Linen fabric is one of the oldest textiles known to man. People have used it for garments, bedding, and even funeral shrouds for centuries. Today, “natural” or untreated linen is rising in popularity–but what color is linen?
The color of natural, untreated linen ranges from oatmeal to taupe. It can be ecru, beige, sand, and even grey. The color of natural linen depends on the growing condition of the flax plant that produces the fibers and the way the manufacturer processes the plant.
Because it’s a natural fiber, linen takes dye very well, so commercial linen fabric comes in a wide range of colors. Bleached or white linen is also common, as it is fairly easy to remove the natural color from the fabric. This guide will help you understand where the color in natural linen comes from and how it impacts the resulting fabric.
What Color Is Linen Fabric?
Linen fabric comes from flax plants. Natural, untreated linen comes in a range of neutral colors in the beige and grey families. The shade of natural linen differs based on how the manufacturer harvests and processes the plant.
While there is shade variation in linen, natural linen will fall somewhere between an oatmeal shade and a taupe. Undyed linen isn’t vibrant; it’s muted and soft. It’s often referred to as “linen grey” even though the shade is not consistent.
Natural linen fabric can have green, yellow, or brown undertones. The undertones determine if the overall color leans more towards a grey or a brown. Many fabric manufacturers will blend multiple flax harvests after processing. When they create a single yarn out of multiple harvests, they can weave more color-consistent fabrics.
What Impacts Linen’s Natural Color?
The primary influence on linen’s color is water. From the growth of the plant to the processing method, the amount of moisture will significantly alter the color of the final fabric.
Soil nutrients, harvest timing, and what parts of the plant the manufacturer use also contribute to the final color.
Because natural linen has a color variance, it’s important to always buy a little more fabric than you think you’ll need for a project. Trying to match natural linens from different manufacturers or processing groups can be difficult.
The starting color of the flax plant influences the undertone of the finished fabric. The more nitrogen the flax plant has access to, the greener the undertone of the fabric will be.
The ripeness of the flax plant at the time of harvest also plays a role in the color. A ripe plant tends towards a yellow-green undertone. Unripe plants have more green, and overripe plants have more brown.
Soil nutrients, light, temperature, and water impact how quickly a flax plant matures and ripens. Since fabric production uses the stalks, manufacturers tend to let flax grow as tall as possible to maximize the amount of fiber they can get from each plant. This can lead to the brown undertones from overripe plants.
The majority of color variation in natural flax comes from the processing stage. To get the fiber out of the stalk, the manufacturer puts the plants through a retting process. There are three primary retting methods, and each one has a distinct impact on fabric color.
Dew retting uses very little water, and the resulting fabric tends to be grey as the fibers are dark. Water retting uses more moisture, which lightens the fibers, leading to sandier, more beige fabrics. Enzyme retting lightens the fibers the most, bringing out more red and yellow undertones than the other methods.
The other processing condition that impacts the final color is what the manufacturer uses from the plant. In the stalk, there is both fiber and straw. The amount of straw that the manufacturer removes influences how much yellow is in the final fabric.
The more straw left in, the yellower the undertone of the fabric. The less straw, the greyer and paler the final product will be. Flax straw has uses outside of textile production, so manufacturers tend to remove it fully.
What Colors Go With Natural Linen?Natural linen is an excellent neutral base for building a color palette. When you’re choosing colors to complement natural linen, look at the undertone of the linen.
If your linen fabric has greener undertones, cool colors will work best. On the other hand, if your linen has more red and yellow undertones, then warmer colors will go better.
If you have a color palette in mind, you can work backward and choose your linen based on coordinating undertones. Linen works well with both light and deep colors and even multiple shades of one color. The natural color variance makes it an incredibly versatile textile.
A great way to get a great match between natural linen and your other colors is to dye some natural linen. That way, the same undertones that you have in the undyed linen will get picked up in the dyed fabric.
Using the same base fabric to dye multiple colors will help you get a coordinated color scheme. This works well for interior design and home decor projects, as well as sewing projects and garment construction.
What Is the Color of Unbleached Linen?
Unbleached linen can mean the same thing as natural linen. It is flax fiber that has been processed, spun, and woven into fabric without adding or removing any color.
Bleaching linen is the only way to make it white. White linen is the result of bleaching to take away the natural color. There is no such thing as white unbleached linen. Any unbleached linen fabric will have grey or brown shades.
You may see colorful linen described as unbleached. This means the manufacturer didn’t bleach the fabric before dyeing it. Instead of starting from a white fabric, the manufacturer used the natural linen color as a base. These fabrics will keep the undertones of the natural linen and may appear earthier than bleached and dyed linen.
Bleaching linen at home will weaken the fabric, especially if you use undiluted chlorine bleach. The less chemical treatment you put linen fabric through, the longer it will last. Unbleached linen will stay in good condition for longer than bleached linen, whether you bought it bleached or treated it yourself.
What Color Is Flax Fabric?
Flax fabric is another name for linen. It’s sometimes called flax fabric because linen is made from flax plants, using fibers in the stalks. Manufacturers separate the fiber from the rest of the plant, spin it into yarn, and weave that yarn into fabric.
The rest of the plant is used for other products, like linseed oil, flax seeds, and even blue fabric dye from the petals of the flowers. The fabric from the stalks, however, is natural unbleached linen fabric.
Does Linen Dye Well?
Linen takes dye exceptionally well. Natural fibers absorb dye better than synthetics because of the plant structures in the fiber. The more water a fabric absorbs, the better it will absorb dye.
While unbleached linen is easy to dye, the natural color will influence the dye results. Many manufacturers will bleach linen first to dye a white fabric and get more vibrant results.
What Is the Best Dye for Linen?
The best dye for linen depends on the results you want. If you’re hoping for a bright, vibrant color, then a chemical fabric dye will work best. The chemicals will bond to the linen fibers and give you long-lasting, colorfast results.
For more muted tones or gentler colors, botanical and natural dyes will work well for linen. Colorful plants can give you a wide range of colors. Natural dyes may take longer to set, and they may not be as vibrant as a chemical dye, but linen will hold the color just as well throughout the life of the fabric.
How to Care for Linen Fabrics
Linen fabric is prone to wrinkling and shrinkage, so to prolong the life of your garments or other linen fabrics, always wash in cool to lukewarm water. It is machine-washable and does well with gentle detergent.
Most linen garments will need frequent ironing. Linen fabric is strong enough for high-heat ironing, and light fabric starch can help it maintain its shape.
One of the greatest benefits of linen fabric, however, is the way it softens over time. Repeated wearing and laundering takes an initially stiff fabric and relaxes it. If you prefer a stiffer fabric, then avoid washing your linen at home, and dry clean it instead.
Caring for Dyed or Bleached Linen
You should always wash dyed or bleached linen with similar colors to minimize the chance of color bleeding. Because linen takes the dye so easily, do not wash it with fabrics that aren’t colorfast.
For example, washing linen garments with new blue jeans or other indigo-dyed fabrics can easily dye or stain your linens blue. Once dyed, it can be difficult for you to remove the color from the linen fabric.
You can dry linen in the dryer on a medium heat tumble cycle or air dry it. High heat can set wrinkles in and make them more difficult to iron out. Air drying will minimize wrinkles.
It’s easiest to iron linen when it’s still a little wet, so either remove linen clothes from the dryer early or hang-dry them to have the best chance at avoiding wrinkles.
Caring for Undyed/Natural Linen
You should wash undyed, natural linen in cool to lukewarm water to prevent shrinking, just like dyed linen. Untreated linen is susceptible to staining from other garments, so be sure to separate it from colored fabrics.
The same drying and ironing practices work for both dyed and undyed linen. The primary concern for caring for linen is avoiding wrinkles and shrinkage.
However, it is important to note that you should not bleach linen, even if the fabric is undyed. While it won’t bleach stain undyed linen, it will weaken the fibers of the cloth. This wears the clothes out prematurely and makes it easier to tear the fabric accidentally. Always test stain removers on the inside of a garment, on the seam allowance if possible, before treating the rest of the garment.
Natural linen varies in shade based on the way the manufacturer harvests and processes it. The natural color of the plant will always have the greatest influence, but the treatment process can remove some of that coloration before the fiber becomes fabric.
Untreated, undyed, unbleached linen will always be in the grey or brown color families. However, you can easily bleach linen fabric white or dye it any other color you can imagine.
Do you prefer natural or dyed linen? Let us know in the comments! Make sure to share this article if it helped you learn about natural linen.