Because of the high value put on linen, it is, like silk, often adulterated. Although similar to cotton in chemical structure, it is very different in physical characteristics, and these physical characteristics must serve to distinguish it from cotton. In many cases cotton has replaced linen in modern usage, but for table service, towels, and handkerchiefs linen is much superior; for sheets it is preferred by many, and for clothing it is handsomer. For all of these uses cotton may be found mixed with linen, or with no linen at all, yet sometimes stamped and sold as linen. "Linen" collars are rarely all linen, frequently all cotton; "linen" handkerchiefs, especially inexpensive embroidered ones, are often entirely cotton, and table "linen" may be linen, linen and cotton, mercerized cotton, or ordinary cotton.
The combination of linen and cotton may be good for certain purposes, but when beauty of a lustrous surface, snowy whiteness, or the peculiar leathery texture which enables linen to hold its place so well on a table are desired, the mixture of cotton is very detrimental. For absorption of water in towels and handkerchiefs cotton is not as good as linen.
To distinguish the two nothing is so sure as. the microscopic test. The long, straight fiber of linen is readily distinguished from the twisted fiber of cotton. The linen thread is stronger than cotton, has more luster, and is usually less even. The ends of the short fibers of cotton project from the surface of the thread, giving a rough appearance, especially when the thread is rubbed between the fingers; when broken, cotton has a tufted end, while linen breaks more unevenly and leaves a long, pointed end. Some kinds of linen have flat threads, but cotton is frequently finished in imitation of flat thread linen.
The old test of moistening the finger and putting it under the cloth is not always a sure one, as the moisture will not come through a heavy linen or one with much starch in it, and will come through a sheer, tightly twisted cotton. A better test is to put a drop of olive oil or glycerin on the cloth and press it between blotting papers. If there is not much starch present, or if the starch has first been removed from the cloth, linen becomes more transparent than cotton.
The typical weaves used for linens are as follows: the damask, satin, or sateen weave used for table linens and towels is especially good for the former, because of the smooth, lustrous surface it affords, but is not so good for towels, since it does not absorb moisture readily, although it is very attractive; huck, an uneven weave, gives a good surface for the absorption of water, makes excellent towels, and when decorated with designs in damask weave may be very handsome. Many linens in plain weaves are available for clothing and embroidery. Sometimes the threads are round, sometimes beaten flat.
The texture of linen is such that the heavier kinds hang well in folds, lie flat on the table, and are very artistic for many purposes. This beauty of texture is lost when starch is added.
Large quantities of starch or sizing are added to thin, poor quality linens, to give an attractive appearance. These are disappointing when the filling is removed by washing. Careful examination when buying will detect this starch. It is necessary to add some starch in finishing most linens, so that they will not become too badly soiled with the handling received on the counter. This starching should be distinguished from excessive weighting.
Certain coarse, heavy linen crashes, often hand-woven peasant products, have become popular of late for house furnishing purposes. The heavy thread and uneven weave give a pleasing texture, and the natural color of the linen is attractive; the fabrics lend themselves especially well to coarse embroidery, stencil, or applique.
To sum up, the adulterations most likely to be found and the simple tests for them are as follows:
1. By combination. Use of other fibers than the one indicated by the name of the material. Example, cotton in woolens, cotton in linens, etc.
2. By substitution. Selling one fiber under the name of an entirely different one. Example, mercerized cotton sold for silk or linen.
3. By increasing the weight of a material. (a) Cottons and linens with starch; (b) silks with metallic salts and dyes.
4. By giving a finish which is deceptive. (a) Heavy pressing or calendering on ordinary cotton to imitate mercerizing; (b) finishing cotton to look like linen; (c) printing paste dots on cotton to produce the effect of embroidered dotted Swiss.
1. Examination of cloth to see if all threads are alike and to distinguish kind of thread.
2. Examination of individual threads.
Cotton: short fibers; ends appear fuzzy in thread.
Wool: short fibers; decidedly kinky and stiff.
Silk: long, straight fibers with luster; if spun silk, fibers short; thread looks more like cotton; breaks more easily than reeled silk.
Linen: strong threads; high luster; when broken, ends very uneven and straight.
3. Burning tests: (a) Cotton burns quickly with flame; (b) wool burns slowly, chars, gives off odor of burnt feathers; (c) silk burns slowly, leaves small, crisp ash, and when weighted leaves more ash; (d) linen, similar to cotton.
4. Linen, if without much starch, becomes translucent when treated with olive oil; cotton remains opaque.
5. A mixture of cotton and wool when wet wrinkles more than pure wool.
6. A careful examination of the finish of the material. Observe, if alike on both sides, if the apparent beauty of the material is due to finish or to good quality of material.
An intelligent understanding of what one must look for, and continued practice, in time greatly increase the ability to buy intelligently. Laboratory work in the identification of fibers and the analysis of materials gives a more thorough familiarity with fabrics. Some of these tests might easily be applied in the household.
A demand on the part of buyers for better materials might help in securing honest fabrics. Better still would be a pure textile law to protect from adulterated textiles, as the pure food law seeks to protect from adulterated foods. According to the statements of the textile interests such a law would be impossible, but at least it would be interesting to see it attempted.