Flax makes a comeback in Russia's mills

Industry leaders hope the tough material can revive one region's depressed textile-based economy.

The economic slump that hit the industrial city of Ivanovo when its gigantic textile mills fell silent following the Soviet Union's collapse was as deep as the Great Depression, and it's already lasted almost twice as long.

Now a handful of entrepreneurs are hoping to revive at least some of those factories, which once employed half the population of this region, by applying 21st-century technology to an unlovely but ancient local crop - flax - which once provided the clothing worn by all Russians, from peasants to Czars.

"For the first time we can produce flax-based fabrics that are as cheap to make, as soft and flexible as cotton, but much more durable," says Lyubov Lomoskova, director of TDL, a trading company that has bought eight former state-owned textile mills. "You're used to thinking of linen as something tablecloths and hospital sheets are made from, but soon you're going to see men's shirts, ladies summer dresses and even lines of fashion clothing made from flax."

Flax is a tall flowering grass that has long been cultivated for its stringy, tough fibers. The USSR was the world's biggest producer of flax, but those coarse Soviet-era flaxen garments, sheets, and towels helped to secure the country's reputation as a consumer wasteland. Even here in Ivanovo, cotton, extensively cultivated in Soviet Central Asia, supplanted flax by the mid-20th century as the main raw material for the textile industry.

When the central planning system imploded, Ivanovo, which had produced 70 percent of the Soviet Union's textiles, went into a tailspin from which it has never recovered.

The region's 10 giant textile conglomerates, and 30 smaller firms, were rapidly privatized in the early 90s by the new Russian government and opened the country to a flood of cheap garments from China, Turkey, and elsewhere. About 40 percent of the 200,000 local people who'd worked in the industry have since lost their jobs. "Some factories try to carry on, but the bankruptcies keep coming," says Vladimir Koroblyov, an economic expert with the Ivanovo daily Rabochi Krai. "This city is full of people trying to adjust to the total dislocation of their lives."

Unlike Western countries, where people can often move to more prosperous zones, Russian law makes such mobility near impossible for most. "As long as I'm breathing I'll try to work, but times are definitely hard," says Valery Kurkin, a former mechanic in a textile plant who now works as a cleaner in Ivanovo's "Silver City" shopping mall, which occupies the hulking main building of a former cotton mill. "I work harder, earn a lot less, and there's no security at all. Even so, I'm luckier than many," he says.

But new research, aided by the Kremlin, could get many of those old factories producing viable textiles. "We have developed a revolutionary technology to 'cottonize' flax, so that the fibers can be worked like cotton," says Sergei Mishurev, an economist at the Ivanovo Textile Academy. The beauty of flax, he says, is not just that it might create new urban jobs and establish a niche for Russia in world textile markets, but it can also revive the moribund agricultural base in Ivanovo and neighboring regions.

Mr. Mishurev, who's close to the project, says the government is also mulling protectionist measures to help Ivanovo's textile industry survive, if only to fulfill state orders. "We can't have the Russian Army dressed in Chinese-made uniforms, can we?" he says.

At the 135-year-old Yakovlev textile mill, in the small town of Privolzhk, managers say they've already halted the post-Soviet decline and gone over completely to the use of flax. Yakovlev's fine linen kitchen textiles, curtains, and bedclothes are used in restaurants and hotels around Europe and have been ordered by big US chains such as Bloomingdale's and Williams-Sonoma. The plant is currently developing its own line of fashionable linen-based clothing.

The trading company TDL recently landed a contract to supply its home linens to the global furniture giant IKEA, and has also launched an experimental line of flaxen clothing. "We think there's a big market, especially for quality summer wear," says Ms. Lomoskova. "It's well-known that flax is more durable, and it breathes better than cotton. It's reputedly healthier for the skin, too," she says.

Is it enough to turn one of Russia's most depressed regions around? "We ask ourselves every day whether we're going to survive," says Lomoskova. "Well, we're still here and trying new things. Ask me again in five years."

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