Flax has the reputation of being tedious and laborious to process, and there's some truth to that. The flax has to go through retting & scutching in order to separate out the woody parts even before the fibre can be got at. I did some scutching and heckling last summer at Ross Farm in Nova Scotia, alongside the excellent Farm staff members, and weaver Lesley Armstrong of the Atlantic Natural Fibre and Dye Association, and it was sweaty work. When the engineers and inventors of the industrial revolution created processing equipment, they made it for cotton, which could be imported cheaply, and left the pretty blue flax fields behind.
But Cotton, grown industrially, is incredibly vile -- roughly a third of all pesticide use is attributed to cotton, and vast amounts of water. Entire regions in Honduras are now barren thanks to overproduction of cotton. Linen and Hemp seem less resource-intensive, and can be grown in Canada.
But would a straight switch to linen and hemp on an industrial scale really be better for the environment? or is that greenwashing, taking advantage of the fact that consumers are so easily duped? ('Bamboo fibre', case in point...) Business in Vancouver reports that a British Columbia-based company, Crailar Technologies, has patented a process which makes linen more suitable for use in knit fabrics. They've just opened a plant in a flax-producing region of the Carolinas, and hope that their fibre brand will become an industry byword of quality, like 'Gore-tex' or 'Tencel' or 'Lycra' (not that any of those labels is green... quite the opposite).
But how is the linen grown? on a five-year rotation, to allow the soil to rest, or with intensive petrochemical inputs?What's involved in that 'processing'... is it a chemical process? mechanical? how much energy does it consume? where does the wastewater go? and is it going into a garment that is designed to catch a cheap one-season trend?
People in our culture are not going to seriously set about to grow their own fibre by choice, not until the view out our windows looks more like our favourite dystopian novel setting -- and by then, it won't be a matter of choice. But it's important not to let those skills die -- as they can and do, over the course of only one generation. It's also important to educate ourselves about resource consumption, and to be cautious of trusting the processes that we cannot see for ourselves, and to learn to value the work of the hand and the spirit that moves us to create, regardless of the toil involved.