Why a tailored linen shirt is your perfect companion in hot and humid weather?
The history of linen fabric
Linen, also called flax, is a very old fibre. The use of dyed and woven flax can be dated back to around 36,000 years BC. Linen is made from the cellulose fibres which grow inside the stalks of the flax plant, or Linum usitatissimum, one of the oldest cultivated plants in human history. The word linen is most probably of West Germanic origin and derived from the plant’s Latin name, linum. In ancient Egypt, linen was used as currency and the Egyptians also used it to wrap their mummies. This shows linen’s status of purity and wealth at the time. In 1881, archaeologists discovered the tomb of Ramses II who died in 1213 BC. Much to their surprise, the linen sheet wrapped around the mummy was in perfect condition, even after more than 3,000 years! The durability of linen is simply amazing.
The linen industry started as early as 4,000 years BC in Egypt and has developed into a multi-billion dollar business since then. China is the world’s biggest exporter of linen fabric with a total value of an estimated USD39 billion in 2019.
The scientific advantages of linen fabrics
Linen Shirts are an ideal choice for hot and humid weather as they keep you cooler compared to any other natural fibre. People dressed in Linen Shirts feel about 3° C cooler than in comparable silk material. Furthermore, those wearing linen shirts perspire about 1.5 times lesser than people dressed in cotton shirts. It’s remarkable, isn’t it?
It absorbs the body moisture up to 20% of its own weight without making you feel sweaty. It does this better than any other fabric you can imagine. Plus even if you sweat, it will dry fast without any odour as the fabric ‘breathes’. Try this with any dry fit polyester material for a whole day, you will smell the difference.
Which brings us to a puzzling question, “Why isn’t there a bigger demand for linen shirts when the outdoor temperature is soaring? Is it a long held misconception? I often hear, especially from young customers, that linen is an “old man’s fabric” and that linen is not suitable at all for a hot and humid environment. I admit that loose-fit short sleeved linen shirts are mainly worn by senior males. I think this is because they know that linen shirts are far superior in terms of durability compared to cotton shirts.
The verdict is clear. Linen shirts are an ideal choice for hot and humid conditions. Not to mention that, provided it is handled with care, linen fibre lasts a very long time and can possibly survive over 300 washings.
Linen Shirts vs Cotton Shirts
Both fabrics come in many variances, hence we cannot accurately note down the differences between linen shirts and cotton shirts, as it depends on the exact fibre used. But we can come up with some rules of thumb here.
Cotton is clearly the finer thread and typically feels smoother when it is new compared to linen shirts. In addition, while cotton only gets thinner with every wash and gradually loses its silky feeling, linen shirts get silkier the more you wash them. Generally, cotton also feels softer on the skin. One common feature is that both fabrics wrinkle naturally, but cotton can be treated with chemicals for a “wrinkle free” effect. To my knowledge, there is no way of doing this with linen. But then again, linen lovers don’t really care about a couple of wrinkles. Another advantage of natural linen material is that it is mothproof, whereas cotton is not.
Linen shirts are generally worn in a casual environment while cotton shirts are typically used for business and smart casual occasions.
How to determine the quality of a linen shirt?
There are thousands of nuances when it comes to the production of good quality linen. If you want to determine whether it is genuine all natural linen and not blended with anything else, the burning test would be a good start. When you burn linen the ash is brittle and you can blow out the flame like a candle. If the material melts down and gives off black smoke it is definitely not pure linen or it could be even completely something else.
However, I will certainly not recommend carrying out a burn test when buying an off the rack linen shirt in a store, for obvious reasons you can imagine. So, what else can you do? It does not help to look at the thread count (fibres per inch) as for cotton material used in bed sheets or look at the ply’s used in your linen shirt.
I usually touch the linen material and feel it first. Is it uneven but not rough; is it finely woven but not perfect; does it still look good despite creasing a bit? And, is it branded? Of course, a mere designer label says nothing. But if you have a linen shirt from Loro Piana, Piacenza, Holland & Sherry or Zegna, you can be certain that whatever is stated on the fabric label is genuine. Then again, this assurance of having a high-end linen fabric often comes with a corresponding price tag. If you ever buy cheap ‘linen shirts’ off the rack from either well-known or not so well-known brands and retailers, don’t wonder why if they start to look ragged after a few washes. The burn test will most probably help you to determine why.
Can I wear a linen shirt for business?
Let me answer this question with my favourite comment: “It depends!” If you are in the banking line, a high profile lawyer or politician, a linen shirt is not the most suitable day-to-day attire for you. A high end cotton shirt is definitely the better option as you will look better groomed and a bit more sophisticated. But for any kind of business casual? Why not!
A linen shirt is an ideal companion for hot and humid weather. If you treat it right and follow some simple care instructions, it will serve you for many years. It is surely worth the investment. But be careful when they come with a cheap price, they may not be such a bargain after all.
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