La culture du lin en France : rencontre avec Hubert Brisset, dirigeant d’Opalin

Linen cultivation in France: meeting with Hubert Brisset, director of Opalin

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A few minutes' drive from Arras station, in Pas-de-Calais, there is a linen scutching cooperative called Opalin. Since 1988, this cooperative has opened up new outlets for local flax production. Today, Opalin brings together more than 200 member farmers. The Hast team visited them to better understand the first stages of linen production, this fiber that is so close to our hearts. Scutching, retting, combing, linen goes through many stages before transforming into a beautiful and durable shirt. Here, we meet Hubert Brisset, director of Opalin since 1993.

Why does flax grow in this particular region?

Flax cultivation takes place mainly in western Europe, that is to say throughout the area of ​​the maritime border on the English Channel, from Calvados, to the Netherlands via Normandy and the Hauts-de-France. -of France.

Flax is grown in this region for two main reasons: first for vegetation, then for the small temperature differences between day and night. This stability allows flax to grow steadily until the harvest period in June. To grow quality flax, you need rich soil with humidity and mild, temperate temperatures.

Where is linen produced worldwide?

This maritime border of the Channel, from Caen to Amsterdam, produces 80% of the world's linen production. France is 80% of this 80%, which is enormous. It is a culture anchored in the territory for generations. For climatic reasons, but also because we have the appropriate processing tools. When scutching, you have to adjust the machines and sort the materials to have very homogeneous batches. The rest of world production is divided between Belarus and Egypt. In Belarus, due to the climate, seeds are sown later than here and therefore produce shorter fibers. The retting is shorter and the materials are of a little lower quality.

There is real know-how in Egypt, it is the cradle of linen. 30,000 years ago, linen was already found in the tombs of the Egyptians. However, the Egyptians are limited in production area because they must also produce to feed the population. And since it's very dry, they have to do water retting. That is to say, soak the plants in the Nile, then they take the fibers out of the water and dry them like that. They can then do the scutching.

A plot can only be sown with flax every seven years. This is why we don't just grow flax but we have to alternate crops. For example, we plant cereals, only to return to flax after seven years. Otherwise the earth would get tired.

What is retting and how long does this stage take?

To take care of your look, before thinking about colors, choose lightweight pieces but always in quality materials, which stay strong throughout the day. There's nothing worse than a jacket that's too fitted or a shirt made from poor cotton - and one that you'll sweat in during your first dance steps.

Retting begins with lifting in the first half of July. We pull out the entire plant, because the fiber goes down to the root of the plant. You must then parallelize the stems on the ground so that they dry properly. You therefore need wind and sun at the start, then a stormy period with a little mist to allow the retting to begin.

It is therefore actually quite difficult to estimate the real duration of this stage. When we have finished one side, the stems must dry again to be able to turn the fibers over and make the second side. It is therefore logically necessary to have a second period of humidity, then for everything to dry again. The fibers are then rolled up to create a linen tablecloth. Once everything is conditioned and dry, you can keep these tablecloths for years. On the other hand, if everything is brought in damp, rot will have damaged the fibers. There is therefore a subtle balance to find. All these first steps therefore take place in the field.

How are these first stages of linen production organized?

For us, a lot is equivalent to a plot. Several batches are packaged in straw bales. Farmers store their bales until they are called to come and deliver them to us. They then bring the complete batches to the factory. We keep homogenous batches so that the customer can adjust their machine. We are organized as a cooperative, meaning that the company is managed by its members, with a board of directors. This council elects a president. We then entrust the operation to a management team with a director and a team of employees who run the factory. Scutching is the stage in the factory in which linen tablecloths are mechanically processed. We remove the capsules to recover the seeds, then we grind them. Next comes the cleaning stage.

So this is where you prepare the linen for different uses afterwards?

Yes indeed, we “cracking” flax, that is to say we prepare it for other industries. Long fibers are mainly used for textiles, either in clothing or in furniture. They are the length of a cotton or wool fiber. You can make a lot of mixes with linen. The fibers can also be used to make insulation in buildings, by mixing them with wood for example. It can also be made into very thin paper, like cigarette paper. Another anecdote, there is flax fiber in the American dollar!

We use all parts of the plant. The seeds are used to make seed or linseed oil for paints. So to summarize: 20 to 25% are long fibers, 20% are short fibers, 4 to 10% are seeds, then there remains the shives, that is to say the woody part of the plant, which can used to make chipboard panels for example. We have a little land left, which is filtered and recovered then put back into the fields. The whole plant is therefore used, without any loss!

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