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To better understand the differences between organic and conventional farming, we traveled to Normandy, France, where some of the finest linen in the world is grown. We visited both conventional and growers, among them Ludovic Hervieu, above, who grows flax for our Organic Handkerchief Linen.
Ludovic farmed conventionally for many years. He decided to go organic for personal reasons. After a day of spraying, his eyes would turn red because of chemical exposure. Gradually he became worried about his health—and the health of his family.
Since there was no industry organization to guide him in developing new practices, Ludovic reached out to other organic farmers in the area. He set up regular meetings and learned that he could control pests with beneficial insects such as ladybugs and smother weeds with companion plants. He frequented equipment shows and designed an attachment for his tractor that would gently bend linen stalks aside while tilling weeds between rows.
Ludovic grows our flax in rotation with wheat, corn, potatoes, sugar beets and beans. For us this was the aha moment of the trip: When we choose organic fiber, we reduce pesticides and herbicides in local food supplies.
Conventional Linen Farming
Before we did our field research, we were aware that linen requires far fewer chemical inputs than cotton and that it needs little or no irrigation. But we did not have a clear idea of what “fewer” meant. In Normandy we learned that, while specifics will vary due to weather and growing conditions, a flax chemical management plan typically looks like this:
- Seeds are pretreated with fungicide.
- After planting, small sprouts are sprayed with pesticide.
- Petroleum-based fertilizers are applied.
- Prior to harvesting, two different herbicides are sprayed on the field.
- If needed, more pesticide and fungicide may be applied.
- Later, when conventional food crops are planted in the same soil, a different roster of chemicals will be added.
Synthetic inputs have distinct advantages for farmers. Spraying weeds takes less time than tilling with a tractor. And there is less guesswork. Conventional farming techniques are studied and tested, so farmers know when and what to apply to stave off flea beetles, soil fungi and other linen-growing hazards.
Organic Linen: A Global Story
Globally, less than 1% of linen is organically grown. For clothing companies, this means supplies of organic linen fiber are limited.
We are lucky enough to be able to buy fiber for our Organic Handkerchief Linen from Ludovic’s farms, but we only source 25% of our organic linen fiber from the EU. The balance, roughly 75%, is grown in China, a major organic linen supplier.
China also dominates the linen yarn spinning industry. This means that Ludovic's crop will be sent to China to be spun into yarn. Fabrics we weave in Europe—Washed Organic Linen Délavé is an example—all use linen yarn that is spun in China.
What about the United States?
Flax for linen is not commonly grown in the US. But a different species of flax that is cultivated for its seeds is grown in the US. Flax seeds are used for food and linseed oil.