When it comes to cool and comfortable fabrics, cotton and linen are two of the best. They have similar uses, from blouses to dresses, and even home textiles such as bedsheets and curtains. But besides that, what’s the difference between the two fabrics? In this article, I’ll compare cotton vs. linen, so you can see the differences and determine which one is better for you.
Both cotton and linen are made from plant fibers, so they are considered natural fabrics. Although they are both worn in the summertime, cotton is more durable, soft, and warm, while linen is more breathable, lightweight, and moisture-wicking.
Whether you’re trying to decide which fabric to buy for your sewing project or if you should buy ready-made clothing made out of cotton or linen, continue reading. I’ll share with you the characteristics of each one of these fabrics, as well as their pros and cons, to help make deciding between the two easier.
Cotton vs. Linen: Key Points
Now that you know what cotton and linen are made of and how they are made, here’s a chart that provides a brief overview of their similarities and differences.
|Can be breathable, it just depends on how it is woven
|More breathable than cotton due to having hollow fibers and being loosely woven
|More durable but prone to shrinking
|Less durable and can shrink more than cotton
|Warmer depending on fabric thickness
|Not warm at all
|Softer than linen
|Has a stiffer texture
|Ease of Care
|Can shrink easily, washed in cold water and dry on low heat
|Can shrink easily, wash in cold water and air dry.
|Cheaper than linen
|More expensive than cotton
|More versatile, used for t-shirts, blouses, pants, dresses, home textiles
|Used mostly for blouses, pants, dresses, skirts, bedsheets
What is Cotton?
Cotton is one of the most commonly used fabrics worldwide, and it is also one of the oldest fabrics used to make textiles. It is a natural fabric that comes from the cotton plant, as you might have guessed.
Cotton is a staple fiber, which means that the fibers come in varying lengths. Because of this, there are different types of cotton (such as Egyptian cotton or Pima cotton) and many different fabrics that can be made from it. Cotton can be woven or knitted and turned into muslin, gabardine, denim, and flannel, among others.
Cotton fabric is made by first harvesting the cotton plants then separating the seeds from the cotton bolls and removing any dirt and impurities. The fibers are then separated and turned into long strands of cotton, spun into cotton yarn.
Cotton is typically white, but after it is spun into yarn, it can be bleached to make it whiter or dyed other colors if necessary. Then the yarn is either woven or knit, depending on which type of cotton fabric is being made.
Whether the fabric is woven or knit can determine specific characteristics of the fabric, such as breathability or amount of stretch, for example. But for this article, we’ll be talking specifically about woven cotton fabrics since linen is typically woven.
What is Linen?
Like cotton, linen is a natural fabric made from plant fibers. But, linen is made from a plant called flax. It’s another old fabric that has been used in clothing for centuries, but it isn’t as widely used around the world as cotton is since it is mostly worn in warmer climates or during warmer months of the year.
Linen is another staple fiber, but it is a long staple fiber and the fibers are typically longer than cotton fibers are. As previously mentioned, linen is typically a woven fabric, so there aren’t many other fabrics made from linen other than the standard linen fabric that we’re familiar with.
And unlike cotton, the characteristics of linen fabric are pretty standard since it usually doesn’t come in many different textures and thicknesses. Even though many linen textiles are typically white, linen fibers aren’t naturally white but are instead a grayish-brown color.
Linen fabric is made by first harvesting the flax plants once they have matured. It is the stalks of the plants that are used to make linen, so the leaves and seeds have to be removed through a machine.
The stalks are then broken up to separate the inner fibers from the outer fibers. The outer fibers are unsuitable for making linen because of how rigid they are, so they are discarded.
The inner fibers are then combed into thinner fibers and spun into yarn. After the fibers have been spun into yarn, they are bleached, dyed, or treated. Then, the yarn is woven together to be turned into fabric.
What’s the Difference Between Cotton and Linen?
Since both of these fabrics are generally worn during warmer months, they have some level of breathability to them. Otherwise, they could feel uncomfortable or stuffy when worn. And, both of them are naturally breathable anyway due to being made from plant fibers since plants “breathe” just like humans do.
With that being said, the way the two fabrics are made can make them more breathable. When it comes to cotton, its breathability determines how the fibers are woven (or knit) together. Cotton that is more loosely woven will be more breathable, while cotton that is tightly woven will be less breathable.
In general, though, linen fabric is more breathable than cotton fabric. Not only is linen woven more loosely than cotton is, but flax fibers are also more hollow than cotton fibers are. Having hollow fibers allows air to circulate more freely, which is a key part of fabric being breathable. That’s why linen has a breezy feel to it when worn.
Both cotton and linen can last for a long time as long as they are taken care of properly. However, they are both prone to shrinking, especially when being washed for the first time. Because of this, many cotton fabrics are preshrunk and may not shrink anymore as long as you wash them properly.
Linen can shrink more than cotton and is likely to shrink if not washed correctly. It will also continue to shrink as long as you aren’t careful about how you wash it. If cotton shrinks, some of it can be stretched back to its normal size, but linen is harder to stretch back.
Since linen is also more loosely woven than cotton is, it can tear or snag more easily than cotton can. But, some cotton fabrics are more durable than others, depending on the weave of the fabric. For example, muslin is a thinner type of cotton fabric, so it will be less durable than denim, a thicker cotton fabric. But in general, cotton is more durable than linen.
Neither cotton nor linen is necessarily warm fabrics, and linen is rarely used to make fall or winter clothing. However, cotton can be warmer than linen, depending on the type of cotton fabric. For example, flannel is made from cotton and is often used to make button-up shirts and pajamas during the winter.
Cotton also has some insulating properties since the fibers aren’t as hollow and the fabric is less breathable. It can also be made thicker and heavier to give it more warmth.
But, linen is not warm due to the hollow fibers and how it circulates air. Linen is also more lightweight, so it will not be as warm, while most cotton is typically medium-weight. So if you’re wearing one of these fabrics to be warmer, then cotton is the better choice. Linen is not ideal for colder months if it is heavily layered.
Most cotton fabrics are medium-weight, while linen is a lightweight fabric. The reason that linen is more lightweight is again because the fibers are hollow. Plus, the loose weave gives it a lighter feel as well.
Some cotton fabrics can be lightweight, such as muslin. Others, such as denim or heavyweight cotton, are thicker and tighter weave. Cotton is much more versatile because of this, but if you want a light and airy feel to your clothing, then linen is the better choice.
Cotton is generally softer than linen is because the fibers are more tightly woven together. And again, some types of cotton and some cotton fabrics are softer than others. For example, fabrics made from Pima cotton or cotton fabrics such as flannel tend to have a softer texture than regular cotton fabrics.
Linen doesn’t necessarily have a rough texture, but it is more rigid and stiff than cotton. This is mostly because it is more loosely woven. This gives linen than breezy feel, but cotton feels better against the skin. And because of the texture of linen, it tends to wrinkle a bit more than cotton does as well.
Since both of these fabrics are worn in warmer months, you want them to be somewhat moisture-wicking in terms of sweat and other types of moisture, such as rain. With that being said, cotton is not considered a moisture-wicking fabric.
Cotton absorbs water and can become saturated easily, making it uncomfortable to wear if it does get wet. Because it’s not moisture-wicking, cotton also takes longer to dry, so it’s not a good idea to wear it on super hot days where you may sweat or on rainy days where you’re going to be outside.
Unlike cotton, linen is more moisture-wicking because the fibers are porous and hollow, allowing air and water to circulate better. Linen is the better choice to wear on a really hot day since it is breathable. It also doesn’t become saturated as easily, but it can still take a while to dry, depending on how wet it gets.
Ease of Care
Cotton and linen are both similar in how you care for them. Since they are both prone to shrinking, you can’t wash them in hot water or dry them using heat. When using either one for a sewing project, it is important to wash them before use just in case they shrink slightly.
Linen tends to shrink slightly more than cotton, and you should expect some shrinking after the first wash, even if you don’t wash it in hot water but put it in the dryer. Both of these fabrics can shrink during subsequent washes if you use the wrong water temperature or dryer setting.
The best way to wash linen and cotton is by using cold water and then letting them air dry. As long as the cotton fabric is preshrunk, it can usually be dried in the dryer as long as you use low heat. But, linen should always be air-dried, as even a low heat cycle can cause some shrinking.
Cotton and linen can also wrinkle since woven fabrics tend to hold a certain shape better than knit fabrics. But since linen has a stiffer texture, it tends to wrinkle more than cotton does. It is safe to iron both of these fabrics. However, linen is likely to wrinkle while you’re wearing, especially if you sit for too long.
Both cotton and linen are affordable compared to other natural fabrics such as wool or silk. But, cotton is one of the cheapest fabrics you can buy because more cotton is available and cotton plants are more widely grown worldwide.
With that being said, some cotton fabrics can be more expensive than others, especially if the fabric is made from Egyptian or Supima cotton, which is only grown in certain locations. And, thicker or more delicate cotton fabrics may cost more than normal cotton fabrics.
Linen is a bit more expensive than cotton since the flax used to make it isn’t as widely grown as cotton is. Flax is mostly grown in temperate climates, and the linen itself is more difficult to manufacture since only certain parts of the plant can be used. How the fabric is made plays a role in its cost since both the growers of the flax and the textile manufacturers need to be able to profit from it.
As I previously mentioned, both cotton and linen are typically used for warm weather clothing, such as what you would wear in spring and summer. Some winter clothing is made from cotton, but it is rarely made from linen. However, cotton is more versatile than linen due to the many different types of fabric that can be made and is a little more durable.
Cotton can be used to make pretty much any type of clothing but is commonly seen in t-shirts either by itself or blended with other fiber. Cotton is also the primary fabric used to make denim jeans and it is used a lot for leggings. It can also be used for home textiles, including bed sheets, blankets, upholstery, curtains, and more.
Linen is primarily used to make lightweight and breezy spring and summer dresses, blouses, pants, and skirts. It is rarely used for t-shirts due to how easy it can wrinkle and snag. Linen is also used to make bed sheets and pillowcases due to its breathability and moisture-wicking properties.
Pros and Cons of Cotton
Now that you’ve learned all the typical characteristics of cotton fabric, let’s review the pros and cons of cotton. For starters, cotton is very affordable and it is versatile. It can be used for any type of sewing project you can think of and is used for many different types of clothing as well. It is also a bit warmer and softer than linen is.
Cotton fabric is not the solution to everything, though. It is less breathable than linen and isn’t very moisture-wicking either. Cotton is also prone to shrink, but that’s an easy fix as long as you wash it correctly. It can also wrinkle easily, but as long as you remove it from the dryer as soon as possible and hang or fold it, it should reduce the amount of wrinkling that occurs.
Pros and Cons of Linen
Linen has some great qualities, but it also has some downsides. One good thing about linen is that it is very breathable. It is also lightweight and moisture-wicking, so it may even be a better fabric to wear in the summertime than cotton is. That’s why many people love linen, because of how airy it feels when worn.
One downside to linen is that it is more expensive than cotton is, although it is still cheaper than other natural fabrics. It’s also less durable than cotton, as it can tear or snag easily. Linen also wrinkles and shrinks more than cotton does. So it’s a good idea to air dry linen to prevent both wrinkling and shrinking because putting linen in the dryer can cause both to occur.
Cotton Fabric by the Yard
Cotton fabric can be purchased by the yard at pretty much any retailer that sells fabrics, whether physical or online. Cotton fabric usually comes in widths of either 36 or 45 inches wide.
The cost of cotton fabric per yard can be under $5 for cotton blends, or it can cost upwards of $10 per yard, but it is usually somewhere in between $5-$10. The exact cost will depend on the type of cotton fabric, including the variety of cotton it was made from and the color, print, or pattern that the fabric contains.
Linen Fabric by the Yard
Like cotton, linen fabric is available in most places where fabrics are sold, whether in-store or online. However, the selection of linen fabrics may not be as great as the selection of cotton fabrics. The width of linen fabrics is usually between 45 and 64 inches.
Due to less linen fabric available, the cost is usually higher. Many linen fabrics can cost $10 per yard or more, although some linen blends can cause less than that. Linen fabric is mostly found in white or solid colors instead of patterns or prints.
Which Is The Better Choice?
Now that you know the difference between cotton and linen fabric, which is the better choice? It just depends on what type of clothing you want to make or buy and what characteristics you’re looking for in a fabric.
If you want a fabric that is a bit easier to care for and warmer, softer, and more affordable, then cotton is the better choice. If you want a more breathable, lightweight, and moisture-wicking fabric, then linen is the better choice, although it is more expensive and harder to care for.
Whichever one you choose, I hope this guide made your decision a little bit easier. If you enjoyed it or found it helpful, share it with others and let me know in the comments. Thanks for reading!