Linen was formerly the most important vegetable fiber, and was commonly used for all household purposes. Of late years it has been largely replaced by cotton, with which it may be compared, although there are still uses for which linen is demanded, and others for which linen is preferred to cotton.
The linen fiber is long, smooth, and quite lustrous (Fig. 58) when spun into a thread. It is very strong and there are not so many fuzzy ends as are found in cotton. Cloth made from it is not only lustrous and rich-looking, but because of its smoothness stays clean longer than cotton. The snowy whiteness of linen, obtained with some difficulty in bleaching, is quite permanent, and since the fiber takes dyes with difficulty and parts with them quite readily, it also does not retain stains as persistently as does cotton.*
Linen is much more expensive than cotton, and when linen prices are paid, linen should be received. Since the two fibers are rather hard to distinguish, especially when heavily starched and given a good finish, it is easy to deceive the buyer. " Linen " collars are frequently largely cotton, "linen" handkerchiefs may not have a thread of linen, as is apt to be the case with rather inexpensive embroidered handkerchiefs, and table "linen" may be mercerized cotton, cotton and linen, or even ordinary cotton. To distinguish linen from cotton, the threads should be examined carefully; cotton is made up of short fibers which project from the surface of the thread, and become fuzzy when the thread is rubbed between the fingers; when broken, cotton has a tufted end, while the linen fibers break more unevenly and leave a more pointed end. The linen thread should be stronger than the cotton; it has more luster, and is usually more uneven. Some kinds of linen have flat threads, but cotton is frequently finished in imitation of flat-thread linen.
Fig. 58. - Linen fibers, showing the characteristic nodes and longitudinal striations.
Linen is more easily disintegrated than cotton, and therefore does not withstand the action of boiling alkali solutions, bleaching powder, and oxidizing agents. This characteristic together with its slow reaction to dyestuff, makes it difficult to obtain a fast color that will take hold of the fiber. Natural color and white are, therefore, more likely to give complete satisfaction than any applied color in linen fabrics.*
* Univ. of 111., Bull. 15.
Linen always contains a certain amount of sizing, for the yarn would become rough in the weaving if it were not so treated. Often sizing is used to conceal imperfection, coarse weaving, or the use of cotton or mercerized cotton fibers.