Linen vs. Cotton: What Are the Main Differences?

Photos by Justine Camacho and Justine Camacho

Choosing between linen and cotton can be challenging, especially when considering factors like comfort, durability, and care requirements. 

Whether you're interested in bedding, clothing, or fabric for craft projects, understanding these two materials' characteristics can guide you in making an informed decision. 

Let's explore the key differences between cotton and linen.

Overview of Linen vs Cotton

Deciding between linen and cotton? 

That's what this enlightening journey is all about. In this article, we're going to pick-and-peel the fascinating differences between these two ubiquitous textiles - the workhorses in our wardrobes, decorators of our homes, and muses to our DIY impulses. 

With linen and cotton serving as go-to materials for everything from summer suits to window treatments, we shouldn’t take our choice of fabric lightly. 

So sit back, and let's unravel this thread together with a broad overview of these two fabric titans, touching on common uses, manufacturing processes, and their inherent, defining traits. 

Together, we'll weave a tapestry of textile understanding.


A field of flax flowers in bloom.
Photo by tsuyoshi kozu.

Understanding Linen

Let's dig into linen, this often-misunderstood textile. Originating from the flax plant, linen is one of the oldest known textiles. Historical references take us as far back as ancient Egypt, where it was considered a symbol of light and purity.

The manufacturing process is moderately complex. Once a flax plant reaches maturity, it's uprooted (not cut) to maintain the length of its fibers. The plants then go through "retting," a process involving bundling and soaking them in water to separate the fibers from the stem. 

After drying and removing the seeds, the flax is ready for "scutching" and "heckling." These steps involve beating and combing the fibers, respectively, to create smooth, long, uniform strands. These strands then become the raw material for spinning into linen yarn.

Linen enjoys a wide variety of applications. It’s used to produce clothing, bed linens, tablecloths, and napkins, among other things. 

People gravitate towards this material due to its substantial benefits: it's lightweight, breathable, and often considered high-end. 

Fun fact: due to its strength and durability, linen has also found unconventional uses in bookbinding and making canvas for oil paintings. Now let's put linen aside and delve into its counterpart, cotton.


Photo by Karl Wiggers on Unsplash

Understanding Cotton: A Brief Overview

Cotton, known to many as the “fabric of our lives,” is a natural fiber that is harvested from the cotton plant. It is one of the oldest known fibers, with evidence of cotton farming dating back to 6000 BC in areas around the river valleys in Mexico, Pakistan, and India.

The process of manufacturing cotton is quite intricate. 

After the cotton plants have blossomed, cotton balls - the part of the plant that contains the fiber - emerge and mature until they split open, revealing the fluffy, white cotton fibers inside. These fibers, seed-covered and ripe for harvesting, are then plucked from the plants (either by hand-picking or using harvesting machines). 

Following the harvesting, the fibers undergo a process called ginning, which separates the cotton fibers from the seeds. 

Once ginned, the cotton is compressed into large bales that are then used to spin into yarn or thread, a process that happens through spinning the fibers together to make a very fine, strong, soft yarn that is woven into cotton fabric.

Cotton is a worldwide favorite for a variety of reasons. Its breathability makes it a go-to for clothing - specifically, everyday wear such as T-shirts, jeans, and undergarments. It's also frequently used in bedding and home decor items because of its softness and durability. 

Even in the medical world, cotton finds use in bandages and medical garments due to its hypoallergenic nature and absorbency. 

Overall, cotton's comfort, low maintenance, and versatility make it one of the most commonly used fibers in the world.

Direct Comparison: Linen vs Cotton

When comparing linen and cotton, some of the main contrasts derive from their distinct origins and manufacturing process. 

To begin, linen originates from the flax plant, making it a robust and hefty fabric. Its strength, however, does not compromise its elegance or comfort. 

On the other hand, cotton gets its roots from the cotton plant's fluffy balls, resulting in a softer and fluffier material than linen.

Linen has the edge when it comes to durability. Its sturdy nature allows it to resist damage from wear and tear better than cotton, thereby offering a longer lifespan. This durability also makes linen more weather-resistant, ensuring it holds up better under intense sun exposure.

The texture of these two fabrics also presents a notable difference. Linen typically has a crisp, relatively textured feel that softens with every wash, while cotton comes off as softer to the touch, offering a cozier feel from the get-go.

In terms of breathability and moisture absorption, both fabrics perform impressively, but linen has a slight advantage. It's more breathable than cotton, making it a particularly popular choice for summer clothing. 

Likewise, linen can absorb more moisture before it begins to feel damp, giving it an edge in hot and humid conditions.

While linen may require some additional care, many find its unique texture and finish worth the effort.

Cotton, in contrast, is generally easier to care for and withstands machine washing and drying conditions better.

Each fabric has its unique attributes, making them more suited for different settings and uses. As we deconstruct their uses in more specific scenarios like bedding, clothing, and others, these differences will become even more substantial. It all boils down to your specific needs and priorities when choosing between linen and cotton.

Linen Sheets vs Cotton Sheets: The Great Bedding Debate

The battle for the best bedding material is arguably a toss between linen and cotton. Both are popular choices, but they indeed have distinct attributes that could make one more appealing than the other depending upon an individual's personal preference.

Let's start with texture and comfort. Linen sheets, generally, have a more textured feel to them, often considered rustic or earthy. Some people appreciate this natural texture and find it exudes a unique charm. 

Meanwhile, cotton sheets are often smoother and softer, lending a more traditionally comfortable feel that many of us are familiar with. It's worth noting that linen softens over time with repeated washing, eventually offering a unique blend of rugged texture and softness.

The topic of breathability and moisture absorption can't be overlooked in the great bedding debate. Linen triumphs over cotton in this regard. Linen fibers are hollow, allowing the fabric to breathe more, which keeps you cooler during warm nights. 

Moreover, linen is highly absorbent and quickly wicks away moisture, ensuring you stay dry and comfortable throughout the night. 

Cotton, while certainly breathable and capable of absorbing moisture, doesn't quite match linen's capabilities in this domain.

As for durability and lifespan, both materials have their strengths. Cotton sheets are typically sturdy and can stand up to repeated washings without significant degradation. 

Linen, on the other hand, is known as the world's strongest natural fiber. It's a tough material that not only resists wear and tear but also gets softer and more comfortable with each wash, potentially giving it a longer lifespan than cotton.

Finally, the discussion about care and cleaning instructions is crucial for maintaining the longevity of your sheets. 

Both linen and cotton sheets can usually be machine washed, but they prefer different settings. Cotton sheets stand up well to very high temperatures, while linen prefers cooler washes. 

When it comes to drying, each fabric comes with its own set of rules too: cotton withstands high temperatures better, while linen dries faster and can be line-dried to preserve its quality.

In conclusion, the choice between linen and cotton sheets is largely about personal preference, with texture, breathability, durability, and care instructions being key differentiating factors. The rustic charm and superior breathability of linen might appeal to some, while others may favor the softer feel and durability of cotton.


Bonjour le Lin has a wide range of high-quality linen clothing for both men and women.

Differences Between Cotton and Linen: Clothing and Fashion

When we move the material battleground to the arena of fashion and clothing, the differences between linen and cotton become more significant. They behave quite distinctively once sewn into apparel, with variations noticeable in comfort, suitability for different climates, wrinkle tendency, care requirements, and durability.

Let's talk comfort first. Linen clothing, known for its breezy, relaxed vibe, offers exceptional comfort in warmer climates. The fabric's loose weave allows more airflow, making it a cool choice for sweltering summers. 

On the flip side, cotton can be relatively more versatile. Depending on its weave and weight, cotton can help keep you warm in chilly winters and cool in sizzling summers, making it a wardrobe all-rounder.

In terms of wrinkle propensity, both fabrics wrinkle - but how they go about it is what sets them apart. Linen wrinkles easily and openly, becoming part of its classic aesthetic. It's like linen wears its wrinkles with pride, adding to its laid-back charm. 

Meanwhile, while cotton also creases, its wrinkles are usually seen as a sign to reach for your iron - it simply lacks linen's ability to make a crumple look chic.

On to launder - while both fabrics are washable, they have different care demands. Cotton clothing can usually survive the washing machine's rough and tumble (unless it's a delicate cotton type like Egyptian cotton), while linen prefers a gentle hand washing or a run in the delicate cycle, to maintain its structure over time. 

Both materials might shrink on their first wash, but cotton might show more dramatic shrinkage.

Lastly, concerning durability and wear: both are hard-wearing fabrics, but linen takes the crown. Its fiber strength is actually two-three times higher than that of cotton, giving linen clothing the potential to last for years, even decades. 

However, their durability doesn't mean they are immune to wear and tear. Both will naturally wear out over time, but with good care, you can extend their lifespan significantly.

So, the choice between linen and cotton in clothing often comes down to your personal lifestyle, preferences, how much you tolerate wrinkles, your climate, and your patience for clothing care. Play your cards right, and you've got materials for a winning wardrobe.

Linen vs Cotton in Other Applications

When it comes to deciding between linen and cotton in diverse applications outside of bedding and clothing, one has to consider their characteristics relative to the demands of the specific usage. Among popular uses for these fabrics are tablecloths, curtains, and craft projects.

Linen is often chosen for tablecloths and napkins due to its slightly rougher texture and high absorbency. The material naturally feels thicker and sturdier under the hand, giving a touch of grandeur and formality to your dining setup. 

Like many natural fabrics, care should be taken when treating stains on linen.

In the realm of window treatments, both cotton and linen have their merits. Linen curtains are typically heavier and more opaque, providing a good level of sun protection – perfect for rooms which are exposed to a lot of sunlight. Cotton curtains are usually lighter, letting in more natural light, and lend a softer, breezy vibe to your spaces.

Crafters often favor cotton for its ease of handling and wide range of colors and patterns available. Cotton fabric is ideal for quilting or embroidery, as it's easy to wash, durable, and less prone to wrinkling than linen. 

However, some crafters choose linen for projects that require a rustic or high-end vintage feel. Linen's durability and tendency to soften with each wash make it an excellent choice for heirloom projects.

In these alternative applications, the choice between cotton and linen really becomes a matter of specific needs and aesthetic preference. 

Remember, neither fabric is inherently superior to the other; both have unique attributes that lend themselves well to various uses. 

As with all things, understanding the nature of each material empowers you to make the best choice for your project.

Making Your Choice: Considerations when Choosing Between Linen and Cotton

When choosing between linen and cotton, certain factors come into play. Both natural fabrics have strong fan bases, with individual appeals and benefits. 

However, the ultimate choice depends on your individual needs, personal preference, and intended use.

Climate Conditions

Firstly, the weather or climate where you live or where the textile is to be used greatly matters. Here's what you need to know:

  • Linen: Perfect for hot weather due to its excellent breathability; however, it might feel a bit rough initially.
  • Cotton: Equally breathable and has a softer feel from the beginning, but it may not be quite as cool as linen in a hot climate.

Care and Maintenance

Second, consider the difficulty of care and your willingness to maintain:

  • Linen: Wrinkles more easily and may require ironing for a crisp look.
  • Cotton: Generally easier to care for, with less severe wrinkling.

Durability and Longevity

Third, mull upon the fabric's durability and longevity:

  • Linen: Known for its long life and becomes softer and more desirable over time.
  • Cotton: Good durability, but generally, linen edges out with a longer lifespan.

Cost Implications

Lastly, cost comes into play:

  • Linen: Generally more expensive than cotton, reflecting a more labor-intensive production process and superior longevity.
  • Cotton: More affordable, but may not last as long as a comparable linen product.

Fabric choice, cotton or linen, should align with your needs and lifestyle. Both fabrics have commendable qualities, so let your personal lifestyle and preferences guide your choice.


As we wrap up our in-depth comparison between linen and cotton, remember that while they are both natural materials, they exhibit individual properties that set them apart.

Linen, hailing from the flax plant, is known for being remarkably sturdy, moisture-wicking, and breathable. It's ideal for hot climates or for those who run hot and want cooling bed sheets. 

Despite its casual, lived-in look that gets softer with each wash, some may find its tendency to wrinkle off-putting.

Cotton, on the other hand, needs no introduction with its widespread reputation for being soft, fluffy, and comfortable. It's a go-to fabric for a wide range of applications, from clothing and bed linen to craft projects. While it might not be as breathable as linen, it offers considerable durability and is easy to care for.

Ultimately, the choice between the two boils down to personal preference and specific needs. 

Are you more focused on breathability and moisture absorption, or are you aiming for softness and ease of care? Do you embrace the rustic appeal of the occasional wrinkle, or do you lean towards a more polished look?

In the grand linen versus cotton debate, it seems the winner isn't a clear cut. Just as varied as the uses of these versatile fabrics, so too are the factors to consider when making your decision.

So, with the information from this comprehensive comparison at your disposal, the power is in your hands. Choose confidently, understanding that whether cotton or linen, you'll be bringing something uniquely comfortable and durable into your home. 

After all, informed decisions are the best kind. 

And remember: in the end, the best fabric is the one that feels the best for you.