Linen Sheets vs. Cotton Sheets

Updated on October 26, 2020 While all product recommendations are chosen independently, we may receive compensation for purchases made through our site. Learn more about our affiliate program here.
 

Breathable and durable, both linen and cotton are made with natural plant fibers and produce quality, long-lasting sheets.

Made from the fibers of the cotton plant, cotton is prized for its versatility. Cotton sheets come in a range of textures and the quality can vary from everyday to luxury. Linen is made from the fibers of the flax plant and is easily recognized by its characteristic rumpled look. Linen’s moisture-wicking properties and incredible durability are what set it apart from other fabrics.

In this guide to linen vs. cotton sheets, we’ll break down the particular strengths of each fabric and discussing which one is most suitable for different types of sleepers.

Broadly speaking, linen and cotton each have several specific advantages that set them apart from each other.

Linen SheetsBothCotton Sheets
  • Incredibly durable
  • Moisture-wicking and quick to dry
  • Stain-resistant
  • Breathable
  • Sustainable
  • Get softer over time
  • Soft feel
  • Versatile textures
  • Range of price points
   

To better understand the differences between cotton and linen, it’s helpful to have some background knowledge of how each fabric is produced.

What is Linen?

Linen is a natural fiber made of cellulose fibers from inside the stem of the flax plant. These fibers produce a thick fabric dotted with characteristic knots, or “slubs.” The fabric is used in bedding, clothing, and upholstery. Natural linen is sustainable, durable, and requires fewer pesticides than cotton.

Cultivating linen involves cutting or pulling the long fibers from inside the stem. The seeds are then removed and then the fibers are “retted” to get rid of the unneeded plant stock. After a few more procedures to remove the rest of the impurities the linen fibers are spun into yarn, which in turn is used to make fabric.

Types of Linen

When shopping for new sheets, you’ll see a few different types of linen sheets being advertised. Here are three of the most common:

  • Flax Linen: 100% linen from flax is strong, durable, and breathable.
  • Linen Blends: Many of the drawbacks of linen sheets, such as the wrinkling and the high price point, can be reduced by combining it with another fabric such as cotton or rayon. For this reason, it’s common to see sheets made with linen blends.
  • Irish Linen: The Irish linen industry flourished in response to the English tariffs on Irish wool and legend has it that at one point, Belfast was actually known as “Linenopolis.” Today, linen produced in Ireland using traditional methods is still respected for its fine quality.

Thread Count and Linen

Thread count measures the total number of horizontal (“weft”) plus vertical (“warp”) threads per square inch of fabric. It can be one indicator of the softness and strength of the fabric. Usually, fabrics with a higher thread count are considered better quality.

Linen is a naturally strong material with long fibers that are difficult to weave tightly together, so it usually has a relatively low thread count. However, linen retains its strength and durability even when it’s loosely woven. Therefore, we usually prefer to assess linen fabric by its weight, expressed in grams per square meter (GSM). The larger the number, the heavier and warmer the sheets will be.

What are the Benefits of Linen Sheets?

Linen is considered one of the most luxurious materials for bed sheets. Some of its benefits include:

  • Durable: Linen trumps cotton on durability, and good-quality linen sheets can last decades. Flax fibers are naturally strong and get even stronger when wet, helping linen withstand multiple wash cycles over its lifetime. Linen is less prone than cotton to balling up and will actually get softer the more it’s washed or worn.
  • Superior temperature regulation: Linen’s breathable loose weave, moisture-wicking properties, and tendency to billow out instead of clinging make it suitable for hot and cool weather.
  • Antibacterial: Linen is quick to dry and can absorb a good portion of its own weight without feeling wet to the touch. This impedes the growth of fungi, odor, and bacteria and is another reason behind its longevity. Linen is also static-resistant and hypoallergenic, making it a good choice for people with allergies or sensitive skin.
  • Natural: 100% linen from flax is a sustainable material that is soft and safe against the skin.
  • Machine-washable: Most linen sheets are machine-washable as long as you stay away from hot water, which may shrink it. Dry-cleaning your linen will help it stay crisp for longer. Always follow the care instructions provided by the manufacturer. Linen is also quite stain-resistant.

What are the Drawbacks of Linen Sheets?

Despite its many advantages, linen may not be for everyone. The following are some of the drawbacks of using linen sheets.

  • Expensive: Despite the many mechanical advances that have been made in linen production, handmade linen is preferable since machines tend to damage the delicate fibers. This complex manufacturing process drives up the price, making it one of the more expensive bed sheet fabrics.
  • Easily wrinkled: Because linen fibers aren’t very elastic, the fabric is easily wrinkled. That said, appearance is a matter of personal preference and many people like the crumpled look of linen.
  • May feel rough at first: You shouldn’t expect your new linen sheets to be fluffy like cotton sheets. Linen starts off feeling a little rough, but it will soften over time.
  • Limited colors and patterns: It’s rare to see linen sheets in bright colors, and you may have trouble finding an aesthetic that suits your bedroom.
 

What is Cotton?

Cotton is a natural fiber produced from the fibers located in the seed coat of the cotton plant. Currently, it’s the fabric industry’s most widely used natural fiber. Like linen, cotton is very breathable and boasts an above-average lifespan. Cotton tends to be an inexpensive choice compared to linen, but prices vary widely according to the quality of the fabric.

One of the key differences between cotton and linen is cotton’s versatility. Cotton sheets can have vastly different characteristics depending on the weave, the type of cotton plant that was used to make them, and the presence of blended materials.

Types of Cotton

The cotton industry lacks a coherent and all-encompassing set of regulations, so it can be confusing to try to decipher what kind of cotton a product is made of. One way to separate different types of cotton is by the names that are commonly used to describe them:

  • Egyptian Cotton: The cotton that people usually mean when they refer to “Egyptian cotton” is long-staple cotton with at least a 400 thread count. Egyptian cotton originated in the Nile Valley and is a high-quality cotton known for its soft, luxurious feel and durability. Nowadays, Egypt has expanded its production to include short-staple cotton as well. It’s no longer enough for sheets to be labelled “Egyptian cotton” – you should look for sheets labelled “long-staple” or “extra-long staple” cotton.
  • Pima Cotton: Pima cotton is an extra-long staple cotton with an average fiber length of about 1.5 inches that was introduced in the early 20th century by the Pima Native Americans. It comes from the same breed of cotton plant as Egyptian cotton but is more often grown in the United States and South America. An increasingly popular variant is Supima® cotton, a label which is only given to extra-long staple cotton grown in California, Arizona, Texas, or New Mexico.
  • Regular Cotton: Most of the cotton grown in the world today is Upland cotton. This cotton has a shorter staple, but it’s easier to grow and more resistant to adverse weather conditions. The fabric it produces may pill more than higher-quality cotton due to the shorter fiber length, but regular cotton is just fine for many purposes.

Cotton Weaves

While linen is usually woven in a simple one-over, one-under weave, cotton can be woven in several different ways. The traits of a cotton bedsheet will vary quite a lot depending on the weave. The type of weave you prefer will depend on your sleeping environment, personal preference, and other factor

  • Percale Weave: Percale sheets use a one-over, one-under weaving pattern that results in a sturdy, durable product with a crisp feel and a matte finish. Percale sheets are highly breathable and will sleep cool. The thread count can range from 200 to 600, with 250 being commonly accepted as the lower threshold for good-quality percale sheets.
  • Sateen Weave: The sateen weave has four horizontal threads per vertical thread, resulting in a soft material with a slight sheen. Many people prefer sateen sheets in winter, although they can also be used in summer. Compared with percale, they are less durable and can be vulnerable to pilling. Typical thread count for sateen sheets ranges from 300-600.
  • Twill Weave: Twill fabric is characterized by the appearance of diagonal lines, or “ribs.” Twill is soft but durable and the weaving pattern allows for a higher thread count than other types of fabric, which makes it wrinkle- and stain-resistant. Twill tends to be expensive, partly thanks to the greater technical expertise required to produce it.
  • Flannel Weave: Flannel has brushed fibers, which gives the fabric a soft, fuzzy texture. It’s a popular material in pajamas and winter shirts because of its cozy feel. Flannel sheets will trap more heat than the other types and are ideal for colder temperatures.

Cotton Staple

The fiber used to make cotton comes from the white fluffy “boll” of the plant, each of which has more than 200,000 fibers. The length of the cotton fiber, known as the staple, is ultimately one of the key determining factors in the quality of the cotton fabric. The longer the staple, the more expensive the cotton should be.

There’s no hard and fast rule about fiber length because it partly depends on the type of cotton plant, and each fiber is different. Apart from the two main cotton species used for bedsheets, there are also several species of extremely short-staple cotton not listed here that are more commonly used for other products.

  • Short Staple: Gossypium hirsutum, or Upland cotton, tends to have an average fiber length of half an inch to just over an inch. Because there are more “exposed” fiber ends in a given length of short-staple cotton thread, short-staple cotton will be more prone to fraying, pilling, and wrinkling. However, short-staple cotton does offer many of the benefits of cotton at a relatively affordable price point, so it’s commonly used in bedding and clothing.
  • Long Staple: Long-staple cotton, or Gossypium barbadense, has an average fiber length of approximate 1 ⅛ to 1 ¼ inches. Traditional Egyptian cotton is an example of long-staple cotton, as are Sea Island Cotton and Pima Cotton. Long-staple cotton is strong and durable, and it has a luxurious feel which often gets even softer over time. Long-staple cotton plants are sensitive to changes in temperature and humidity. Since this species of cotton has a more delicate growing and harvesting process, it is quite rare compared to shorter-staple cotton, which accounts for the higher price. Some manufacturers take advantage of the lack of regulations in the cotton industry by blending long-staple with shorter-staple cotton and marketing it as long-staple cotton.
  • Extra-long: Extra-long staple (ELS) cotton has an average fiber length longer than 1 ⅜ inches, generally topping out around 2 inches. It’s considered even more luxurious than long-staple cotton.

Thread Count and Cotton

Only very fine threads made with long-staple fibers can be woven into a fabric with a high thread count. Consequently, it’s usually safe to assume that cotton sheets with a higher thread count will be softer, more breathable, and less prone to pilling than cotton sheets with a low thread count. Good-quality cotton sheets usually have a thread count of at least 300, and sometimes 400.

Be wary of any sheets with a thread count over 500 or 600. These sheets are often produced by twisting short-staple cotton fibers into double- or triple-ply threads and then double- or triple-counting them. Far from improving the quality of the sheets, this method makes them feel rougher and negatively impacts durability.

While you can use thread count to guide you in your choice, you should also pay attention to the type of cotton, the weave, and whether it has been handpicked, all of which will also impact the feel.

What are the Benefits of Cotton Sheets?

Cotton is popular for several reasons:

  • Breathable: Cotton is naturally breathable and provides decent temperature regulation while you sleep.
  • Versatile: Cotton has different properties depending on the weave, staple, and thread count. This versatility is one reason for its popularity. Whatever your budget, design, or comfort preference, there’s a cotton sheet set for you.
  • Easy to care for: Most cotton sheets can be machine-washed and dried, unlike some more delicate fabrics. Some cotton sheets may shrink the first time they are laundered.
  • Hypoallergenic: Organic cotton is environmentally friendly and naturally hypoallergenic. Cotton that has bleach or other chemicals added to it may not be as suitable for allergy sufferers.
  • Durable: Cotton sheets won’t rip like polyester. Although cheaper cotton fabrics may pill, cotton is generally quite durable and able to withstand multiple washes.

What are the Drawbacks of Cotton Sheets?

Cotton also has several disadvantages which may be an issue for some shoppers:

  • Not moisture-wicking: Cotton absorbs moisture but doesn’t actively wick it away from your body. It takes longer to dry than linen, so if you do break a sweat despite its breathability, you might wake up drenched.
  • Prone to pilling: In shorter-staple sheets, the fibers will eventually poke out and cause pilling. Longer-staple sheets resist pilling for longer because there are fewer fiber ends.
  • Require ironing: Cotton won’t get as wrinkled as linen, but most cotton sheets will require ironing if you want to keep them wrinkle-free.
  • Variable environmental standards: Cotton plants are extremely vulnerable to insects and diseases, leading to the widespread use of pesticides and genetically modified cotton crops to combat these problems. The manufacturing process introduces bleach and even more chemicals. While organic cotton is a sustainable option that’s good for the planet and for the people who harvest it, non-organic cotton has a dubious environmental footprint and poses a health risk to workers (and potentially consumers). Labels such as the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) label identify responsibly sourced natural fabrics.
  • Easily stained: Cotton soaks up stains much more readily than linen, although this depends somewhat on the weave.
 

The Breakdown – A Comprehensive Comparison

Cotton and linen are both excellent choices for bed linens. We’ll summarize how each of these materials performs on different metrics.

 Linen SheetsCotton SheetsBottom Line
FeelLinen sheets are heavier and may feel rough at first, but they will soften over time with repeated use and laundering. Linen blends may be initially softer than pure linen, but probably won’t be as durable.The feel of cotton sheets varies greatly depending on the weave. From crisp percale to smooth sateen, cozy flannel to soft twill, there’s a cotton sheet for everyone.The feel of cotton sheets is more customizable. Linen sheets have a very recognizable natural feel to them which starts out slightly coarse and softens over time.
DurabilityLinen is extremely durable, and good linen sheets can last for decades with careful laundering. The fibers actually get stronger when wet, meaning linen can withstand repeated washing.Lower-quality cotton sheets will pill relatively quickly, but higher-quality sheets with a longer staple and higher thread count should last for years.It’s tough to beat linen for durability, but some high-quality cotton sheets have a respectable lifespan as well.
BreathabilityThanks to its loose weave and propensity to billow out instead of clinging to you, linen is highly breathable and effective at regulating temperature.The breathability of cotton sheets depends mostly on the type of weave. Percale sheets are the most breathable, while flannel sheets will trap warmth. Sateen and twill sheets fall somewhere in between. The staple also plays a role, with longer staples generally offering better breathability.Linen wins over cotton for breathability, but cotton percale sheets are a close second.
Cleaning and CareLinen is easy to wash, but very prone to wrinkling. Some people like this look, but it may require higher maintenance than cotton sheets.Part of the reason for cotton’s popularity is that it’s so easy to care for. Regardless of the weave, most cotton sheets can be machine-washed and dried. They may shrink the first time, but nowadays many sheet sets are sold pre-shrunk.In general, cotton sheets are easier to care for, simply because linen is so prone to wrinkling.
Thread CountLinen sheets tend to have a thread count of less than 200, but this doesn’t mean they’re poor quality. On the contrary, the low thread count allows them to be breathable. Linen sheets are usually measured by weight instead of thread count, expressed in grams per square meter.The ideal thread count for cotton sheets ranges between 250-600 depending on the weave. A thread count higher than 600 has likely been artificially inflated by twisting fibers into a multi-ply weave.Thread count is just one measure of the quality of a set of sheets, but it may be a useful indicator for cotton sheets. Linen sheets are best measured in weight or density.
 

Need to improve your sleep? Read our in-depth, unbiased mattress reviews to find the perfect bed.