Flax Grows through Creativity, Community, Conscience

Three fiber-centric partnerships are transforming the textile landscape by producing linen, a special, luxurious, plant-based option, in an eco-friendly manner.

Jacqueline Harp Apr 9, 2024 - 6 min read

Flax Grows through Creativity, Community, Conscience  Primary Image

Although flax can grow in many areas of North America, the means to process it into linen yarns and fabrics are rare. A few groups are working to change that. Photo by John Morgan, courtesy of Fibrevolution

Where fast fashion rules, it has a lock on what fibers, yarns, and fabrics are available, even to knitters. In contrast, there is an emerging slow fashion movement made up of people who are standing up for a different set of values.

As responsibly sourced and managed fibers become available to knitters in the United States, it is worth considering exploring yarn made of linen. It is a luxury fiber that opens up amazing possibilities for transitional knits that can expand your wardrobe, especially for the spring, summer, and fall seasons. You can get imported linen yarn from your local yarn shop; however, American-made linen yarn has only recently become available. As creatives who want to have a positive impact on our environment, we may have a chance to knit with linen yarn sourced from domestic providers who are striving to build community while sustainably growing and harvesting the flax that becomes linen.

Chico Flax is currently the only U.S.-based producer of linen suitable to make yarn. Founded by Sandy Fisher and her partner, Durl Van Alstyne, in Chico, California, they realized their dream of taking flax from seed to fabric. It seemed wasteful to import linen from places as far away as Italy and China. Their goal was to grow and process flax in a sustainable manner, providing local linen fibers to create fabric suitable for the hot climate in which they lived. Learn more about their flax and linen endeavors at “The Quest for Local Linen: Chico Flax.”

Bundles of unprocessed dried flax lying on the ground in front of a sign for the Rust Belt Linen Project In addition to growing flax, members of the Rust Belt Fibershed educate members of the community with demonstrations. Photo by Jacqueline Harp

Rust Belt Fibershed is based in Cleveland, Ohio, and seeks to start and assist regional fiber production to help communities while positively impacting those ecosystems—from climate to economy. Among their extensive efforts is their Rust Belt Linen Project, which incubates and supports a community of flax growers with the hope of creating a regional base of linen production. They also host another project called One Year, One Outfit.

Bee in a blue flax flower A bee visits one of the abundant blue flowers in a field of flax in full bloom. Photo by John Morgan, courtesy of Fibrevolution

Fibrevolution is based in Oregon, where it focuses on the flax-to-linen process. It was created in 2017 by Pacific Northwest Fibershed founder Shannon Walsh and flax-grower Angela Wartes-Kahl. While the Pacific Northwest Fibershed organization has been discontinued, its mission continues with Fibrevolution and the North American Linen Association (NALA). In 2023, Fibrevolution successfully imported fiber flax seed from Europe. These seeds allowed more fiber flax to be grown in Oregon and increased fiber production immensely. They also acquired several specialized harvesting machines, including a puller, turner, and baler for flax fiber. Shannon Welsh shares her expertise on knitting with linen:

I entered this work through my love of knitting. A lifelong knitter, I went back to school as an adult and pursued an apparel design degree in hopes of aiming my career towards my passions. Knitting has always been at the heart of my work, and I recognize a need to revitalize and promote the development of regional regenerative textile systems that build soil and protect the health of our biosphere. When linen yarn is knit, it drapes beautifully with no wrinkling. I often hear folks say that woven linen wrinkles, but I personally love the texture and structure that linen creates either way. Linen adds longevity to knit or woven fabric. Being a long fiber (about a meter in length) it adds strength to a yarn. Flax fiber also can be blended with other fibers such as wool and cotton, which can create some unique yarns. Linen also has a beautiful sheen to it, when woven or knit. I can tell if a knit piece or woven fabric has linen; it is a good choice for knitters.

Toward North American Linen

These inspiring groups are just starting to build a sustainable flax and linen industry in America. Due to its hardy nature, flax can be grown almost anywhere in North America, but the tools and labor necessary to process it into linen are rare. The process of overcoming these hurdles will take time and will require support from the knitting community. If their values speak to you, start connecting with these groups on social media, find out more about their programs, and maybe even participate in a project. Remember creativity, community, and conscience, and give those gifts to your community and yourself by exploring and supporting linen.

Jacqueline Harp is a freelance writer and multimedia fiber artist who spins, felts, weaves, crochets, and knits in every spare moment possible. She is also a former certified Master Sorter of Wool Fibers through the SUNY Cobleskill Sorter-Grader-Classer (SGC) Program. Her Instagram handle is @foreverfiberarts.