In the Details: Living Materials – Flax

A closer look at natural materials in the modern era

This is the third in a series of Journal pieces exploring Kalon’s relationship with living materials. Read about Brass and Wood.

As makers of objects and products, we have the special privilege of controlling exactly how our goods are made. This is both a great power and a great responsibility because design is not simply a chance to make beautiful things, but an opportunity to transform production practices, consumer sensibilities, and our industrial commons for the better. Of course, beauty still plays a role: Lofty missions are better served by beautiful design. The more irresistible, elegant, and appealing the finished product, the more appealing (and, eventually, scalable) the decisions we have made along the way become. 

To this end, we pause and consider each step — ideation, concepting, material selection, production partners, and fabrication — so that each decision we make makes possible a more regenerative approach to design. More often than not, the decisions we make diverge from common practice and pose unique challenges as we work to introduce — and sometimes re-introduce — alternate materials and methods. Our primary areas of focus are the history and global dynamics surrounding the harvesting of materials, production processes, and industrial culture. By looking closely at the development of production processes and material culture, we try to foster a deeper understanding of our relationship with our built and natural environment. 

In some cases, we use particular materials whose production itself is sustainable and whose materiality retrains the eye. Whenever possible, we also make use of existing, available resources that have been overlooked in the commercial marketplace. For example, over the course of the last century, natural materials have largely been supplanted by synthetics. These synthetic materials proved cheaper to produce and quickly became enmeshed with global economies and financial markets. But their production has proven detrimental to the health and wellbeing of people and the planet. So, what is the alternative? Our decision to use somewhat forgotten natural materials and processes revitalizes local industries and dying trades, restoring the industrial commons to shift methods of production to a more sustainable future.


The cultural history of Linum usitatissimum, which means “most useful,” dates back tens of millennia. The flax plant’s fibers have been used to produce rope, canvas, paper, and linen, while flax seeds are used as a nutritional supplement and processed further to create flax oil (also known as linseed oil). Linen, the refined textile made from flax fibers, was worn widely by Sumerian priests more than 4,000 years ago. Industrial-scale flax also existed in antiquity: A Bronze Age factory dedicated to flax processing was discovered in Euonymeia, Greece. 

We use linen in our upholstery designs, and love it for its breezy durability and cross-seasonal appeal. In the summer, it breathes and feels cool to the touch. Come winter, its sturdy tactility provides surprising warmth. Linen is hypoallergenic, naturally anti-bacterial, UV-resistant, and thermoregulating. Because the fibers are so long (while cotton fibers grow 2-3 inches, flax fibers can grow 6-8 inches), linen is smooth, anti-static, and doesn’t pill. Known as the world’s strongest natural fiber, linen ages well and gets softer and stronger with use and age. The linen Kalon uses is 100% biodegradable and is processed at a wind and solar-powered, carbon neutral factory using Certified European Flax® produced exclusively in France, Belgium, or the Netherlands. This certification ensures traceability at every step of processing, from flax seed through to the finished product. We know that the majority of an item’s climate impact is determined at the product design stage, so sourcing decisions can be critical. 

Linseed oil, also known as flaxseed oil or flax oil, is made from the dried, ripened seeds of the flax plant. Both of our premium, custom-mixed wood finishes have a linseed oil base. Our standard wood finish is a premium, organic plant-based oil/wax finish that brings out rich, honeyed tones in wood. It contains a combination of natural resins and waxes that together penetrate the wood to create a durable, water repellent, water-mark resistant finish, enhancing and maintaining wood’s beauty and breathability. For our lighter woods, we use Kalon Bare Finish, a premium, organic plant-based oil/wax finish, painstakingly developed to preserve the delicate, luminous beauty of raw wood. This hand-rubbed finish is water repellent and allows the wood to remain lighter for longer as the wood develops its natural patina through age and use.  Both finishes contain no solvents or toxic ingredients such as preservatives, dryers or other irritants that can contribute to poor indoor air quality or negative health consequences. 

One of the oldest cultivated crops in the world, the flax plant is inherently eco-friendly. It takes some 100 days from seed to harvest whereas cotton takes 160 days, which means flax consumes less energy and less water throughout its life cycle (one report estimates that a linen shirt uses about 6.4 liters of water while a cotton shirt uses 24 liters). Flax does well in poorer-conditioned soil, grows close to the surface, and doesn’t require irrigation. It needs very little in the way of fertilizers and chemicals to thrive. One of its few drawbacks — at least as industrial production is concerned — is that flax takes significantly longer to physically harvest and is more difficult to weave than cotton. But flax fiber is soft, lustrous, and flexible, and is significantly stronger than cotton fibers. Compared to synthetics, linen is less durable; however, with proper care, linen upholstery holds up very well. And the way we see it, a material that eventually breaks down and is able to return to the nutrient stream is a benefit — not a shortcoming. Nevertheless, synthetic fibers currently represent 64% of global fiber production volumes, with nearly 80k tons of synthetic fibers produced in 2021. In 2021, polyester made up 54% of the global fiber market. 

Our mission has always existed beyond the confines of our brand: Through Kalon, we champion alternative perspectives spanning materials, production, and product design so that we may contribute to the cultivation of more reverence for the environment, greater awareness of resources, and a desire to buy fewer, better things. The way we see it, spending time telling the stories of seemingly small or oft-overlooked details not only invites deeper connections — but holds the power to transform how we produce and consume goods in this complex modern era.