The lino of beauty: Linoleum can be more chic and arty than Abigail's Party

The stuff even has immaculate environmental credentials. Sophie Morris gets floored

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The word lino often provokes a sharp intake of breath. Remember that agonising thwack on the knee when you tripped up running down the school corridor. That was lino. The sludge green and rust patchwork tile effect flooring in the entrance hall to your first home, which you covered up with a cheap IKEA rug. That, too, was lino.

If, in Mike Leigh's Abigail's Party (1977), Alison Steadman was tickling her perfectly pedicured toes on a shagpile rug, you can bet your Campari and soda there was a lino floor underneath, laid carefully at the intersection of kitsch and unfashionable.

Linoleum flooring has been around since the 1800s and took its name from one of the materials used to produce it, linseed oil; in Latin linum means flax, and oleum is oil. It was the go-to flooring choice of the Victorian era for its durability and the range of colours it was available in, which made a change from dull old wood and slate.

Lino's popularity endured until the middle of the 20th century, and was the first choice if you wanted to fake a wooden floor in your property or lay your porch with a complicated mosaic of reds, browns, greens and blues. During the 1970s, though, at the point when Abigail was trying to impress her suburban neighbours, lino was being edged out of its limelight by vinyl flooring. Vinyl, a plastic, is an oil-based product just like rubber, but it is a synthetic material made from petrochemicals, and is cheaper and easier to mass-produce.

Lino, on the other hand, has outstanding eco credentials, which in part explains its current return to form. John Lewis, Britain's largest retailer of Marmoleum, a brand of lino produced in Kirkcaldy, Scotland by Forbo, is seeing a strong resurgence in sales, which are up 20 per cent over the past 12 weeks compared with the same period in 2010.

At B&Q, lino is outperforming carpet sales. "There have been big technological advances in the surface, quality and practicality of old-fashioned lino," says Campbell Ettinger, the store's flooring buyer.

Tim Conlin manages a specialist independent flooring shop, Brocklehurst Carpets & Flooring, in north London. He says that in the past year lino has overtaken every other hard flooring product, including vinyl. Brocklehurst sells Marmoleum like John Lewis, and the most popular colour is Chartreuse, a vibrant lime green which hooks into this year's interiors trend for acid brights all over the home. Unsurprisingly, the garish inlaid patterns so popular in the 1950s are not experiencing a similar comeback.

Angus B Fotheringhame, Forbo's general manager for the UK and Ireland, doesn't see lino as an itinerant trend feeding off fads in interiors and design. "We don't think of lino in terms of fashion at all really," he says. "While its resurgence is partly to do with trends linked to the introduction of more colourways, its popularity has far more to do with authenticity and the inherent values of the product.

"It's got superb environmental credentials, its natural production process means every metre is unique in terms of decoration and, above all, it's a choice for people who don't want a floor they will change every few years. In the same way as people choose an Aga, they choose a Marmoleum floor."

Zoe Brady, the floor coverings buyer at John Lewis, agrees that the renewed popularity of lino is due to its remarkable green credentials.

The raw materials of lino are linseed oil, wood flour, rosin (a form of resin, usually from pine trees) and very finely ground limestone. These are mixed together and then applied to a jute backing. The product has been awarded various eco labels in the UK and around the world, is biodegradable, and doesn't harbour bacteria or dust mites so is a practical choice for anyone who suffers from allergies. It is even resistant to superbugs such as MRSA and E.coli, hence its use in hospitals. It requires an acrylic topcoat for protection and can last for more than several decades, doesn't mark easily and can be re-coated when necessary.

Vinyl or rubber flooring is often both confused and conflated with lino, though it lacks its impressive environmental credentials. B&Q's Campbell Ettinger is so impressed with the technological advances in vinyl flooring that he is buying one for his own new house, to lay in the kitchen, and is expanding the company's range for 2012 to include many additional designs.

"Wood and laminate tend to lead the market but vinyl is catching up," he says. "In some areas it's leading the market, because it's easier to take risks with. The advances have been in the aesthetics rather than practicalities. It's starting to become a much more relevant choice for people who want a good-quality and good-looking floor, and it's a world away from that image of a cheap, nasty, 1970s floor."

Vinyl might come in a large sheet that needs cutting and fitting, but B&Q sell tiles and planks (£7 – £20 per square metre) where you peel the back off and stick straight onto the floor, which are very easy to use for DIY fitters. The textures of the products have improved so that a wood effect plank will feel like a wood grain, and the stone effect has a natural stone feel.

Popular smaller retailers include The Colour Flooring Company, which sells classic and contemporary coloured sheets of vinyl which are as easy to wipe clean as a table top; The Rubber Flooring Company, which has several different textural appearances including a stone and a tiled effect, and the popular round stud tile; and The Rubber Floor Store which has smooth, bubbly and round stud options in many colours.

The UK's other major lino manufacturer is Armstrong which, in recent years, pioneered what it is calling Lino Art, where flakes of shiny metal have been integrated into the lino to give it a warm sheen.

Armstrong calls its lino Marmorette to Forbo's Marmoleum, so why is it that we all know the product and its vinyl cousins as plain, old, uncool and unloved "lino"?

Frederick Walton, the Englishman who invented lino in the 1850s after noticing how linseed oil solidified into a malleable skin, was so caught up in improving the lino-making processes he pioneered that he forgot to ringfence his baby.

A judge ruled that imitation manufacturers were free to use the name because Walton had never trademarked it. He also ruled that a trademark would have made no difference anyhow because, in the 14 years since its invention, "lino" had so widely pervaded the lexicon as to become a generic term, making it one of the first product brand names to enter the English language.

That's how one small word left its mark on a hefty proportion of the world's floors.

Lino: A history

Englishman Frederick Walton invented lino in 1855 and thought it would be a decent alternative to India rubber.

He opened his first factory, the Linoleum Manufacturing Company, in Staines in 1864, later opening two London shops that sold the product exclusively.

Copycat manufacturers soon sprang up and the town of Kirkcaldy in Fife, Scotland, became the world's largest producer of lino with six factories.

When the successful Michael Nairn & Co began to use the term lino to describe its product, Walton got upset and sued. He had never trademarked the name, however, and his claim on it was refused.

The technology for patterned and inlaid lino was developed in the late 1800s by Walton. The resulting popular geometric designs were a consequence of the fact the lino could only be inlaid in straight lines. In the 1920s, a technique for embossing more elaborate patterns was developed.

As other hard floor coverings became more popular from the 1950s on, the Kirkcaldy factories struggled. By the 1970s most had closed. Michael Nairn survived because it was bought by Swiss-based company Forbo in the mid-80s.