The Adventure to Create the Most Earth-Friendly Oil Painting on the Planet, Part 2: Linen, the Eco-Friendly Alternative to Cotton
In my search to create art that supports the planet on which I roam, I have begun to use new materials. Last newsletter I announced that I have switched to linen. I thought I would share a little more about the benefits of this.
Linen is the preferred fabric over cotton canvas because of its impact on the planet and for its qualities. A six foot by four foot canvas made of cotton can take as much as 54 gallons of water to create. That is a lot of water on a planet who's major rivers are drying up. Flax (the plant linen is made from), by contrast, when grown in it's native environment takes little irrigation or additional water to grow. The manufacturing of linen does include the use of water during the retting process (soaking the harvested plants to bind the fibers together) and the spinning process. But it is considerably less than what is needed for the production of cotton. Most often, cotton uses chemicals in the retting stage. Overall, linen uses five to twenty times less water than cotton and synthetic fabrics.
Flax, in fact, is such a hardy plant that very little herbicide or pesticide is necessary. Whereas 80% of the world's cotton crop would be lost without the use of pesticides. Pesticide use on cotton has reduced over the years (although it has stayed the same in the United States) due to GMO cotton that contains a bacterium known as Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt. Bt is within the plant and kills insects that try to eat it (indiscriminately, but chiefly worm pests). If that isn't enough, seed manufacturers coat cotton seeds with pesticides so the plants are not eaten by insects in the early stages of development when they are most vulnerable.
Flax uses five to twenty times less energy to produce than cotton and synthetic fabrics. Hemp has a similar carbon footprint to flax, with jute having a slightly higher carbon footprint than both.
As a Crop
Flax is also a beneficial crop. Flax needs little to no fertilizer. This combined with its little need for watering and herbicides make this an easy crop to maintain. When planted in rotation with other crops, linen is a plant that naturally produces optimal soil conditions, providing better crop production for the crop the following year. While only certain fibres of the flax plant are used by the Linen industry, no part of the flax plant is wasted; the left over linseeds, oil, straw and fibre are used in everything from lino and soap to cattle feed and paper.
Flax is a sustainable crop, even when it is not certified organic. But for those that want to be assured that no pesticides have been used can purchase organic linen. Certification of the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) is a guarantee that the linen is made in an organic and sustainable way. This not only includes chemical applications but a GOTS certification assures that it is a Fairtrade product that ensures better conditions for the workers.
As a Fabric
Linen, as a fabric for canvas paintings, is hard to beat. It is stronger than cotton canvas of the same weight and it is less absorbent than cotton, which leads to less sagging once the canvas is stretched. Linen is resistant to sunlight, so fading a fibers breaking down is much slower than other fabrics.
Linen, when maintained in a good environment, will last for centuries. Most canvas paintings in museums and collections that were created prior to 1900 are most likely painted on linen.
When not treated with dyes or bleach, linen is hypoallergenic and biodegradable. I only use raw unbleached linen because I often am applying a ground over the canvas so the color is not an issue. On the occasion where I do let the linen canvas show through, I prefer its earthy brown color to bleached white.
Minnesota, historically and currently, is the largest producer of flax in the United States. Four of the top five producers in the United States are based in Minnesota. The other company in the top five is Archer Daniels Midland which started in Minneapolis in 1902 as a linseed crushing business. They have since moved to Illinois. Unfortunately, flax is used mostly for other applications than linen in the United States. The largest suppliers of linen fabric are in China, Europe and Russia. The best quality linens tend to come from Europe.
In a sustainable world linen would be used over cotton for art canvases 100% of the time. Unfortunately, we live in a world where many people worry more about short-term money than the health of our planet. Linen is more expensive than cotton, but linen costs less in the long run when you consider the environmental impacts. If we are learning anything in these days of the Anthropocene Era, saving money in the short term does not guarantee paying less in the long run.
Information gathered from Wikipedia, Better Meets Reality.com, and Sustainable Jungle.com.