Normandy’s blue gold.
Delicate sky-blue flowers stretch across the landscape, reaching the horizon. Their long green stems sway in the sea breeze. It’s early June in the north of France, and we’ve made our way here especially to witness linens’ annual spectacle.
For centuries, flax has been grown here in Normandy, where the mild oceanic climate produces a high-quality fibre. 73,000 hectares are devoted by farmers to this environmentally low-impact crop, the know-how of its cultivation passed down through generations. Flax plays such an important part in the culture, heritage and identity of the region that it’s referred to as Normandy’s ‘blue gold’.
Terre de Lin – A committed cooperative, rooted in its land.
We purchase all our linen from Linificio e Canapificio Nazionale – an Italian spinning company that specialises in the finest quality, European-grown linen. The flax fibre they use is grown in the Flanders region – an agriculturally fertile area on the coast of the North Sea, spanning across France, Belgium and the Netherlands.
We’ve travelled to St Pierre le Viger, North of the river Seine to meet Fabrice, our yarn agent at the headquarters of Terre De Lin – a cooperative of 650 flax farmers. It differs from the more common investor-owned agricultural firm format. Instead, a network of members work together towards a shared vision that benefits everyone. Farmers are able to pool production costs and resources. They follow a ‘one farmer, one vote’ principle in decision making and consider the cooperative an extension of their own farm.
Fabrice introduces us to Anne Nizery. She’s been involved in the organisation for many years and has offered to show us around. We talk about the decline of the textile industry in Europe. The cotton boom. The subsequent demise of linen production. And then it’s most recent renaissance. Fabrice tells us they can barely keep up with demand for European linen.
We talk about the land and the farmers in Normandy. Some are fifth generation. The good farmers are the ones that are passionate. They know how to combine inherited knowledge and understanding with new technology. Getting that balance right is important. The younger generation of farmers are more sensitive to the debates around climate change – debates that were once fringe have become mainstream. They are working hard to shift the negative reputation that has been laid on the agricultural industry in recent years. There is a disconnect between the farmer, the manufacturer and the end user. And it is something we all need to take responsibility for understanding. Transparency is key.
The paradox of sustainability.
‘Sustainability’. That buzzword that businesses stamp all over their marketing material in an attempt to express that their values align with the 21st-century need for environmental protection. In response, a plethora of certifications and standards have been developed – based on real criteria, not just empty words. When it comes to the production of linen there is a problem: The demand for certified organic linen has increased, yet it remains limited, both in its supply and its quality. There are not enough farmers producing certified organic flax for the spinners to blend different fibres to produce a premium yarn.
Linen is inherently a sustainable fibre. It doesn’t require heavy irrigation or harsh pesticides to grow. There is one major difference between certified organic and non-organic flax: All crops on the rotation such as wheat, barley, and beetroot need to meet the criteria of the Organic Standard. This means that the farmer has to fully change the economic structure, equipment and cultivation methods on their farm to comply. For some crops such as potatoes, this is a real challenge. Furthermore the farmers feel that they need to reserve the right for intervention as a last resort if the quality of the flax is threatened by disease or pests. This is for the sustainability of their farm, their business and their families. Albeit different from sustainability as most of us understand it, but in the true essence of the term – it is the ability to maintain or endure.
Terre de Lin is cutting edge in their approach to seed breeding for flax conservation. Instead of Genetic Modification (GMO) they use special criteria and the principles of natural selection to create new varieties that are resistant to disease. It’s a long process and can take a decade to get right. Their breeding techniques are helping the farmers to be able to grow their crops in a more sustainable manner, one which doesn’t compromise their business or the fibre.
Flax to Fibre.
Flax grows quickly and is ready to harvest within 100 days. It’s considered a bast fibre – which is cellulose obtained from the bark of the plant.
When the leaves yellow and start to fall, it’s laid on the field and flipped over several times in a process called ‘retting’. Moisture creates fungi growth, which eat away the pectins which bind the woody stem to the fibre. Traditionally, this was done by immersing the stems in slow-moving streams which speeds up the process. This method has been banned in Europe because the nutrients from the decaying stalks damage the water and its wildlife. Flax here, in Normandy, is processed a more ecological way, using nature’s own resources – air, dew, sun, fungi and plenty of time.
From here the flax is gathered into bales and sent to Terre De Lin’s mill where it goes through the scutching machine which separates the fibre from the woody stalk, seed and other debris.
The fibre is then graded and classified based on five categories: Nature, strength, colour, homogeneity and fineness. Its classification determines what the farmer gets paid and the end use of the fibre – whether it will be finely spun for garments or coarsely wound for roping.
The graded fibre goes through hackling where it is brushed through combs which part the locked fibres and makes them straight, clean, and ready to spin. The end result is a silky bundle of long, golden-grey fibres which resemble hair.
From here the fibres are sent to one of Linifio’s spinning plants where they are spun, boiled and dyed before being sent to our mill in Plettenberg Bay, ready for warping and weaving.
Know the Source.
We buy all of our raw materials direct from the source. We manufacture everything ourselves under one roof at our Mill in Plettenberg Bay. We control the whole journey. Knowing where our yarn comes from, who grows it, and processes, has always been a part of our transparency objective. Visiting, documenting and sharing it with you is part of that too.