Linen fabric and cotton fabric are two of the most popular dressmaking and upholstery-making fabrics in the whole world. We inevitably draw comparisons between them. Both of them are made from plant fibers and have lots of similar features which are attractive; they also share some disadvantages too. But despite all these similarities, they are very distinct from each other – not only in looks but in a lot of qualities that matter.
So which is better? Linen or Cotton
This can be answered only if you know all the factors that matter.
Origin story of the fabrics
Goes without saying that the sources of both fabrics are different. Linen is a natural fiber obtained from the stalks of the flax plant. Fibers are extracted from the stalks and undergo a long process of retting, scutching, heckling, spinning, and weaving.
Compared to this, the manufacturing process of cotton fabric from fibers taken from the seed pod of the cotton plant is easier. Though the process of manufacturing cotton is similar, it is not as long-winded as that of making linen. I suppose this is the reason why cotton overtook linen as the fabric of choice of ancient men and women in Egypt and Greece. At first, everyone wore linen, but once cotton was discovered, the less laborious production process attracted all to cotton.
Let us see where Linen stands when compared with cotton in features that really matter to a customer who is going to buy any one of these fabrics as a bed sheet or a dressmaking fabric or upholstery material – strength, durability, breathability, comfort and looks.
Comparison of Linen and Cotton
Usually linen fabrics have a lower thread count than similar cotton fabrics. This is because linen fibers are slightly bigger than cotton fibers. This results in the lower thread count (number of yarns per inch of fabric) for linen. But as thread count does not define quality fully this cannot be the sole criteria for selecting either of them. A lower thread count fine linen may be superior to a higher thread count cotton.
Strength and durability
In this linen scores big. It can be called one of the strongest natural fibers. Linen survived intact inside the pyramids of Egypt for thousands of years. The most famous Shroud of Turin is a linen cloth. So when comparing, though both cotton and linen are durable, linen is more durable than cotton.
Both linen and cotton can withstand high temperatures.
Hand of the fabric and softness
The cotton fiber is fluffy and soft whereas linen is firm and smooth. Linen can become very soft but in the long run only. Linen fabric is a little crisp when you buy it, but it becomes softer with each wash. After you wash and wear it a number of times it becomes the most comfortable fabric of all. If you can wait this long, linen is best. If not, go for cotton.
There are many kinds of cotton. Combed cotton yarns are long soft fibers which are carded and combed. These properties define the fabrics made with them as well. Some cotton can be so soft that it will pass through a small ring easily whereas some cotton fabrics are so rough and coarse that you make boat sails with it. Cotton made from Pima and Egyptian varieties of cotton fibers makes the best quality cotton – they are the most expensive.
The linen and cotton fabrics are natural fibers; Natural fibers are renewable resources. Both are naturally eco-friendly.
The linen and cotton are both breathable fabrics. However, the breathability of cotton depends on its weave as the thicker and closer the weave, the more difficult it is to breathe. Whereas with linen it is not a problem as the fibers are hollow.
The cotton and linen are highly absorbent. But Cotton is slightly more absorbent than linen as it can hold more than 25% of its weight in water whereas for linen it is 20%. But Linen fibers become stronger when wet.
The linen has a better water-wicking property than cotton. Compared to cotton, linen absorbs water from the skin and dries quickly; ie. Linen does not hold on to the water as cotton will. This results in the cotton fabric being uncomfortable to wear (read soggy) if you are exercising or doing exertion where you will sweat profusely or get wet in the rain. This is one of the reasons why linen is a favorite fabric in countries with very hot climate.
Both cotton and linen wrinkle easily, but linen wrinkles more than cotton. Some even find the wrinkles attractive and elegant. Not so much for cotton – it just looks shabby.
Linen does not pill or create lint. Some cotton may.
The cotton can be dyed easily and is available in a multitude of colors. The linen on the other hand comes in limited colors.
Cotton is more flexible than linen.
Price-wise linen is more expensive than cotton as the manufacturing process of linen is more complex than cotton
There are more than 100 varieties of cotton fabric. Not so much for linen, but linen is also available in many types.
A number of the fabrics are made with either of these fibers. For eg. Damask is made in linen as well as cotton; Sailcloth is also made in both linen and cotton fibers.
Both are superior in their own ways – I am still confused; What about you?.
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Updated on November 24, 2022 by Sarina Tariq