Cotton v Linen: What is the best material for bed sheets?

Exploring the properties of the materials you sleep in is a healthy exercise to undertake. It gives you context with respect to why sheets feel and drape a certain way, why some insulate better than others and why some last longer. 

This piece only covers the key differences between cotton and linen more generally as the two natural fibres that are regarded as the best materials for sheets. 

What’s the difference between cotton v linen?

Cotton sheets are commonly used across the globe for bedding. Cotton is a natural fibre that is soft and that gets its strength from spinning the fibre into yarn and then weaving the yarn into fabric. It is soft, has good insulation properties and absorbs moisture reasonably well. 

Cotton has the benefit of being able to be produced relatively easily compared to linen, which reduces the cost associated with manufacturing and therefore the final product. 

The most common misconception with cotton (and any sheets for that matter), is that the higher the thread count, the higher the quality. So, what is the best thread count? Well how long is a piece of yarn? Thread count is not a measure of quality, and thread count itself only contributes to 10% of a finished bedding product. Other factors that contribute include the species and quality of the source cotton, the country of origin, the yarning technique and finishing materials. We will explore this further in upcoming posts.

Linen is the world’s strongest natural fibre and is often regarded in Europe as the best quality material to sleep in. It is derived from the flax plant (the same plant that yields flax seeds which are now commonly regarded as a superfood). 

Linen has many benefits, mostly associated with its balance between longevity and its ability to develop incredible softness over time. It is highly regarded for its insulation properties - meaning that it traps warmth in winter months, but has the ability to breathe and move air in summer months, thereby keeping you cool. 

The best sources of linen in the world are France and Belgium, with Italy and Lithuania also very well regarded. These countries have ideal growing conditions for the flax plant which allow it to thrive and produce the highest quality natural fibres that are then turned into linen cloth. 

What are the benefits of linen v cotton?

Some of the key benefits of linen sheets over cotton sheets include: 

Durability and longevity
Linen, as a natural fibre from the flax plant is typically 30% stronger than cotton. This means that linen bed sheets are more durable than cotton sheets and therefore last a lot longer. Linen also has a strong reputation for continuing to soften considerably over timeIn Europe, it is common for families to pass down bed linen through generations.

Ability to soften over time while remaining durable
High quality cottons are inevitably softer than linen, especially within the first six months of purchase. However, high quality linen softens incredibly over time. Flax fibres provide structure and shape to bedding and garments, and it is sometimes because of this that linen is thought to be coarse. The coarseness however is very dependant on the quality of the initial flax species. Most linens that are used for bedding products (like Scottie’s) are high quality and are also ‘stonewashed’. This process further softens the linen and removed excess fibres, providing a great foundation for ongoing softness to develop with every wash. 

Insulation properties
Linen is a natural insulator. The fibres of the flax plant are hollow, which allows air and moisture to circulate naturally. Linen reacts to the season and the body in contact with the material to give the best of all circumstances. It is valued for its ability to keep you cool in the summer months and trap warmth in colder weather.

More environmentally friendly
The cultivation and manufacturing of flax is environmentally friendly requiring less irrigation, pesticides and energy than most other fibres, including cotton. Typically, the flax plant, from which linen is derived requires only one fifth of the pesticides and fertilisers that cotton requires. 

Greater hypo-allergenic properties
Because linen is a natural fibre (so too is cotton) it is hypo-allergenic, meaning that it is great for people who suffer from allergies, for example, asthma or hay fever. Linen’s distinct loose weave means that it captures less dust and allergens, substances that cause allergies, than cotton.

High moisture absorbency
Linen sheets do not absorb moisture as readily as cotton sheets, therefore moisture e.g. sweat or water (when washing) does not break down the fibres as quickly as what it does in cotton.