The much lower cost of cotton has replaced it in price-sensitive applications but the most important fabric other than wool for men's tailored clothing is undoubtedly linen, particularly Irish linen.
Linen is best known as a warm weather cloth. It is highly absorbent and dries quickly so that it removes perspiration from the skin, which keeps it cooler to the touch than other fabrics. That made it ideal for undergarments like shirts which were once made almost exclusively out of linen, and that is of course the reason they are still referred to generically as linens.
The source of linen is the cultivated flax plant, named Linum usitatissimum. It was most likely the first plant fiber used for making textiles - according to the Irish Linen Center Museuem, linen cloth has been found that dates to 8,000 BC.
The very best linen is generally considered to come from Ireland, where the stuff has been produced in volume for more than 3,000 years. As recently as 1921 some 40% of Northern Ireland's registered working population was dependant on the linen industry, so there is an extraordinary amount of accumulated linen expertise in that country. But flax requires a great deal of attention to grow and the thread is difficult to weave making the cloth more expensive than most and this has led to a significant decline in its production.
Today linen is produced in relatively small quantities with most of it going for apparel. Its relative stiffness makes it ideal for matte pocket squares and it is also used for loosely woven knitwear as well as suitings.
In tailored clothing applications, linen is recognized for its creasing and rumpling. Lightweight linen tends to crease, and the heavier stuff (14 ounce/420 gram cloth) rumples which looks considerably better after an hour or two. Very particular men have been known to change linen suits at mid-day, something that is rather hard to do in an office. But the cream linen suit, like the one that belonged to the late Duke of Windsor in the photo, still has an allure that is duplicated by few other garments.
Tuesday, February 16, 2010
Photo: Kerry Taylor Auctions