What Is Linen Fabric? Linen vs. Cotton

Everything you should know about linen, from composition to benefits and uses

Linen shirts folded and stacked on bed with yellow cover

The Spruce / Meg MacDonald

Linen fabric is a common textile, and it was once so popular that even now, well past the age of cotton and well into the era of artificial materials, all laundry is often referred to as linens. It was once so precious that it was used for wrapping the bodies of mummies in Egypt, contributing to the preservation of these ancient treasures. Today, linen is used to make clothing, curtains, tablecloths, pillows, rugs, rope, and more. It's even blended with cotton to make the sturdy, paper-like substance that's used to create dollar bills.

What Is Linen?

Linen is a sustainable fabric made from flax fibers. The flax plant has been cultivated in just about every country in the world and has been used to make fiber for over 6,000 years. To extract the fibers, the plants are either cut or pulled by hand from the ground (it's said that pulling creates finer linen). The seeds are then removed through a process called winnowing or ripping, followed by getting, which removes the plant stock from the fibers. Once the fibers are separated to collect the longest pieces, which can be up to nearly 8 inches long, they are then spun into yarn and eventually woven into fabric.

Linen vs. Cotton

On many levels, linen and cotton are similar fabrics—one made from the fibers of the cotton plant, the other from fibers of the flax plant, which has many of the same qualities as cotton. While cotton fabric is derived from the fibers in the bolls that grow around the plant's seed heads, linen is made from fibers in the stems of the flax plant.

Although they are similar fabrics, linen does have some advantages over cotton, and also some deficits. Linen can be two to three times stronger than cotton, and it dries at a much faster rate—a quality that helps it dissipate heat faster. But it is also more expensive than cotton, and it has less elasticity, so it tends to wrinkle more than cotton.

The Benefits and Uses of Linen

Because of its porous nature, linen has natural heat and moisture-wicking properties that make it a good conductor of warmth and a popular fabric to use for clothing or bedding in the summer. The natural fibers also hold dye colors better than some other materials, and thus the fabric is available in almost any imaginable color. Linen is also naturally anti-bacterial, which made it a popular choice for bandages for centuries and a favorite for window treatments and accessories such as accent pillows. Linen remains every bit as popular and smart a choice for home decorating accessories as it was when it was first discovered centuries ago.

Types of Linen Fabric

Linen fabric is often categorized into four major types:

  • Damask linen: This is a very ornate and delicate form of linen fabric woven on special looms. The fabric resembles fine embroidery. It is generally used in craft items rather than for apparel and other uses.
  • Plain-woven linen: This relatively rough-textured fabric is often used in hand towels and bath towels. It is a surprisingly durable fabric.
  • Loosely woven linen: This utilitiarian form of the fabric is often used in reusable diapers and crafting/staining cloths. It is not a very durable fabric.
  • Sheeting linen: This closely woven form of the fabric is commonly used in apparel and bedding. It has an untextured, soft surface. The thread count is generally quite high, making for a very durable, dense fabric.
Pillows covered with blue and off-white linen pillow sheets near bedside table with lamp

The Spruce / Meg MacDonald

Linen Care

Linen is notorious for being wrinkly. If you like the look and feel of linen clothing, prepare to do a lot of ironing if you want to keep wrinkles at bay unless you want to embrace the wrinkles for a more casual look. Using high heat on your iron and a touch of spray starch (especially on collars) will get you smooth and crisp results. But don't be fooled—once you wear your linen garment it's bound to get at least a little wrinkly. If you want to avoid wrinkles altogether, give linen blend fabrics a try as they tend to be much more smooth. Be sure your linen clothes are completely dry before wearing, as wrinkles can be even more exaggerated when the material is damp.

What Is Starch?

Laundry starch is a spray typically made from water and cornstarch. The product adds body and crispness to fabric, defends against stains and pilling, reduces static, and makes ironing easier.

Linen will soften as you wear it over time and it can be washed in the washing machine. Much like cotton, it has a tendency to shrink, so it's a good idea to wash your linen items in cold or warm water. If you'd like the fabric to remain more crisp and sturdy, dry cleaning your linen clothing is best.

Spray starch applied to gray linen shirt on iron board behind blue iron

The Spruce / Meg MacDonald