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Linen vs Cotton: Know Your Bedding Like a Designer

Linen bedding in desert inspired home
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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? 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.

Linen vs. Cotton: 8 Differences

Both linen and cotton have been around for thousands of years and are used to make clothing, bedding, home decor items and more. 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. They Come From Different Plants

Linen and cotton are both natural fibers that come from plants. However, linen takes longer to harvest and turn into fabric than cotton because working with flax fibers can be more involved. Once the fibers are extracted from the flax plant, they must be stored for long periods of time  so they can soften.

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, and percale has more of a crisp, cool feel. Brushed cotton, which is exceptionally soft but is also more insulating than the other types of cotton.

3. Linen Lasts Longer

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 is often the most durable cotton fabric, while sateen is the least durable. 

4. Linen Is a Bit More Breathable

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

5. Thicker Cotton Is More Comfy

Both cotton and linen are quite comfortable in spring and summer when the temperatures are warm. For cold weather use, cotton is usually preferable because it’s still soft and flexible even when woven into a thicker, more insulating fabric.

6. Cotton Resists Wrinkles Better

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.

7. Cotton Is Smoother

Linen has a rougher texture in terms of both appearance and feel. The woven texture in linen is usually more apparent. Cotton’s texture is minimal and smooth.

8. 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. 

Types of Linen

Just as there are several different varieties of cotton, linen can be divided into a few different categories according to its texture and the pattern of weaving used.

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 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 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

Linen fabric is difficult to create compared to other fabrics like cotton and synthetic blends. The inherently sturdy flax fibers are knitted together on jacquard looms using a complex combination of plain and satin weaves. The result? An ultra-strong and long-lasting fabric.

Not only does linen hold up for years, but as we mentioned, it also gets softer over time. Because of this, linen is often more expensive than other fabrics. But for many, it's well worth the investment.

A potential downside of using linen for bedding is that, unlike cotton and blended fabrics, it doesn't have much stretch. However, it shouldn't shrink in the wash, so you don't have to worry about fitting it onto your mattress, pillows or duvets.

Are linen sheets worth it?

While linen bedding can be a little pricier than other options, the value is undeniable. The material 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.

If you appreciate the casually elegant appearance and want something that'll last you several years, linen is an excellent choice. Not only that, but it's breathable and light but also plenty cozy for year-round use.

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 a sustainable product. Not only that, but the fabric itself is recyclable and biodegradable.

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?

What color is linen?

Natural linen can come in a range of hues, including ivory, oatmeal, taupe, ecru and grey. The color of the fabric depends on factors relating to the flax plant and the specific processes used to separate the fibers.

When you see bright white linen, you can usually assume it's been bleached in order to achieve the color. For many, the understated natural colors of linen add to the fabric's appeal. However, if you prefer more color in your life, modern techniques make it possible to get linen in various colors beyond those that naturally occur.

Does thread count matter for linen?

When choosing a bedding material, people often refer to thread count as a way to measure quality. High thread count cotton sheets have threads or fibers that are closer together and more plentiful than lower thread count sheets. As fabric lore goes, the higher the thread count, the better the material — and yet, this isn't necessarily the case.

For one, there are no regulations in the bedding industry about how to count threads and what claims companies can make. Compared to other fabrics, linen usually has a relatively low thread count, but this is by design. Linen fibers are naturally farther apart than what you can find with cotton.

Its natural 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. High thread bedding can be soft and warm, but it won't provide you with the breathability you'll find with linen.

How is linen made?

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. To extract the fibers needed to make linen, the plant is cut or pulled from the ground, then the seeds are removed, and the sturdy flax stocks are soaked.

Soaking causes flax stocks to be broken down by a biological process called retting. This results in a lustrous fiber resembling blonde hair (hence the term "flaxen"). After separating the fibers from the stock, they can be used to create yarn, which is woven into fabric.

Linen Bedding from Parachute

At Parachute, we're obsessed with 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?