I had a Wardrobe Oxygen reader recently reach out asking how to soften linen clothes she finds scratchy. She purchased a J. Crew linen sweater that I suggested in this summer getaway capsule wardrobe and loves the sweater, but finds it rough and uncomfortable to wear. Her email:
“Last summer, I purchased a J Crew linen sweater—open-weave knit—that you recommended in one of your capsule wardrobes. I like the sweater, but the fibers are very rough-feeling and I can’t get the sweater to soften up. I have not used fabric softener, washed only on cold delicate and no dryer, and I tried soaking it overnight in water with white vinegar to see if it had a detergent build-up. But still rough-feeling. Do you have any other suggestions for how to soften the fibers?”
I am a fan of linen, but I too have found some pieces, even from quality brands, to be rough and itchy. I've researched many methods on how to soften linen clothes; below I share all the methods and which ones I find most effective.
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Why is Linen Rough and Scratchy?
Linen is a textile created from the flax plant. The fiber from flax is extremely durable and used for items like ropes and rugs because it can handle a lot of wear and tear. But if you have grabbed a flax rope or walked barefoot on a flax rug, you know it may be sturdy but it surely isn't soft. The same holds true for linen.
As with other textiles, the texture of linen depends on the quality of the yarns and the thread count of the weave. Like cotton, linen's softness is dependant on the yarn and manufacturing as to how soft and comfortable it will be. Unlike cotton, linen is softer with a lower thread count.
Blends also affect the roughness of linen. One would think blending linen with a softer textile like cotton or silk would make it more comfortable, but it still depends on the methods of creating the yarn and fabric.
Linen is often created and treated with additives which can make the fabric feel more rough. This is true with many textiles, but the flax can be more… sensitive to these additives and can create and even rougher finish to the fabric.
That being said, because linen is so durable, it can be washed and worn and ironed and washed again and not get threadbare. Each wear, each washing, each time you handle the linen it will just get softer and more comfortable.
But what if you don't want to wait to have your linen soften with time? Below is my suggestion on how to soften linen clothes that are too rough and scratchy for comfortable wear. This should work for most any linen garment and can even be used for linen sheets and bedding. My tips should not affect the appearance or durability of your linen, just provide some additional softness.
How to Soften Linen Clothes (or any linen fabric)
Option 1: Wash your Linen (and wash it some more)
The best way to remove any additives and begin getting your linen soft is to launder it. The more often your linen is laundered, the softer it will become.
Linen is durable and unless it is an extremely delicate design or embellished, should be able to handle your washing machine. However, some linen garments can shrink. I recommend your first wash, use your gentle cycle and air dry. Second wash, try a standard wash cycle and air dry.
Do not use traditional fabric softener, it's an additive that can affect how linen wears and may prevent it from softening on its own. Instead consider using a more natural softener (see the options below).
If the dryer does not shrink or misshapen your linen, continue to use the dryer as it will really help with softening linen garments and bedding. Consider adding dryer balls (I love these cruelty-free wool ones from Etsy) to help with softening the garments.
The more you launder your linen, regardless of your method, the softer it will become. Linen is something you hopefully will have in your wardrobe for many many years to come, and over time you will come to love wearing it more and more.
Option 2: Use White Vinegar
When you Google how to soften linen clothes, most articles suggest using white vinegar. Vinegar is an acid that has become quite popular for cleaning and laundry because it isn't toxic and quite effective for cleaning and softening. White vinegar is the only type one should use for laundry because it won't stain or alter the color of fabric.
There are a few different ways that white vinegar is used to soften linen:
- Add a half cup of white vinegar to your wash
- Mix one cup of white vinegar and one cup of water together and add to your wash in place of detergent
- Replace laundry softener in your softener drawer with white vinegar
- Overnight, leave linen items in a full washing machine with 1-2 cups of white vinegar
- For the best results, soak items in one gallon of water with one cup of white vinegar. Soak from ten minutes to overnight; length of time should not affect fabric or dye.
I haven't had any success with vinegar softening linen. I tried soaking linen sheets overnight in a washing machine full with two cups of white vinegar added, and if it did soften the sheets, the effect was minimal.
That being said, if you have washed your linen pieces with fabric softener or dryer sheets and find your garment to still be rough, I encourage you to try Step 2 of replacing your detergent with white vinegar. This will help break down any chemicals from these softeners and strip excess detergent and help the flax fibers soften naturally.
Option 3: Try Baking Soda (my favorite method)
When it comes to making linen feel softer, I have had success using baking soda. Baking soda has a pH of 9 which makes it a fabulous fabric softener for any fabric including linen. Just like with white vinegar, there are many methods to use baking soda to soften linen:
- Add half a cup of baking soda to your usual wash. Do not add fabric softener, this will take care of it. This can be done for any wash, not just when you are trying to soften linen.
- Add a cup of baking soda to a large bucket of water. Swirl until fully dissolved, then add your linen pieces. Soak anywhere from half an hour to overnight. Like with vinegar, length of time should not hurt the garment in any manner. Afterwards, let dry and depending on the results you can wear as-is or launder.
Option 4: Iron Your Linen
Ironing linen will help smooth the flax fibers, providing a softer feel. I find the best way to iron linen to soften it is to dampen the linen, and then using a pressing cloth, iron the linen and steam out the moisture. The combination of steam, heat, and pressure will smooth and soften the flax for a softer linen experience.
Ironing can be done to linen pieces that have gone through one or more of the previous methods. A perk is that your linen will look crisp and wear-ready!
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What's great is that the softer your linen gets, whether it's from repeated washing and wear or one or more of the options above, the less it will crease and wrinkle. Linen may be popular because it's comfortable in heat and humidity, but it's also popular because it is so durable. Once you find the linen you love and get it soft, you will get years (or decades) worth of stylish wear.