Local Linen

By Amber Newman

Summer days welcome our favorite linen tops, dresses and sheets. It’s the perfect warm-weather textile and it outlasts cotton by generations. But where does linen come from? How is it made? Are there local sources of linen for people in the Twin Cities?

Sustainable Fiber

Much like the local, small-scale food movement has worked its way into the mainstream, awareness of local fiber production is gaining momentum (read about the Fibershed project). People want to be connected to their fabrics, just like their food.  They want to understand the source, from whence it came:  the land. Linen is a plant fiber; it comes from flax (yep, the same flax seeds that you sprinkle in your smoothies). 

It is nearly impossible to find linen grown and made in the United States. Fiber enthusiasts in Minnesota and Wisconsin are examining the lack of linen production in the region. They’re taking the problem into their own hands, quite literally.

Linen in the Midwest

Andrea Myklebust is a fiber artist from Minneapolis, though she now lives in Lake Pepin and operates Black Cat Farmstead, a fiber shop in Stockholm, Wisconsin, about an hour down river from St. Paul. The USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SARE) has allowed Myklebust to dive into a flax-growing endeavor. She has 2,000 square feet in production, and her neighbors planted half an acre. “I wanted to work with them on the project because they have decades of experience growing organically. The part that I brought was some familiarity on how to grow and process flax,” she says. 

“The third critical component in this project is in Nova Scotia, TapRoot Farms’ Fibre lab. In the past few years they started growing, and then they took on the very ambitious project of inventing small-scale machinery for processing.” Myklebust says the places that are processing flax do so on strictly an industrial level.

Marian Dahlberg, owner/weaver/artist at V ä v a! V e v e, has been weaving with linen for 20 years and now specializes in luxury home fabrics. When she started V ä v a! V e v e and began looking for yarn, her research turned up zero linen sources in the entire western hemisphere, so she ended up importing from Belgium. 

In 2008, Dahlberg ventured into a flax-growing experiment with Gale Woods Farm, a sustainable farm in Minnetrista committed to community and education. “One of the great things about linen is that it’s possible to grow just about anywhere,” she notes. Dahlberg suggested the farm offer a weaving curriculum, and that turned into her planting a small plot of flax, but eventually attention shifted elsewhere (though the farm still offers education about fiber). 

She, like Myklebust, is thrilled about TapRoot’s mission to produce linen so close to home, and on a cottage-scale level. “That’s kind of the whole point of going organic and working with linen; it’s the sustainable approach to fiber and fabric… it’s accessible as opposed to big companies [which aren’t].”

Dahlberg is starting Small Dog Weaving Mill an hour and a half from the Twin Cities in Cumberland, WI. As she continues to follow the journey of local flax growers and the progress of TapRoot’s processing endeavors, she will continue to weave with imported yarn. “Hopefully that will change in the next few years, but until that time I have quite a bit of linen in stock.”

What makes linen so special?

Dahlberg tells us that “flax has silica along its fibers and that’s what absorbs moisture. When silica get full, they reverse and push water out, so that’s one reason why it’s so cool. It’s like you’re wearing little mini air conditioners.” 

Myklebust says the beloved fabric is hard to describe: “The nature of the material has a lot of body; linen is almost more architectural [than cotton], especially when it’s new. The more you use it the softer it gets; the drape of it changes.” The item she loves most in her linen collection is a towel that was made in the Civil War era. “If you care for it properly, your grandchildren can use that same towel, or sheets or napkins. It gets nicer over time.” 

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