More About Our Ramie Voile!

Why do we call our ramie voile "linen," a term traditionally associated in the West with fabric woven from flax (or sometimes hemp) fiber?  In China from ancient times, ramie a member of the nettle family was grown and woven into cloth. It flourished in the tropical climate and being a perennial, it could be harvested more than once a year.  We have found a few primary sources of travels, one specifically to Guatemala in 1739 in which the narrator specifically spoke of China linen. Speaking of the natives of, “To return to the Wives of the principal Indians.  Their houses are built in a handsomer manner and are better furnished.  When they go to church or pay a visit they put on a veil of Dutch, Spanish or China linen, which covers their heads and reaches to the ground.” Oliver Van Noort in 1759 speaks of the Bornean’s being “very fond of China linen but finding linen made in Holland to be meer drug” (an unsaleable commodity). Certainly, it appears that the fineness of this linen excels even the linen of Holland so admired for its beauty. The modern weaving industry in China today still often refers to cloth made of ramie as linen cloth, adding to the confusion. 

There are, however, differences between ramie and flax, and therefore the very fine “linens” you find today (fabrics under about 3 ounces a square yard) are exclusively made from ramie and not flax. Ramie fiber, derived from a member of the nettle family, is white and silken.  It is much finer than modern flax fiber which tends to produce an uneven yarn and is greyish to pale yellow in its natural form requiring further processing to whiten it.  Like flax, ramie it is a very strong fiber; even more so when wet.  The long staple and whiteness of the fiber produces a very finely woven cloth, with a smooth and uniform appearance almost void of slubs. You could compare it to a fine cotton muslin, but with the body, sheen, and durability of a flax linen.

While flax has been made into cloth since ancient times, in South and Southeast Asia, ramie has been cultivated and made into cloth since 5000 BCE.  Ramie, flax, hemp, and jute are all fibers that have appeared in various surviving textiles since ancient times.  Distinguishing by eye can be difficult leading many collections to classify antique textiles broadly as linen without specifying the specific fiber used to produce the cloth.

This article goes into the various methods used by a group of conservators to distinguish between the fibers, including high-powered microscopic analysis which shows the very slight difference in appearance between flax and ramie fibers. Ramie as a textile fiber has very early documentation in Asia and by the mid-19th century is being used for a number of applications as state in this late 19th century report written by Charles Dodge of the Dept of Agriculture.

In addition, this article from the Fashion Archeologist is excellent at covering all aspects of ramie versus linen, as well as ramie's application in historical sewing.

Happy Sewing!

Burnley & Trowbridge Co.