Why Filipinos are drawn to linen clothing

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The founders of these women-owned Filipino linen brands explain our fascination with the ubiquitous material and tell us what the future could look like for local textiles. Photo courtesy of BEA LIMPO/SOLANA

The first linen piece I bought was a sleeveless top three or four years ago. At the time, linen clothing was beginning to gain a foothold in the local fashion industry. For me, apart from how the top settled on my frame, I liked how the fabric felt on my skin. It was thinner and breezier than the cotton I’d gotten used to. The piece came with instructions to hand wash and line dry, and a disclaimer that the cloth would get softer over time, with every wash.

“Quality [linen] really is durable and softens over time, which honestly feels so nice to wear,” shared Maddy*. In the early 2010s, she was one of the first people I knew who started to incorporate linen into her closet. “I was initially put off from linen at first because of how easily it wrinkles and creases, which made me [feel] conscious, but later on I became more settled in accepting that it’s part of the charm! It's [a] very breathable fabric especially with the humid weather in Manila.”

Maddy credits the brand Anika, which started in 2016, as one of the brands to really fuel the linen trend’s popularity locally.

Anika Martirez started her namesake brand after a four-year stint working in Los Angeles. Photo courtesy of ANIKA

“I felt the Manila scene was lacking a go-to local brand that offered timeless, versatile styles made with care and quality,” explained the brand’s founder Anika Martirez. She started her namesake brand after a four-year stint working in Los Angeles.

“What was offered back in 2016 and prior were the extremes: either inexpensive and too trendy fast fashion, daywear by local designers that was priced too high/didn’t evoke an easy lifestyle/didn’t fit the feminine and wearable aesthetic I had in mind, or evening wear,” said Martirez. “There wasn’t anything in between. I sought to fill this gap.”

For Martirez and the brand, the use of linen is part of their ethos and lifestyle. “I loved linen for its versatility, breathability, and durability (when properly cared for),” she said. “One can use the same linen dress for a day picnic and that same linen dress as a wedding guest — with appropriate styling, of course.”

Anika's Indy top and Via skirt. Photo courtesy of ANIKA MARTIREZ

Since purchasing my first linen top, I’ve found myself gravitating toward linen sundresses. I wear them mostly at home (pre-pandemic, I’d also wear them to the beach). Any time I wore heavier fabrics, I missed the downiness of linen swaying with my movements like I was floating. One of my favorites is the brand, Solana, a brand known for using a type of linen that is lighter than air in their clothes.

“It’s not pure [linen], so it’s not wrinkly. It has a mix of the viscose, which makes it softer,” explained Bea Limpo, who co-founded the brand with her two sisters Andie and Marti.

Viscose is semi-synthetic and made from wood pulp, often used as a silk substitute because of how it drapes smoothly over moving bodies. Because of that, Solana’s pieces spring back and fall, wrinkle-free, the same way every time.

“After the few years we’ve been doing this, it’s something that people look for — they really go to us because they like the tela,” added Bea. “Like you can wear it to the beach, [even] if you just come out of the water, it’s gonna dry in like ten minutes, and it [still] won’t look [wrinkled].”

Solana is a brand known for using a type of linen that is lighter than air in their clothes. Photos courtesy of BEA LIMPO

Like Martirez when she started Anika, the Limpo sisters were similarly motivated to fill a gap. “The whole idea of Solana really came from us being very used to online shopping,” Marti said. “At that time, we were already into online shopping, but we’d always find ourselves a bit frustrated because so many products we liked were always either too expensive, only one size, [or] not functional — like a nice jumpsuit that had no pockets.”

“When it comes to our approach in designing, we always ask ourselves what we’d like to wear and what others would wear as well,” they explained. We’re three sisters and — believe it or not — all have different body types. So it’s important to us that our clothes fit each of us (it doesn’t all the time, and that’s why our sampling and R&D take a while) and that the styles and our sizing accommodate more than one body type.”

For many, the increasingly warm reception to any and all linen brands is the association to its sustainability. “For [the] majority of our local fashion labels, they started with or are more known for their linen pieces. That’s what initially pulled me into it more than anything,” shared another friend, Alexis*, who’s always been a purveyor of slow fashion and thrifting.

“Aside from the sense of nationalism that initially enticed me to linen pieces, knowing that they were sustainably-made, felt comfortable (presko) to wear, and could more or less match with most of the things in my closet, these things were what kept me buying. Ticking all those boxes [was] important for me too when finally making the purchase.”

“I think because of that whole idea of going natural — I think it’s a [shift] that we are experiencing. Meron nang ganung consciousness locally, and it’s not just about being eco-friendly.”

Dr. Julius Leano Jr, the Chief Science Research Specialist of the Department of Science and Technology’s Philippine Textile Research Institute, credits the rising linen trend to an increasingly responsible and aware consumer market. “I think because of that whole idea of going natural — I think it’s a [shift] that we are experiencing. Meron nang ganung consciousness locally, and it’s not just about being eco-friendly,” he said. “You also try to avoid, for example, petrol-based materials like polyester, which is a big player in microplastic issues. Consciously, people are shifting to that.”

Compared to our barong na piña, which has an opulence closely associated with formal events like weddings or anniversaries, linen is a more casual fabric. It also fits our local climate, which is too hot for a textile like wool.

The team behind Sunki, a linen brand more focused on sustainability and transparency, also employs a checklist when designing their clothing.

“Our decision points were like, what did we feel was essential, and how can we step it up in a way that we haven’t really seen in the market? We never wanna do the simplest iteration, but we do know that having a shirt is a necessity,” Micah Tadena said. Things in their checklist include: Are the straps adjustable? Is the length adjustable? Can you wear this without wearing a bra?

Tadena, who described herself as the oil that keeps the creative car running (she handles all the Excel sheets), shared that it was Isabella Argosino, their creative director, who first thought of the concept in 2019.

“She had the idea of putting together a brand that was going to fit the needs of the local women’s market, which she thought was really underserved at that time,” Tadena said. “Really creating functional clothes — clothes with pockets, clothes that weren’t single use and just trendy, but also, at the same time, pivoted in such a way that it’s still affordable but sustainable.”

The brand Sunki uses OEKO-TEX®-certified linen in the majority of their pieces, and they’re transparent about when they don’t. Photo courtesy of MICAH TADENA

Take their signature jumpsuit, for example. Apart from its unique silhouette and cinched waist, they ensured that the fit allowed their customers to do a split or a cartwheel, and fit everything they would need inside a bag within the jumpsuit pockets at the same time. “It always goes back to the functionality of the piece and how essential it is because we don’t want people to throw it away,” Tadena said.

Sunki uses OEKO-TEX®-certified linen in the majority of their pieces, and they’re transparent about when they don’t. OEKO-TEX is composed of 17 independent research and tech institutes spread across Europe and Japan, and their goal is to help improve global sustainable production.

“OEKO-TEX has a lot of [certifications] as well. Ours is that it’s organic, the dyes are natural, and that the workers are properly cared for,” Tadena said. “Our business model is really based on being low impact. There’s no perfect sustainable choice, especially since consumption is in the mix here. So it’s really about what factors can we take into consideration that makes sure it has the lowest impact.”

They also work with deadstock fabric for limited drops to further reduce waste.

“We’re in touch with businesses that are bigger than us and, at the same time, businesses who really collect scrap fabrics from different factories in the Philippines,” said Tadena. “We have a relationship with them where we say, hey, what’s in your bodega that you’re not using anymore? In that case, we can’t select the product first — the fabrics determine what we do.”

A photo featuring Sunki's ‘Schedule My Meeting’ pants and 'Knitty Gritty' cropped tank. Photo courtesy of MICAH TADENA/SUNKI

Sunki works with TELAstory to source their linen. Hannah Neumann, who co-founded the collective, shares that while the demand for linen has remained the same for international clients, there has been a boom in the Philippine market.

“Linen has become a huge trend in local small-scale garment production, especially as we have seen more brand new 'sustainable' brands pop up,” Neumann said. “We walk clients through the process of selecting the right fabric for their collections, while educating on the sustainability ‘credentials’ of different types of fibers. It's important to note that there is no ‘perfect’ sustainable textile or fiber. There are pros and cons for all. Linen and hemp are both favorite sustainable fibers because they use less water than cotton and are sturdy, long lasting, and comfortable.”

Despite the many linen brands that now populate the Filipino fashion scene, prices for quality pieces are typically higher than average because linen is still not a textile that is endemic to our country. The flax plant, which is what linen is made from, does not grow in the Philippines. In the past, this drove prices of linen clothing up, making it almost exclusive to the wealthy. Instead, they used linen-like cloth woven from the abacá plant for their baro — collarless long-sleeve shirts for men and blouses for women.

While linen is more readily available now, researchers, like Leano Jr., continue to make progress in creating fabrics that behave similarly to linen using local fibers, and they’re potentially more sustainable.

Despite the many linen brands that now populate the Filipino fashion scene, linen is still not a textile that is endemic to our country.

Leano said: The striking difference is, our materials dito like pineapple leaf, for example, and banana, these are agricultural byproducts. If you are not familiar with bananas, once a banana plant bears fruit, it will never bear fruit again. So yung crop na yun, that’s biomass — that’s a huge biomass. What happens in the ground is, chinochop-chop lang nila yan and then they leave it rotting in the field. So imagine yun napabibigyan mo ng additional value or extended value of what’s already supposed to be waste. That’s why we don’t call [it] waste, we call it ‘agricultural byproducts.'”

Similarly with pineapples, specifically, pineapples grown in plantations, much of the plant goes to waste. He said, “Ito pag naka bear na siya ng fruit — you really plant this for the fruit — at some point, you have to change it. Pag pinalitan ko siya, that [remaining] plant, they just shred it technically, binabalik lang nila sa lupa. And imagine mo, dun tayo makakakuha ng fiber for pineapple leaf.”

Other local linen-like fibers include, of course, abacá, ramie and the lesser known saluyot.

Leano hopes that the fabrics made from local fibers will one day become as widely used as linen.

“Linen is from a plant that does not grow in the Philippines, although it has similar properties [to what] we have in the Philippines, so yun yung maganda sa kanya,” he said. “On our end, that becomes the driver naman of local imitations. Instead of importing, those that we have here locally can actually be similar, if not, even better than linen. Or, at the very least, we can produce something locally that can take some of the market share of the popularity of linen.”