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Linen vs. Cotton Sheets

Both naturally derived from plant fibers and popular among luxury bedding products, linen and cotton nevertheless each have their own distinctive feel, price point, and benefits. As two of the most common materials used to make sheets, you’re unlikely to have a hard time finding a variety that matches your interior decor and style. However, it can be tricky to identify the type of sheet that will best suit your sleep needs and preferences.

Woven from the fibers of the flax plant, linen features a distinctive textured look and feel. Despite being thicker than cotton, linen is light and breathable thanks to the length and width of its fibers. Cotton, on the other hand, comes from the fibers of a cotton plant and is crisp and smooth.

To help you choose between linen and cotton sheets, we’ve compiled a comprehensive guide comparing the two materials.

What is Linen?

Linen sets itself apart from other bedding materials because of its extensive manufacturing process. The process begins with harvesting the flax plant, drying it, and putting it through a threshing process to remove the seeds. The threshed stalks are then wetted and put through several more processes to remove woody bits from the flax fiber, polish the fibers, and then spin them into yarn. From there, the yarn is woven into fabric. This unique material and manufacturing process gives linen a distinctive granular feel and makes it among the most durable types of bedsheets.

Naturally hypoallergenic, linen sheets feature filtering properties that work to minimize germs and allergens. The material is also anti-static, making it ideal for sleepers with sensitive skin. While thick, linens remains highly breathable, allowing linen sheets to feel cool in warm temperatures. In addition, linen is known for its ability to absorb moisture, contributing to a cool sleeping experience. Finally, linen  is considered an environmentally conscious bedding choice thanks to its durability, biodegradability, and natural derivation from flax plants.

Note that linen’s extensive manufacturing process can make these sheets more expensive than other sheets made from other materials. In addition, linen sheets’ unique texture may feel coarse to some sleepers, though they do significantly soften over time with repeated washings. Linen does not tend to pill or shed like some other fabrics do, and linen sheets are extremely durable when cared for properly.

Because of linen’s unique structure, thread count is not a good indicator of quality for linen sheets. The thick fibers cannot be woven into a tight weave. Many manufacturers instead list the fabric’s weight, with ideal sheets weighing between 175 and 190 grams per square meter.

Linen fibers do not have much elasticity or resilience, which means that linen sheets tend to wrinkle very easily. Many people view linen’s crumpled, wrinkled appearance as charming and distinctive.

Pros
  • Very durable
  • Naturally hypoallergenic
  • Anti-static
  • High breathability and moisture absorbency
  • Environmentally friendly
  • Softens and strengthens with every wash
Cons
  • Higher price point
  • Initial thick, coarse feeling
  • Wrinkles easily
  • More limited color options

What is Cotton?

The most common bedding material, cotton is derived from the seed capsules of a plant. Cotton seeds are protected by round, fluffy staple fibers or “bolls”. A cotton boll is typically composed of 200,000 fibers or more of varying lengths, including short-staple fibers measuring 1 ? inches or less, long-staple fibers measuring 1 ? to 1 ¼ inches, or extra-long staple (ELS) fibers measuring 1 ? to 2 inches. When it comes to sheets, the longer the fibers, the better. Long-staple cotton sheets are generally more durable and resistant to pilling.

The cotton used in sheets comes in three main varieties:

  • American Upland Cotton: American Upland Cotton makes up 97 percent of cotton grown in the U.S. Characterized by short cotton fibers, Upland Cotton is common and affordable.
  • Pima/Supima Cotton: A long staple cotton, Pima cotton is durable and soft and is commonly grown in the U.S. and South American countries. A specific proprietary American-grown Pima cotton is known as Supima cotton.
  • Egyptian Cotton: Egyptian cotton is prized for its ELS fibers, superior softness, and unparallelled durability. This type of cotton is grown in the Nile River Valley, where extensive irrigation and tropical climate create the perfect conditions for ELS cotton.

In addition deriving from the varying types of plants, cotton sheets can be woven in a range of different weaves, including the satin-like sateen, crisp and cool percale, and distinctive twill. But regardless of their source or style, all cotton sheets feature covetable qualities like breathability, natural moisture-wicking capabilities, and softness.

Pros
  • Wide range of varieties, weaves, and price-points
  • Breathable and moisture-wicking
  • Durable
  • Widely available
  • Softens with every wash
Cons
  • Easily wrinkled
  • Less durable than synthetic fabrics
  • Higher price-point than synthetic sheets
  • Prone to shrinkage

How do Linen and Cotton Compare?

While both derived from plants, linen and cotton have distinctly different characteristics. Linen has a unique texture and may even appear subtly patterned in certain designs, while cotton is typically smooth. Linen is thicker than cotton, but both are light, breathable, and naturally moisture wicking. Both are known for their strength and durability.

Linen bedding tends to come in fewer color options than cotton and patterned linen sheets are very rare. Cotton sheets are typically softer than linen sheets, at least initially, though both become increasingly soft after multiple washes.

One big difference is how you judge quality in the two types of sheets. Cotton sheets are often judged by their thread count, which is the density of threads running horizontally and vertically within a square inch of fabric. Linen sheets, however, are judged by their weight, measured in grams per square meter.

Category Criteria Linen Summary Cotton Summary
Category

Durability

Criteria

With proper care, a sheet set can last for several years – but in many cases, regular use and frequent washing/drying cycles can cause the material to deteriorate.

Linen Rating

Due to its thick, lengthy fibers, linen sheets offer excellent durability. Over multiple washes, rather than deteriorating, linen sheets become softer.

Cotton Rating

Cotton sheets also offer exceptional durability, though these sheets may see a slightly shorter lifespan than linen, depending on the weave and quality of fiber used to make them.

Category

Temperature Regulation

Criteria

Breathable sheets and pillowcases provide better temperature neutrality than those made from fabrics – often synthetics – that trap heat and cause sleepers to feel excessively warm.

Linen Rating

Despite being thicker and heavier than cotton, linen sheets are more breathable because of their lengthy, wide fibers. Linen is also naturally moisture wicking, meaning it keeps sleepers dry and cool.

Cotton Rating

Cotton is notoriously breathable and crisp. Like linen, it is naturally moisture wicking, able to absorb a significant amount of moisture before beginning to feel damp.

Category

Comfort and Feel

Criteria

Excessively thin sheets often bunch up and cause comfort issues, while inflexible sheets tend to snag around the sleeper’s body; the ideal sheets offer a balance of softness and flexibility.

Linen Rating

Fresh from the store, linen tends to be coarser, stiffer, and more textured than cotton. However, after handling and washing, it gains softness and fluidity.

Cotton Rating

Right out of the package, cotton sheets are soft and smooth. Like linen, their softness increases with washing.

Category

Cleaning

Criteria

Although most sheets are made from materials that can be washed and dried in machines, some require more extensive cleaning and care.

Linen Rating

As with any sheets, it’s best to follow manufacturer’s instructions when washing linen sheets. As a general rule, avoid bleaches and color-brightening detergents, and use cool water to avoid weakening fibers. Air-dry or tumble-dry on a low setting.

Cotton Rating

As cotton sheets can be made from many different types of cotton and use several weave patterns, different types may have different care instructions. Follow the manufacturer’s directions when washing cotton sheets, but as a general rule, avoid hot water and harsh detergents, and air-dry or dry without heat to avoid shrinking.

Cost

Because there is such diversity in styles and weaves, the pricing of cotton sheets may vary widely. A set of upland cotton sheets can be purchased for under $50, while Egyptian cotton can go for over $500. Meanwhile, Pima cotton sheets tend to fall between $50 to $100. Pricing may be influenced by thread count, which is the measure of lengthwise and crosswise threads woven within a square inch of material. The ideal thread count for different cotton sheets depends on the weave, but generally falls between 200 and 600.

The ideal thread count for linen sheets is much lower: between 80 and 120. The quality of linen, however, is determined by weight rather than thread count. The ideal weight for linen sheets is between 175 and 190 grams per square meter. Higher end linen sheets may cost up to hundreds of dollars, while lower quality linen sheets can be found for under $50.

Lifespan and Warranty

As an exceptionally durable fabric, linen can last for decades when properly cared for and becomes stronger and softer with each wash. A reputable brand should offer a return policy or warranty on linen sheets for anywhere between 30 days to a lifetime.

Cotton durability, on the other hand, may vary vastly depending on the variety and weave. Upland cotton sheets, for example, may not last more than three to five years. Egyptian cotton sheets, however, may last several decades if properly maintained. Warranties, too, may vary widely: less expensive sets may come with a 30-day return policy, while finer Egyptian cotton sets may come with lifetime warranties.

Care

To extend the lifespan of your linen sheets, proper care is crucial. Read the manufacturer’s instructions carefully, as they may advise a certain water and dryer temperature depending on the weave, dye, and stitching. As a rule of thumb, avoid bleach and laundry additives like color brighteners to avoid damaging your sheets.

Wash your linen sheets with similar colors and avoid overloading your washer. Do not attempt to iron your linen sheets with a hot iron. To remove wrinkles, try running sheets through a wrinkle-release cycle in the dryer or using a slightly warm iron. Because linen absorbs moisture so quickly, treat stains as soon as possible by blotting the stain and soaking the sheets.

Similarly, you should always follow manufacturer instructions when washing cotton sheets. It’s typically best to avoid hot water, harsh detergents, and laundry additives to prevent fiber damage or shrinkage. Air-dry your sheets or run them through a dryer on a no-heat cycle.

Final Verdict

It’s possible to find quality sheets whether you are shopping for linen or cotton. In the end, it comes down to personal preference. Those who don’t mind the initial, coarser feel and who tend to sleep hot would do well with linen, while shoppers seeking variety and softness straight out of the store may prefer cotton.

Linen Cotton
Pros Hypoallergenic
Breathable
Becomes softer and stronger over time
Many different varieties and weaves
Breathable and moisture-wicking
Becomes softer with age
Cons Initial coarseness
Fewer color and pattern options
Easily wrinkled
Prone to shrinkage
Feel Initial coarseness that softens with each wash; naturally breathable and moisture-wicking Soft, breathable, and naturally moisture wicking
Average Cost $50 to $500+ $50 to 500+
Average Lifespan Up to several decades 3-5 years up to several decades

You should buy linen if…

  • You are concerned about breathability.
  • You don’t mind initial coarseness.
  • You value durability.
  • You sleep hot.

You should buy cotton if…

  • You prefer a softer feel.
  • You want a range of styles, weaves, and price points to choose from.
  • You have sensitive skin.

Additional Tuck Resources

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