Linen Vs. Cotton Sheets: What’s The Difference?

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Back in the day, ‘luxury linens’ was more of a marketing term that would be slapped on the outer packaging of cheap, low thread-count sheets. Very rarely did companies stray from the typical long-staple cotton weave we’ve seen trending for years—and very rarely did consumers check the materials to see what they were getting. 

Today, however, the linen game has gotten way more complex (and choosing the best sheet set has started to feel like Sophie’s Choice). So, to make your search less harrowing, we’ve decided to break down two of the trendiest, most popular sheet materials we’re seeing across the board in luxury interiors: linen vs. cotton. Read on for everything you need to know. 

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Meet the Experts

  • Rhiannon Johns: London-based interior designer and head of brands at Piglet in Bed, which is known for its signature natural linen bedding
  • Christine Piscani: New York- and New Jersey-based designer and principal at Ella Design Group
  • Mark Lorberbaum: Textile manufacturing expert and founder of Florida-based bedding company, Elegant Strand

What You Should Know About Linen Bedding

  • Materials: Linen is made from the fibers of the flax plant and is one of the world’s oldest fabrics. The history of this material goes back thousands of years—it was used for clothing during ancient Egypt and is even mentioned in the Bible.
  • Durability: The material gets softer and softer with wear, and its durability means you’ll be enjoying your linen bedding for years to come. 
  • Look: Linen looks great straight off the drier with a naturally crinkled appearance, so no need to iron (unless you want to)! Linen also takes really well to dye, meaning you can get some beautiful, rich-toned sheets to complete your interior.
  • Feel: As well as being exceptionally soft, linen's naturally long fibers make it breathable and absorbent, helping to regulate your body temperature as you sleep.
  • Warmth: The thick, natural density of linen fabric also means there is a weight to it, making it feel like a comforting, warm embrace and easing you into a wonderfully deep sleep.
  • Price: Linen can be a more expensive fabric to harvest and produce (which makes it more expensive for consumers as well). It’s more of an investment purchase.

What You Should Know About Cotton Bedding

  • Materials: Cotton fabric is made from the fluffy seed-hair fibers of the cotton plant. It is a lightweight, durable fabric that has been used for centuries due to its ability to be dyed and woven into many different textures and feels (more on that below). 
  • Durability: Cotton is a great bedding choice if you’re looking for something lightweight and breathable, but due to its tightly woven construction, it tends to have a shorter lifespan than linen bedding.
  • Look: Cotton can appear smooth and silky, depending on the type of weave. Washed cotton, for example, features long fibers and a weave that’s wonderfully breathable, making for very comfortable sheets, especially when they are pre-washed for extra softness. 
  • Feel: Cotton usually feels smooth to the touch and sometimes has a satin-like texture. Cotton sheets feel really breathable, as the fabric absorbs moisture and releases it quickly, keeping you cool in the summer months. Cotton can have varying textures dependent on thread count and cotton quality.
  • Warmth:  Compared to linen’s heavy-duty pile, cotton feels thinner and lighter which means it's not as warm.
  • Price: Cotton is often more affordable than linen.

Which is Softer?

What to Look for in the Softest Cotton Sheets

According to Piscani, there are a few things you need to know about cotton weaves before you can get into comparing its feel to linen. “For the softest sheets that will stand up to wear and tear, you want to look for long-staple or extra-long-staple cotton. Staple means fiber and the longer the staple, the softer, more breathable and more durable the final product will be. Long-staple cotton has been around for over a century, while extra-long-staple (ESL) cotton is a relatively newer concept. Though ESL cotton will give you the most sumptuous sheets and is considered premium, long-staple cotton is your best bet for relatively affordable bedding that still has a luxury feel.” 

That said, you also need to pay attention to the weave of cotton sheets, which plays a major part in how it feels: “When shopping for cotton sheets, you’ve probably noticed they come in percale or sateen,” Piscani adds. “Percale sheets are cool and crisp to the touch with a matte finish. They're easy to care for, wash well, can last for a really long time and are extremely breathable. However, they do wrinkle easily. This weave is great for summer—especially for people who tend to get sweaty or overheated in their sleep (or if you reside in warmer climates). Sateen has a slight sheen, a smooth, silky feel because more thread surface is exposed and are a bit denser than percale, which is why they're a good option for cooler weather. Sateen sheets are less wrinkle-prone and drape beautifully but they often lose some of their luster over time and are susceptible to pilling. The type of weave really comes down to personal preference.” 

Softest Cotton Sheets

Best Percale Cotton
riley sheets
Best Sateen Cotton
parachute sheets

What to Look for in the Softest Linen Sheets

If you’re searching for the best linen sheets, you’ve probably come across two main types: Belgian or French flax linen. “The best flax grows along the famous Western Europe flax belt—a stretch of Europe that spans across Belgium, France and the Netherlands—so the main difference between Belgian and French linen is basically the country the flax originated from,” according to Juna Xu, former editor of Australian-based bedding brand, Bed Threads. “What makes French linen superior to others like damask, sheeting or plain-woven linen is that it’s durable, softens with age and doesn’t require much care.” As for Belgian flax, it “is crafted from 100 percent natural linen has those same excellent qualities of breathability, durability…and high absorbency like its French counterpart.” 

BUT, while linen’s softest, ‘European flax’ weave is far less complex than cotton’s, Xu warns: “There are plenty of linens out on the market usually fabricated from polyesters and other synthetic fibers. They might look like linen and even feel like linen, but there are a few tell-tale signs that sort the wheat from the chaff, quite literally, in the case of genuine, bonafide, high-quality flax linen sheet.” So, in order to make sure you’re getting the real deal, be sure to “look for the slubs,” which are “tiny little globules of imperfections dotted throughout the weave,” Xu explains. “‘Slubs’ are naturally occurring and the mark of true linen. Machine-made linen fashioned from polyester will not have any slubs at all. You can feel these slubs by running your hand over the fabric and paying attention to the small, barely perceptible bumps.”  

Softest Flax Linen Sheets 

Best French Flax Linen
bed threads sheets
Best Belgian Flax Linen
boll and branch sheets

Verdict: Linen is Softer

Really, this one comes down to personal preference. If you’re someone who prefers the silky-smooth feel of a lightweight sheet, your best bet is cotton. But in terms of softness, linen is unmatched when it comes to an ultra-enveloping, soft-to-the-touch feel. 

Which is Best for Hot Sleepers?

Cotton: Breathable and Lightweight Percale

According to Lorberbaum, “Perhaps the best-known quality of percale cotton is its breathability. Cotton percale sheets are the ultimate example of crisp, classic bedding. They are made with a simple, plain weave in which the yarn goes one-under and one-over. [Because] Percale has a tight weave (like the kind found in high-end men’s button-down shirts), these sheets don’t feel constricting or heavy, because the cotton is a thinner thread. They offer a cool, comfortable feeling that creates a blissful sleep space, especially when the weather is warmer.” 

That said, he also mentions how the minimum thread count for percale is 180, but it’s best to choose a 200 to 300 thread count for a hotel-quality feel: “Thread count—the number of threads found in a square inch of fabric— is a popular benchmark for a bed linen’s luxury quotient. Due to the nature of the weave and the thickness of the cotton yarns, percale thread count usually ranges from 200 to 400…if you want to recreate the airy bedding at your favorite five-star resorts, they probably use [a 200 to 300] percale thread count.”  

Linen: Ultra-Absorbent Flax

According to Bed Thread's experts, “There are a number of reasons why linen is such a popular fabric in the hot months, and they all boil down—pun very much intended—to the fact that linen is one of the coolest fabrics.” Mainly, this has to do with linen’s naturally temperature-regulating properties, which takes its cues from your body and in the air around you to adjust its heat accordingly: “The particular weave of flax’s fibers, plus the [the] lightweight nature of linen’s wick, means that air passes easily through and around linen, keeping the body within it cool. It’s also so light that the fabric dries easily, which in turn, helps keep you cool if you’re the kind of person who sweats in their sleep. Linen can absorb up to 20 percent of its body weight before it starts to feel wet, so don’t worry, you won’t wake up with damp sheets.” 

They also mention: “When it comes to GSM—grams per square meter (aka the metric used to measure the weight of a linen fabric)—there aren’t that many options that come lighter than [170 GSM] of flax linen…The sheets won’t be stuffy or heavy, and won’t weigh you down with extra fabric adding heat to the bed. The lightness of the sheets will also promote airflow around you, keeping the air circulating as you toss and turn.”

Verdict: Cotton is Cooler, Linen is Drier 

As with most things in life, you can’t have your cake and eat it, too. While cotton is far more breathable and lightweight than linen, it doesn’t compare to linen’s moisture-wicking properties. So the TL;DR? Hot sleepers would benefit from cotton’s crisp feel, while sweaty sleepers might be better off with linen’s water-resistant weave.

Which is More Durable?

How to Care for Linen Sheets

According to Bed Threads experts, “It’s best to give [linen sheets] a wash before sleeping on them…we suggest washing it as soon as it arrives at your doorstep in a cool, gentle cycle using liquid detergent only. It’s also important to always ensure that it is thoroughly rinsed in plenty of water to remove all traces of soap, detergent and residual soiling. This will prevent the formation of age spots, which are caused by oxidation.” They also add: “If you’re inclined to a sneaky glass of wine in bed (or two) and have accidentally stained your sheets, it’s best to try and remove these stains as soon as possible. You can do this by soaking your sheets or dabbing the stained area with cold water and baking soda.” 

How to Care for Cotton Sheets

“One question customers often ask is what’s the best setting to wash [cotton] sheets. We recommend warm water for your luxury linens. You still get the thorough clean you’d get with hot water, but without the scalding temperatures that could potentially cause damage or shrinkage,” explains Lorberbaum. “Cold water is also another option. You can wash your bedding in a normal cycle, though a gentle wash is also beneficial; the choice is a matter of personal preference.” 

He also says, “It may be tempting to save time on your laundry chores by washing sheets with bath linens, kitchen towels and other items. But washing bed sheets on their own is worth it. A heavy, too-full load will prevent proper cleaning, and mixing bedding with other items that have hooks or zippers can raise the risk of snags or tears…Be prompt in removing your bedding from the washer once the cycle is finished. This keeps the sheets from getting smelly or mildewed. What’s more, it helps with wrinkle preparation.

Verdict: Linen is More Durable 

Across the board, each expert agrees: Linen is built for longevity while cotton is built for breathability. “If you’re looking for bed sheets that last, are cozy all year-round, and are breathable in any weather, thanks to the longer fibers, choose linen bedding. It’ll last you for years, getting softer and softer over time, and offer you a comforting weight without adding extra bulk or heat in the summer,” Johns concludes.

12 of the Best Linen Sheets That Are Naturally Cooling 

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Associate Editor

Sydney Meister is PureWow's Associate Editor, covering everything from dating trends and relationship advice (here's looking at you, 'soonicorns') to interior design, beauty...