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What is Linen? Linen Vs. Cotton

bed dressed in linens
Written By
Parachute Team
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With an airy weave, a sturdy structure, a versatile appearance and an increasingly soft feel, it's easy to see why linen reigns as a premium fabric choice in many categories. The natural material is a go-to for summertime shirts, breezy pants, warm-weather suits and lightweight frocks — not to mention napkins, tablecloths, window coverings and upholstery. Linen is great for many things, but where it really stands out is bedding.

So, what is linen, exactly? How does it differ from the equally popular cotton? What makes it such an amazing option for sleeping in hot climates and can it be used year-round for bedding? Find answers to these questions and more about this beloved fabric.

What Is linen?

Linen fabric is made from flax plant fibers and is prized for its durability and versatility. The medium-weight fabric has hollow fibers that are naturally insulating, keeping you cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Linen is absorbent and dries quickly so it’s comfortable in any climate.

Linen's popularity goes back tens of thousands of years. The textile has long been celebrated for its ability to stay fresh and dry in warm, balmy weather. But there's much more to this linen than its easy, breezy reputation.

What Is Cotton?

Cotton is a popular fabric made from the natural fibers of the cotton plant. Cotton comes in a variety of weights depending on the method used to spin the fibers into thread or yarn. Known for softness, breathability, and durability, cotton is a common choice for clothing, towels, and bed linens.

Because cotton plants naturally grow in tropical and subtropical climates, it is the most commonly manufactured and worn fabric in the world.

How is Linen Made?

The process of making linen involves a few important steps, from growing the plants that lend their fibers to the popular fabric to weaving a breathable, durable fabric on looms. Here’s how it works.

What is linen made of?

Linen comes from the fibers of the flax plant. Standing three feet tall with glossy leaves and pale blue flowers, the flax plant (AKA Linum Usitatissimum) grows wild in cool climates all over the world, from India to Western Europe. The plants grow for about one hundred days before harvesting.

  1. Harvest: To extract the fibers needed to make linen, farmers cut or pull the plant from the ground.

  2. Separate: They separate the usable fibers from the rest of the plant material like seeds and leaves.

  3. Soak: The flax stalks are soaked to break down the stalks in a biological process called retting. This creates a lustrous fiber resembling blonde hair (hence the term "flaxen").

  4. Comb: The fibers are combed into strands and combined into longer strings for spinning.

Weave: The flax is processed into threads, with bobbins loaded into a weaving loom to create large bolts of linen fabric. Different types of linens feature different weaving styles. Some styles are tighter for a smoother

Is linen eco-friendly?

Since flax grows relatively quickly and doesn't require a lot of water, energy or other natural resources, linen is also considered sustainable. The fabric itself is also recyclable and biodegradable.

Some linen manufacturing is still done by hand while other flax farming operations rely on large machinery to simplify and speed up the process. 

For the most eco-friendly linen, look for fabrics with natural colorations that haven’t been bleached, dyed or treated with chemicals.

Parachute linen is produced in Portugal and has met the standards for the Oeko-Tex Standard 100 certification to ensure that the entirety of the linen production process is sustainable, ethically made, and benefits local communities across the supply chain.

You can learn more about the rich history of producing European linen fabric and Parachute's commitment to sustainability here:

Why is European Linen the Best in the World?

Portuguese Textiles: A Rich History

What is Oeko-Tex Textile Certification?

Different Types of Linen

Just as there are several different varieties of cotton, linen fabrics can be divided into a few different categories according to their texture and the pattern of weaving used. Damask, tight weave linen and loose weave linen are the most common varieties of linen used in bedding and clothing.

Damask Linen

Commonly featured in high-use textiles requiring durability, damask linen has a fine, smooth texture. You’ll most likely find damask linen used in tablecloths and napkins.

Tight or Close Weave Linen

Also known as sheeting linen, this tightly woven linen fabric is commonly used for clothing and bedsheets. Close weave linen is softer than other varieties of linen.

Loose Weave Linen

A more relaxed shape makes this linen slightly less durable but more absorbent than other linen weaves. You’ll often find loose-weave linen used in tea towels, reusable diapers and cleaning cloths.

How to Care for Linen

Caring for linen fabric is simple. You can machine wash linen bedding sets on warm using mild liquid detergent. Dry the linen sheets, duvet covers and pillowcases on low using wool dryer balls instead of dryer sheets. As explained in our Does Linen Shrink? guide, If the linen is garment-washed and you keep the heat low, you won't have to worry about shrinking.

Linen can wrinkle easily and, for many people, that adds to the cozy look of linen duvets and other bedding. If you do want to minimize wrinkles in your fitted sheets, remove them from the dryer while they're slightly damp and put them on the bed right away. Putting the sheets on the bed while damp will allow them to finish drying with fewer wrinkles than if you left them in the dryer to finish. Learn more about how to care for linen in our Linen Care Guide.

Pros and Cons of Linen

The benefits of linen fabric for bedding and apparel often outweigh the disadvantages, but it’s always a good idea to know the facts when selecting a fabric for your bedroom.

Pros of Linen

  • Incredibly long lasting and improves with age

  • Linen sheets stay very cool so they’re great for hot sleepers

  • Dries quickly

  • The open weave in linen fabrics makes them very breathable in hot weather

  • Doesn’t stretch

  • Environmentally friendly 

Cons of Linen

  • Linen clothing and bedding can be more expensive than their cotton counterparts

Wrinkles very easily

Differences Between Linen and Cotton

When it comes to selecting natural, comfortable and durable fabrics for bedding and clothing, cotton and linen are two of the most popular choices. While there are a number of similarities between linen and cotton, the differences below will help you decide which fabric is the right choice for you.

1. Linen and Cotton Come From Different Plants

Is linen cotton? No. While both linen and cotton are natural fibers that come from plants, they are not the same. Cotton fibers come from the cotton plant while linen comes from the flax plant. 

2. Cotton Is Softer from the Start

Once woven into fabric, linen retains some of its crispness and stiffness longer, needing repeated use and washes to reach its full softness. Sateen cotton tends to be smoother to the touch while percale cotton has more of a crisp, cool feel. Brushed cotton, is exceptionally soft but is also more insulating than the other types of cotton.

3. Linen Lasts Longer Than Cotton

Flax fibers found in linen are more durable than the fluffy fibers found in cotton fabric. As a result, linen tends to be more resilient than cotton through prolonged use or wear. Thicker percale cotton is often the most durable cotton fabric, while sateen cotton is the least durable. 

4. Linen Is a Bit More Breathable

While both cotton and linen are extremely airy fabrics, linen does offer a bit more breathability thanks to its hollow fibers and looser weave.

5. Cotton Resists Wrinkles Better Than Linen

Cotton and linen are both very attractive fabrics for clothing and bedding. However, linen does tend to wrinkle a bit more easily when worn, folded and stored. Cotton can be more wrinkle-resistant depending on the weave. However, cotton is also more prone to pilling over time.

6. Cotton Is Smoother

Are linen sheets soft? Not as soft as cotton. While the woven texture in linen is usually more apparent than in cotton, linen’s softness continues to improve with use and age. Cotton’s texture is minimal and smooth from the start.

7. Cotton Is Easier to Care For

Both linen and cotton are relatively easy to care for, though some linens may be labeled as dry clean only. To avoid shrinking, cold or cool water washing is always a good idea, as is drying on a low-heat tumble setting. 

Linen History

Linen has been a popular fabric throughout history. We can trace its roots back as far as ancient Mesopotamia, Greece and Egypt. Because flax grows well in hot climates and linen fabrics are breathable, durable and fast-drying, linen was a versatile fabric for apparel and homewares.

Today, linen is less common because of cotton and synthetic fibers are less expensive, but linen remains one of the most resilient and comfortable fabrics for warm climates.

Linen FAQ

Here are answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about linen.

What color is linen?

Natural linen comes in a range of hues like ivory, oatmeal, taupe, ecru and grey. The color of the fabric depends on how the flax plant was processed and how the fibers were separated. When you see bright white linen or linen in bold colors, you can safely assume that it’s been bleached or dyed.

Are linen sheets worth it?

While linen bedding can be pricier than other fabrics, its value is undeniable. Linen typically lasts longer than other fabrics, plus it resists pilling and fraying and softens over time. Like a good bottle of wine, linen gets better with age — a quality you won't find with other types of bedding.

Are linen sheets soft?

Linen sheets feature a specific weave for maximum softness and sleeping comfort. Tight weave linen leaves enough room between the thread fibers for breathability while providing a soft feeling against the skin. If you’re looking for the softest linen sheets, pre-washed linen is a great choice.

Does thread count matter for linen?

Many people associate thread count with quality, but when it comes to linen, that concept doesn’t apply. Linen’s softness doesn't come from a high thread count but rather the unique texture of flax fibers. Also, linen gets softer over time — the more you wash it, the more supple it becomes. 

Linen Bedding from Parachute

At Parachute, we're obsessed with high quality linen bedding because of everything it has to offer. It is better for you because it can help you sleep comfortably, will outlast other types of fabric and is free from harmful chemicals and synthetics. (We never artificially soften our fabrics.) Linen bedding is better for the environment because of its durability and the way it is made. You can sleep in comfort and with a good conscience when you choose linen bedding.

Our linen bedding is made in a family-owned factory that has been operating for generations. The combination of time-honored techniques and modern technologies work together to create the high-quality and unique linen bedding you can find at Parachute. 

You can find a full line of linen bedding from Parachute including linen sheets, linen duvets and linen pillowcases in an assortment of sizes from twin to California King. There are multiple colors to choose from, all of which are natural and muted to fit with home décor that ranges from earthy and natural to clean and modern.

You can explore the linen bedding options online and order samples to experience the feel and colors in person. And, if you need a little more guidance, you can get complimentary advice from a home stylist, including personalized product selections to make your house a Parachute home.

Read on:

Percale: Know Your Bedding Like a Designer

Sateen: Know Your Bedding Like a Designer

Brushed Cotton: Know Your Bedding Like a Designer

Organic Cotton Bed Sheets: What to Look For

Matelasse: Know Your Bedding Like a Designer

Sateen vs Silk vs Satin: What's the Difference?

What Is Long-Staple Egyptian Cotton?

What is Turkish Cotton?

What is Waffle Weave? Which Waffle Weave Home Goods Are Best?

Guide to Bed Sheets: Choose the Right Fabric and Style for Your Bed

Why Sleep on a Silk Pillowcase?