Lino is a bit like Marmite, people either seem to love it or hate it. For some it conjures thoughts of cold and institutional floors and it’s often (wrongly) used to describe vinyl. Unlike vinyl, which is petroleum based, linoleum has outstanding eco credentials and antimicrobial and hypo-allergenic properties.
A hard-wearing and almost totally natural product, linoleum takes its name from ‘linum’ and ‘oleum’,
the Latin for flax and oil. It’s made by mixing oxidised linseed oil and rosin with other raw materials to form linoleum granules which are pressed onto a jute backing to form sheets. These are then hung in drying rooms to allow them to cure and to acquire flexibility and resilience.
I saw this process for myself when I visited Forbo Flooring in Kirkcaldy on Scotland’s east coast in 1993. This is where Michael Nairn and Co, a floorcloth manufacturer, constructed a linoleum factory and began production in 1877. Kirkcaldy soon became the largest producer of linoleum in the world and the town was known for ‘the queer-like smell’ resulting from the process of boiling linseed oil and manufacturing the product.
The story of linoleum had begun some 130 years before my visit to Kirkcaldy, at a factory at Staines in Middlesex. While looking around his father’s workshop Frederick Walton, who later invented Lincrusta wallpaper, observed the skin of dried or oxidised linseed oil formed on the top of paint in an open tin. It led him to invent the product he called linoleum which he first produced in 1863.
By 1881 the Nairn factory in Kirkcaldy was producing linoleum eight feet wide. It was supplied to the Admiralty for battleships and ‘its sanitary and hygienic’ qualities made it ideal for hospitals. The Titanic had ‘Ruboleum’ on its decks: a 6.7mm thick linoleum introduced in 1907 and widely used in banks, offices and ships.
Initially patterns were printed on lino but these wore off so various methods were employed to create more durable and colourful designs. One system involved brushing linoleum granules through stencils onto canvas, another used different coloured inlaid pieces which were cut and arranged during the production process.
Linoleum sales declined drastically when fitted carpets and vinyl became popular in the 1960s. Another enemy was the stiletto heel. Incredibly, due to the surface area of the heels, a woman of average height could exert as much pressure on a floor as a 10-ton elephant standing on one leg. Today linoleum is tougher, available in an extensive colour range and enjoying new popularity.