Linen and cotton are two of the most popular natural fabrics used to make clothing, bedding, and other textiles. Both fabrics have pros and cons when it comes to factors like durability, breathability, comfort, ease of care, and cost. This complete guide compares cotton and linen fabrics in detail so you can decide which is better suited for your needs.
Table of Contents
Overview of Cotton and Linen Fabrics
Cotton and linen are both plant-based fabrics derived from the fibers of the cotton plant and the flax plant, respectively.
Cotton is a soft, breathable fabric that comes from the fibers surrounding the seeds of the cotton plant. It’s a staple fiber, meaning the fibers are shorter in length than continuous filament fibers like silk. Cotton is very popular for apparel and textiles because of its comfort, ease of care, and affordability.
Linen comes from the fibers of the flax plant. It’s one of the oldest fabrics in textile production and has been used for centuries. Linen fibers have a smooth, crisp texture and natural luster. Linen is prized for its strength, durability, breathability, and moisture-wicking properties. However, it can be more expensive than cotton.
|Length of fibers
|Short staple fibers
|Long filament fibers
|Ease of care
Below we’ll do a deep dive into how these two fabrics compare across some key factors.
Linen is significantly more durable than cotton. The long linen fibers make linen fabric stronger and resistant to abrasion and tearing. Cotton’s short staple fibers are not as sturdy over time and can weaken with use.
Linen can last for decades if properly cared for. Vintage linens often get softer and improve with age. Cotton will show signs of wearing out much faster than linen when used regularly.
For items that need to stand the test of time, linen is undoubtedly the more durable and long-lasting choice. However, cotton’s durability is fine for basic t-shirts, bedding sets, and other textiles that are easily and affordably replaced.
Breathability & Temperature Regulation
Both cotton and linen are natural fibers that allow airflow and heat dissipation effectively. This makes them ideal for clothing to be worn in hot weather.
Linen has the edge when it comes to overall breathability and keeping you cool though. The hollow fibers of linen allow more airflow than cotton’s more solid fibers. Linen is highly absorbent as well, quickly wicking moisture away from the skin.
Many people find pure linen to be the most comfortable fabric to wear in very hot, humid weather. The lightweight, breezy weave keeps your body drier and prevents overheating.
Cotton is also suitable for warm climates and summer wear, just not quite as effectively as linen. Overall, linen pulls ahead of cotton in terms of temperature regulation and breathability.
Softness & Comfort
For softness and comfort against the skin, cotton is the winner. Cotton has a signature soft, fluffy handfeel thanks to its textured staple fibers. The fibers easily compress and bounce back, creating enjoyable cushioning. Broken-in cotton often feels luxuriously soft.
Linen has a stiff, structured drape and texture. While some may find this crispness pleasant, cotton’s softness has more universal appeal. Cotton bed sheets, t-shirts, underwear and other basics are reliably soft and pleasant for sensitive skin.
Linen can soften a bit with washing and use over time. But it lacks the cloud-like softness and comfort of cotton fabrics. If your top priority is softness for apparel or bedding, cotton is the better choice here.
Strength & Durability
As mentioned earlier, linen’s long fibers make it significantly stronger and more durable than cotton. Linen fabric can last for many years with proper care and storage. Some linen artifacts have even been found thousands of years old yet intact.
Cotton’s short staple fibers are more delicate and prone to wear and tear over time. All-cotton fabrics will show signs of fading and damage more rapidly than linen with regular use.
If you want fabrics that can stand the test of time as heirloom pieces, linen is much more durable. For everyday cotton t-shirts or sheets that can easily be replaced, cotton is adequate. But linen’s strength and longevity give it the advantage.
Ease of Care
Cotton is simpler to care for than linen overall. Cotton fabric and textiles can safely be machine washed in warm or hot water. Sturdy cotton items can even withstand some bleach without substantial damage.
Linen requires more delicate laundering. It should be washed in cool water on a gentle cycle to avoid shrinking or rippling. Bleach and hot drying can damage and yellow the fibers. Dry cleaning is recommended for some linen pieces to maintain their integrity.
Cotton’s higher heat tolerance and ability to withstand aggressive cleaning give it better ease of care. Linen requires more attentive laundering methods that make cotton a less high-maintenance option for most people.
Cotton is significantly more affordable than linen across the board. The cotton plant can be grown efficiently on industrial scale to yield large quantities of fiber. It also dyes and processes cost-effectively compared to the more labor-intensive production of linen.
Flax plants must be harvested by hand at the optimal time. The stalks are processed by hand to extract the long linen fibers from the pulp. It’s a time-consuming, manual process that gets reflected in the higher costs. While costs vary based on factors like thread count and origin, linen is almost always more expensive than similar cotton goods.
For those shopping on a budget, all-cotton products provide the better value. But linen’s benefits may justify the higher price for some.
- Cotton: t-shirts, jeans, socks, bed sheets, towels, undergarments, baby clothes
- Linen: summer apparel, lightweight suits, dresses, skirts, pants, blazers, home decor, tablecloths, heirloom bedding
|Hot weather clothing
|Everyday t-shirts and underwear
|Soft bed sheets
|Garden work clothes
Which Fabric is Right for You?
- Choose cotton if you want supreme softness and comfort against your skin, ease of care is important, or you are on a tight budget.
- Choose linen if you want unrivaled breathability and temperature regulation in hot climates, incredible durability and longevity, or crisp texture and elegant drape.
- Choose cotton for children’s clothes, bedding, and everyday basics that need to be comfortable, affordable, and easy to launder.
- Choose linen for special occasion apparel, table linens, and other heirloom textiles where you want remarkable strength and durability.
The best fabric comes down to your priorities and needs. Both cotton and linen have their advantages, so consider how you plan to use the fabric when deciding which is better suited. With proper selection and care, both natural textiles can provide years of enjoyment.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is linen better than cotton?
Linen is better than cotton in some ways, like durability, breathability, and wrinkle resistance. However, cotton has advantages too, like softness, ease of care, and affordability. There is no universally “better” fabric – it depends on your needs.
Is linen warmer than cotton?
Linen is often considered the cooler fabric. It has excellent ventilation properties and moisture-wicking abilities. This makes linen clothing ideal for hot weather. Cotton is breathable too, but less so than linen.
Is cotton cheaper than linen?
Yes, cotton is significantly cheaper than linen across all types of products. Cotton is cheaper to produce thanks to efficient large-scale farming and processing. Linen production is more labor-intensive, which gets reflected in its higher costs.
Is linen better for sheets?
Opinions vary on linen vs cotton sheets. If your top priority is soft, supple sheets, cotton is better. 100% linen sheets have a crisp, textured feel that some dislike for bedding. However, linen is more durable and temperature-regulating, which could make it preferable in hot climates.
Does linen last longer than cotton?
Yes, linen will last longer than cotton over years of use. Linen’s long fibers make it extremely strong and resistant to wear. All-cotton fabrics will fade, warp, and tear faster than linen. With proper care, high-quality linen items become softer and last for decades.