Design, Photography, & Fashion

What Is Cotton and What Is Linen? Cotton vs. Linen Fabrics

Written by MasterClass

Aug 26, 2019 • 3 min read

Linen and cotton are both durable, breathable, soft fabrics derived from natural fibers. So where do they differ?

In examining linen vs. cotton, each material thrives on different elements, whether it’s breathability or absorbency. Both cotton and linen are eco-friendly fabrics because they are made from natural fibers, but there are many slight differences between cotton textiles and linen textiles that make them each unique.

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What Is Cotton?

Cotton is a staple fiber produced from the cotton plant, part of the genus Gossypium and the family Malvaceae.

Cotton is a staple fiber, which means it is composed of different varying lengths of material. Cotton fabric is made from the natural fibers of cotton plants. The part of the cotton plant that becomes the fabric is the part that grows in the boll, the encasing for the fluffy cotton fibers. Cotton is a soft and fluffy material that is spun and woven to create a durable fabric.

What Is Linen?

Linen is an extremely strong, lightweight fabric made from the flax plant, part of the genus Linum in the family Linaceae. The word “linen” comes from the Latin name for flax, “linum usitatissimum.”

Linen is a natural fiber, like cotton, but it takes longer to harvest and make into fabric, as flax fibers can be difficult to weave. The fibers are extracted from the plant and stored for long periods of time to soften the fibers. Linen is a common material used for towels, tablecloths, napkins, and bedsheets. The term “linens” still refers to these household items, though they are not always made out of linen fabric.

9 Differences Between Cotton and Linen: Cotton vs. Linen

There are a number of key differences between cotton and linen. They include:

  1. Durability. Cotton has a little more stretch and flexibility than linen but is not as durable. Finer cotton, like Egyptian cotton, is made from long-staple cotton fibers, which makes this cotton softer and more durable than standard cotton, but still not as durable as linen. Linen is much more rigid but lasts longer because the cellulose fibers in linen yarn are slightly longer and wrapped tighter than those in cotton yarn, which increases its strength and longevity.
  2. Softness. Cotton is softer to the touch than linen because flax fibers are rougher than cotton fibers. For example, cotton sheets are very soft right out of the box and can last around five years, but linen sheets become very soft after several washes and last longer, up to 30 years.
  3. Texture. Cotton is a smoother fabric, while linen has more of a rough, textured pattern as a result of the looser weave.
  4. Appearance. Cotton pills more than linen as cotton fibers are weaker. Both cotton and linen wrinkle easily, as they are made from natural fibers, but linen wrinkles slightly more due to the stiffness of the fabric.
  5. Hypoallergenic. Both cotton and linen are hypoallergenic; however, linen is slightly better for people with allergies as the lower thread count and the loose weave is less likely to trap dust and particles.
  6. Absorbency. Both cotton and linen are very absorbent and water strengthens both linen and cotton fibers. Cotton is slightly more absorbent, as cotton can hold more than 25% of its weight in water while linen can hold up to 20% water.
  7. Water wicking. Linen also has natural water-wicking qualities, which means it draws water (or sweat) out of the skin and dries quickly. Cotton also wicks moisture well, but it doesn’t have the same natural wicking ability that linen has.
  8. Breathability. Both cotton fabric and linen fabric are breathable, though the breathability of cotton depends more on the weave of the fabric rather than the fibers themselves. Some cotton weaves, like denim or canvas, are thicker and less breathable. Flax linen fibers, on the other hand, are hollow so air and water can easily circulate. Learn more about denim in our complete guide here.
  9. Warmth. Cotton does not conduct heat and it has similar insulating properties to fiberglass, the material used to insulate homes. Linen flax fibers are hollow, making it very cool for the summer, but should be layered in the winter months.

For budding fashion designers, understanding the characteristics and feel of different fabrics is key. In her 20s, Diane von Furstenberg convinced a textile factory owner in Italy to let her produce her first designs. With those samples, she flew to New York City to build one of the world’s most iconic and enduring fashion brands. In her fashion design MasterClass, Diane explains how to create a visual identity, stay true to your vision, and launch your product.

Become a better fashion designer with the MasterClass All-Access Pass. Gain access to exclusive video lessons taught by fashion design masters including Diane von Furstenberg, Marc Jacobs, and more.

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