respond.
For most linens it is not necessary to add backing, but it does vary depending upon the weave. It may help keep the wrinkles away, but it may make the fabric feel stiffer and less soft. Also if you are purchasing a slipcovered piece (some linens can be washed or dry-cleaned) then the backing may make the fabric not washable. I wouldn’t spend a lot of time specifically look for linen with backing, but if you find one you love that has it, then it won’t hurt!
Debbie P says
I have fallen in love with a linen fabric (Lyric/Patina) and would like to use it to reupholster 2 chairs that are not heavily used. It is labeled as suitable for bedding, drapery, etc., but upholstery is not listed as a use. Could I use it for the chairs if I have it backed?
I’m not sure on that – it’s hard to tell without seeing fabric in person. I would recommend to find a fabric that is rated for upholstery just to be safe, unless the chairs aren’t going to get much use. Ask the upholstery professional as they’ll probably be able to give you some more insight.
Debbie P says
Thanks. I really appreciate the quick response.
We have had our linen sofa for 4 years and like it very much. It has 3 cushions and these cushions(especially middle one)have acquired expected wrinkles. We vacuum weekly but wonder if some sort of steaming would help.
Yes – a steamer would help a lot with the wrinkles – give it a try!
I am considering purchasing a sofa and may select fabric with 80% polyester and 20% linen. Would the amount of linen in this fabric combination be enough to help with the wear and wrinkle affect of the linen? The sofa will have everyday use for two adults and visits from the grandkids.
I cannot say for certain without being familiar with the fabric itself, but I think that the polyester should help with the wrinkling.
Angela DIBLASI says
How do you think a 74% Cotten and 26% linen fabric would wear for a sofa and chair slipcover? Thankyou!
It’s hard to say without first hand knowledge of the fabric, some blends will hold up well while others may be more poorly made. Make sure it’s washable and has a high double-rub count (over 15,000) and ask what the warranty is. Most companies should give you a year warranty on the fabric, then if things start to go wrong don’t wait to make a claim.
Carol Moore says
We purchased a linen covered sofa from EA and after reading comments on linen I am concerned we have made a mistake. This will be heavily used and we have a 40lb dog. What should we do. No warranty.
Hi Carol – I wouldn’t worry too much! Linen is typically a heavy duty fabric – do you know the double-rub rating of your fabric? It is also usually cleanable with water and some gentle detergent (though test on an inconspicuous area first). The main concerns with linen are the wrinkling and it can fade – it doesn’t sound like those are your issues. Try to enjoy your new furniture and live life on it. It also may not hurt to get a chic, washable throw for the pup to lay on.
John Budd says
I am putting together a pre-industrial hiking kit, and I was thinking of using a linen cloak as part of it. And of course it will be exposed to sunlight a whole heck of a lot(as well as rain). I was wondering if there would be any products to strengthen linen against sunlight, as well as whether or not, something like Greenland Wax, would work on it to waterproof it. Thank you.
I’m not sure – this is something I’ve not thought about. Good Luck!
holly shurtleff says
We purchased a “Yarn dyed linen weave” couch from West Elm that we love but, there is evidence of pills on the top surface in increased pilling to the sides of the cushions where the surfaces are in contact with either one another or the side frame of the couch. Linen is not suppose to pill. Does Yarn dyed linen weave suggest that its actually not linen?
Unfortunately I doubt your sofa is linen and they are using the term “linen-weave” to describe the look of the fabric not what the fabric is made of. Another clue is that linen is typically expensive and wouldn’t be at the price point of a West Elm sofa. Pilling occurs when there is a blend of fabrics as loose fibers make their way to the surface. You can remove the pills and once all the loose fibers work their way to the top, the pilling should stop. Good luck!
Caryl Yosevitz says
I am thinking of purchasing 6 dining room chairs made of Linen Upholstery. I am a bit weary that the color will fade and that it will wrinkle. Is this possible? They will be used often.
It is possible Linen will fade if exposed to direct sunlight. If it is upholstered tightly wrinkles shouldn’t be an issue, but if it is a slipcover you may notice some of that.
Can a soft linen blend fabric sofa be steamed cleaned?
We aren’t sure without knowing the fabric, but your upholstery cleaning company should know. If you have the cleaning code that will help. Good luck!
Hi, looking at dinning chairs and the one I’m looking at has Linen along with Acrylic, Viscose, and Acetate! Is that blend decent? The chairs are expensive so I’m trying to see if it is worth it. Thanks!
I can’t know for sure without being familiar with the fabric. I would ask the retailer you are purchasing from what their experience is with that specific fabric. They would know if it is rated heavy-duty or not, cleanability, and if there is a history of pilling. Good luck!
PIERRE DORÉ says
Hi, I own a a high end sectional sofa (Roche & Bobois 5 seaters) for over 21 years recovered with a thick cotton fabric, which is still in top notch condition. One of the cushion got recently stained with black paint and I need to make an insurance claim.
The sofa has only been used for 15 years for a maximum of of twice a week by only one person (2 hours each time).
What is the sofa resistance (number of rubs) and how do I determine the number of rubs used – I am trying to determine
the % of depreciation resulting from the rubs that took place.
Hello Pierre, the double-rub value for your fabric is something that you would have to find out from the manufacturer. I’m not sure how to equate double-rubs (a value calculated in a lab through testing) to a real life usage quantity. Sorry we couldn’t be of more help.
Satish Reddy says
Is belgian linen a good choice for a large l shaped sofa with kids in the house. Also,should I be asking for removable covers?
The term, “Belgian Linen” actually isn’t an accurate way to determine fabric quality. Yes, linen is generally a durable fiber and some fabrics can be washed or dry-cleaned. But, like with any product, the quality isn’t soley determined by the material because how it is manufactured plays a big role. Since most of the world’s linen fiber comes from Belgium, “Belgian Linen” can mean that the fabric was sourced and made in Belgium, or it can mean the linen fiber came from Belgium and the material was fabricated elsewhere. I would research where the fabric was made (European sourced fabrics tend to be better quality then those made other places) and what the double-rub count is. As for removable covers, that would mostly benefit you if the fabric was washable or dry-cleanable. If it isn’t then there is some benefit to be able to purchase a new cover down the road if this one gets damaged. But this only works if the manufacturer will make replacement covers or if you will work with a re-upohlsterer to have one made.