Reinvented: the story behind Antique Linen and Hemp textiles

A stack of antique french linen

A stack of fabrics

A few years ago, during one of my many trips to a Brocante in France, I came across stacks of old fabric. I didn't know what they were at the time, but I loved their texture, weight, the many different embroideries and in many cases the very primitive, utilitarian quality they seemed to have.

I started a little personal collection. I'd buy a particular sheet or cloth because I liked its feel or an aspect of the embroidery. I sold a few on eBay and I was always very surprised at how well they did.

Over time I started to learn and understand more about where these fabrics came from and how they were made. I learned the difference between linen, hemp and cotton, how to tell them apart and how to date (roughly) the sheets based on the fibre used and the method of production.

The more flea markets, brocantes and french charity shops I visited the more of these gorgeous textiles I found. So I decided to start using them, not just as a collection but to make homewares and accessories. Re-inventing their use from household linens to everyday functional items.

Vintage linen stack at a french flea market

Let me tell you about what I learned along the way

A little over a hundred years ago household linens or "trousseau" were very much part of a families assets. It would be tidied away in a specific cupboard or in a big trunk. The womens' initials would be on each piece of linen. At that time these were about the only possessions a women had to her own name. Her trousseau would be prepared over the course of her girlhood, ready to take with her when she got married.

The fibres used to make the household linens, the method in which it was made and how ornate the embroidery would be was a sign of status and a tell tale way of knowing who made and who owned the linens.

Hemp "Le Chanvre"

This was the linen of poorer people. Made on farms by the families themselves. They would cultivate it, harvest it and the bails would be left in the river for the stalks to rot and fall off. The remaining fibre would be beaten. It took many steps before it was ready and once it was the women would loom and weave it.

Hemp heaven on a french farmwomen harvesting hemp in 1900s

On farms families only had small weaving looms, measuring about 1.05 metres wide. That is why hemp sheets have a seam down the middle where two separately woven panels were joined together to create a sheet wide enough for a bed.

For poorer farming families the sheet was often the only items of household linen included in a girls trousseau. It would be embroidered very simply, just with initials, often in red thread with no additional decoration. 

Antique hemp with simple initials in red thread

Hemp is fairly easy to recognise there is a "string" look to the weave, it also smells very earthy.

Hemp is probably my favourite of the antique textiles I buy and work with. It's so plain and simple yet has amazing texture and the wear and tear and signs of mending tell a story all of its own.

I find working with old hemp like this special, its a way of honouring those women's work and not letting it go to waste. 

I sell a lot of antique hemp sheets just as they are. I often find they are too special to cut up and make something else out of them. They make great bed covers, tablecloths, curtains, the list is endless. They are cleaned and laundered and any rust stains dealt with before I list them on the shop.

Linen "Le Lin"

Linen was used to make sheets, shirts, towels, tablecloths and tea towels. Relatively rigid, it is off white/natural in colour and will loosen and whiten with washes.

Sheets could be purchases white, off white or cream coloured which meant they had not been whitened at all.

This is the part that might sound a little crazy but it is true! To whiten linen, sheets can be placed in a field under the light of the moon. The moonlight will whiten the linen, that is a trick still used today.

Linen is easily identifiable by touch. When you place your hand on linen it feels cold and will stay cold, as opposed to cotton which will heat up straight away under your touch.

Linen fibres can be coarse but the weave is more even looking than hemp even when it was done on small looms on farms. It has a unique smell, very natural, some say it is akin to the smell of tobacco. Older linen, washed often and with loose weaving is often mistaken for hemp. It took me a while to be able to distinguish them even in that scenario. 

One level up from Linen is what's called "Fil"

It was the linen of the wealthy. The difference between linen and fit is the number of threads per cm. The weaving of fil is very tight and even. It's very white and stays stiff after ironing. Fil is what elaborate bride's trousseau's would be made from. Fil sheets are often very large and have very elaborate embroidery. Usually more than 2.40m wide and 3.30m long to allow for the decorative embroidery to be folded on over half the bed.

Their size make them lovely additions to a modern house's bed linen. I often sell them intact or if part of them is damaged I will use the fabric to make long decorative bolster covers keeping the embroidery.

Métis - a mix of linen and cotton. 

The theft of the fabric is made from one and the warp from the other.

It became popular at the beginning of the XXe century as it was hardier than cotton and cheaper than pure linen. It was made on industrial looms and continued to be made well into the century.

Métis would be stamped on the selvedge with the mention "Toile de Métis".

To be called métis a cloth needs to be at least 45% linen. These sheets often have a machine embroidered ladder along one of the hems. Nowadays Metis is less popular as everyone prefers linen. For me, it means it's easy to find and is a great hardwearing fabric to reclaim and turn into functional pieces like our aprons.

Cotton and linen are the only two fibres that can be mixed together in the same fabric. Hemp is never mixed with linen or cotton.

Using old fabric over new 

Linen fabric is of course still produced today. Here in Ireland, irish linen is recognised for its superior quality which would be akin to "fil". Linen is also produced in eastern Europe, Lithuania in particular. 

Hemp fabric is progressively being re-introduced as well. Hemp is used for many applications nowadays as it takes very little water to grow and every part of the plan can be used.

I could buy new fabrics, many of which are certified organic.

But the beauty that lies in the antique and vintage textiles I find is very particular and special. From a sustainability point of view, re-using these beautifully made, hardwearing fabrics just makes sense. Diverting anything from disuse and ultimately from landfill should be a priority for all of us. In my opinion, this is even more true considering the time, skill, effort that went into the making of these antique textiles. It's honouring those women who worked their fields and looms, over 100 years ago. 

I hope this little story of where the fabrics I use come from will have inspired you. 

You can view the whole collection of items made from antique and vintage linen and hemp here : The linen collection