Hand Dyed linens…

Dear Romilly,

Why is hand-dyed linen so much softer than the plain colored stuff I get at the LNS (local needlework store)?

Dear Stitcher,

There are a couple of reasons for this, mostly relating to the properties of linen, but one important one that relates to how newly woven linen is prepared and sold, and that is sizing.

Washing your linen before (or after) you stitch on it is a good idea in any case, for the following reasons:

  • The sizing (glue or starch- really!) in the linen makes it stiffer, but it also can attract dirt and discolor over time. This one is the prime reason for washing your work after you have done your stitching, with some rare exceptions (all having to do with the threads you stitch with!)
    Also, all the linen fabric I’ve found has been woven somewhere outside of the US. Cargo containers are regularly fumigated with pesticides to get rid of unwanted visitors. Do you really want that stuff in your heirloom project?
  • Washing linen makes it softer. You’ll find this with real linen clothing, too. Linen shirts get more and more comfortable and soft over time.

Hand dyed linen has already been washed. The sizing had to be removed so that the dye would bind to the fibers. Dye is often applied in a pot of water (more “washing,” though that is of course not what’s really going on). Then the fabric is rinsed thoroughly. While this last step isn’t really washing, it does serve the same purpose of beating on the fibers in the linen and making them softer.

In many independent dye houses, the final step is to wash the dyed fabric again to make absolutely certain all the dye has rinsed out.  Small independent dyers usually don’t put additional sizing back into the fabric, so it seems to be softer than fabric directly off the bolt.


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