Home Decor

Let’s Settle This Once & for All—Cotton or Linen Sheets?

The great bedding debate rages on.

August 11, 2021
Photo by Rocky Luten

Of all the things we’re passionate about here at Home52 (wiping the sink every day, flipping the toilet paper over the top of the roll, sourcing vintage rugs, etc.), possibly the most fiercely debated topic? Bedsheet material.

We’ve been around the home editor block for a bit, which means we’ve had the chance to test, try, feel, smell, and wash just about all the bedding you can imagine. Given that the average American spends a third of their lifetime in bed (!), quality sheets are tantamount to a healthy sleep routine. Just think about it—would you get a more restful sleep in crisp, white hotel sheets, or the polyester blend that still plagues your childhood bed?

That said, sheets can be a daunting investment, and there’s a bit of background information to know before you take the plunge.

Firstly, to be blunt—thread count is kind of a scam. What used to be an indicator of quality is now largely a packaging ploy to get consumers to spend more. Anything with a thread count higher than 500 starts to get suspicious, and may be composed of multi-ply threads of cotton (counted as individual threads), instead of single ply threads. This is an indicator of lower quality cotton or materials, as the multiple-ply threads strengthen lower-grade cotton. Instead of thread count, look for threads made of long-staple fibers and thin, single ply threads.

Secondly, another thing you’ll see a lot about are weaves. The most common cotton weaves (yup, like a basket) you’ll see are percale and sateen. Percale is a one-over, one-under weave that feels cool and crisp, looks matte, and gets softer with every wash. Sateen is a three-over, one-under weave that’s super soft and smooth and looks slightly shiny. Sateen is usually a bit pricier than percale, since the fabric is close in feel to satin, and ultra wrinkle-resistant.

Linen has a whole other set of standards, which are fuzzier than the ones governing cotton. Thread counts are much lower for linen, as the flax fibers are thicker, and the weave is usually visible, whereas with cotton it’s difficult to see the tiny individual fibers. Linen is also commonly advertised as “stone-washed” or “enzyme-washed” which usually means the breaking-in and multiple washing process is mostly done for you—i.e. the linen comes to you soft, not still stiff.

Read on for our (passionate) pros and cons for each bedding material.


Why We Love Each

Caroline, the Cotton Fiend:

So let’s preface: I grew up in a house of polar bears. My parents kept the thermostat at 64 degrees at night, so my adapted sleep preference is for the room to be so cold that if my hand were to slip out, it might go a little numb. I know I’m not the only one who likes to be cold while sleeping, so for all of you who run hot out there, I’m here to preach the percale sheet gospel.

If you’ve ever luxuriated in a crisp, white hotel bed, it was probably a set of percale cotton sheets. The other kind of cotton sheets (my second favorite weave) is sateen, which is more tightly woven, buttery soft, and less likely to wrinkle. Percale is always my go-to, though, because it’s got that satisfying flip-the-pillow-over-in-the-night freshness. If I’m even the slightest bit overheated in the night, I toss and turn and have trouble falling back asleep, but with percale sheets, I can always roll over to a new, cold spot and snuggle in.

The refrain with linen sheets is that they’re great for summer and hot climates because they’re breathable, but I personally would rather have 100% cotton (also a breathable fabric!) that not only lets heat out, but also stays cool to the touch. My other main gripes with linen? They take a bit to break in (mine were super scratchy for a good five-ten washes) and they release so much dust. I find myself wiping down all the surfaces in my bedroom constantly when the linen is on my bed.

Arati, Linen's Biggest Fan:

Linen sheets have taught me an important life lesson—to embrace the imperfect. It didn’t happen overnight: I mean, I have been known to even iron my undergarments, so when I washed my very first set of linen sheets, my body reacted violently to its crumples/rumples/crinkles (all of the above). Over time though, I began to embrace each crease; linen wrinkles—it’s what the fabric is supposed to. Don't love the all-out crumpled look on your bed? Mix up the two—linen sheets and pillow cases, cotton duvet cover...boom!

I also love linen’s breathability, despite its weightiness. (Yep—that extra weight means it's also extra durable.) The airflow through the sheets leaves them cool and dry no matter how long they are in use. We all sweat in our sleep and I find that linen just dries up quicker than cotton.

Oh, and can I just say saturated colors just work so much better on linen? Mustard, terracotta, artichoke...gimme all the jewel tones! OK, prints don’t quite catch on linen, but I was never a printed sheet gal.


What Could Be Better

Caroline:

Cotton may be my favorite to sleep in, but aesthetically, linen sure is beautiful. The casual crinkles, the marled fibers, the effortless-ness it exudes—it’s why I often actually have a linen duvet cover. I love how durable and weighty it is, so long as I have a cotton top sheet to protect me. Linen also looks beautiful with a casual wrinkle, but cotton just looks messy when it’s not pressed.

The other major drawback to cotton sheets is that they don’t last nearly as long as linen sheets. Cotton sheets usually max out at about two years of use, but linen sheets can last through actual generations, making them a really great investment.

Arati:

So, I’ll be the first to admit that linen sheets aren't the softest when they arrive—you’ve got to give ‘em time to shine (like...multiple washes—even with the "broken-in" kind), so I understand that this can be off-putting to some. Be warned that even over time they are never going to be the same kind of smooth-soft as cotton, so don’t even expect that—they break in differently.

Linen is also heavier than cotton, so it might not suit someone who doesn't like extra weight on them while they sleep. I have an extra set of cotton bedding for any guests that might run too hot at night, and prefer to use them. To linen’s defense, they do absorb perspiration better though.

And finally, yes, linen can be expensive, because the quality of linen matters. Purchasing a softer, more weighty linen sheet set could run your budget up, and it’s important to know if it works for you before you invest. However, because linen is so durable (and the better the quality, the more durable), it can last years and years. Belgian linen, in particular, is thought to be among the highest quality types of linen, and is virtually an heirloom. (Tip: look for a tighter weave if you want it your linen to last.)


Our Favorites:

1. Brooklinen Classic Percale, from $99

Photo by Brooklinen

I have several sets of the percale bedding from Brooklinen, and it's truly reliable, durable, and always crisp. I recommend Brooklinen for anyone looking to invest in their sleep and bedding, they've got a range of colors and patterns, as well as the ability to buy pieces a la cart, so if you want to start with just a duvet or just a few pillowcases, you can surely do so.

2. L.L.Bean Pima Cotton Percale Sheet Set, from $109

Photo by L.L.Bean

I know, it seems wild that one of my favorite percale sheet sets is from an outdoor retailer, but I swear, these are some of the coolest sheets I've ever slept on. They're soft without losing crispness, and cool without being made of ice somehow? I don't know how they do it.

3. Parachute Linen Sheet Set, from $149

Photo by Parachute

Crafted in Portugal with 100 percent European flax, these sheets just feel both incredibly comfortable from the get-go—and durable (that weight we spoke of!). They also wash incredibly well—and trust us, not all linen sheets are created equal that way.

4. Hawkins New York Stonewashed Linen Bedding, from $78

Photo by Julia Gartland

Hawkins does colored linen like no one else (I've been looking for an excuse to treat myself to that gorgeous rust!). In the end though, no matter what color you get, you're assured supple, breathable linen that lasts and lasts.

Do you have a strong sheet preference to share? Weigh in on the debate below!

This post contains products independently chosen (and loved) by our editors and writers. Food52 earns an affiliate commission on qualifying purchases of the products we link to.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Bonnie Wiggins
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When I'm not writing & editing for Home52, I'm likely to be found DIY-ing a new piece of furniture (or restoring an old one), hanging things on the wall in my apartment, or watching hours of vintage RHONY.

39 Comments

Bonnie W. August 22, 2021
I purchased my linen sheets about 20 years ago from Shabby Chic and they were divine from the beginning, not stiff or scratchy and remain my favorites. I now live in the tropics and these sheets keep one cool. I wish I had a second set.
 
D.E. August 16, 2021
I use both linen and cotton bedding on my bed at the same time. I usually have a linen fitted sheet, a 100% cotton duvet cover, and cotton pillow cases. I also have one linen duvet cover. But, all except one of my many duvet covers, are 100% cotton as I have either bought them in Denmark over the last four decades or have bought twin sheets and taken 2 twin sheets to my regular tailor in the garment district here in Los Angeles. He then sews them together to make me a custom duvet cover to fit my Danish down comforters to fit my full-size bed and he used to only charge around $25. in labor.

Since I only buy goose down comforters made in Denmark, the U.S. size duvet covers don't fit as all of my goose down comforters are 135cm X 220cm. The U.S. twin size duvet covers are way too big for my goose down comforters as my Danish ones are to sit on top of the mattress and not hang all over the sides of it like the ones here in the U.S.

As far as linen goes, I much prefer linen in a fitted sheet and only buy my linens from www.linoto.com. To me, it's well worth the wait. They custom make each order. They will also do custom sizes.

As for linen softening up, I just throw my linen pieces into the dryer with two unscented Bounce dryer sheets and by the second or third washing/drying, they're soft. They also soften up more over time.
 
Jeri T. August 16, 2021
I must say I just bought Target Threshold percale sheets and love them! The quality is surprising. And only $50.00 for a queen set. I bought brooklinen percale sheets for my son and his wife last Christmas. They love them! He said they reminded him of Graham's old sheets on the beds at camp in Maine. That's the ultimate compliment!
 
M S. August 15, 2021
I love Cotton Percale, (my current favorite is Boll and Branch) for its cool smoothness in summer. I must admit it took me awhile to find out about the sturdiness of linen as my first forays were pillowcases that wore out on their folded edges. Then I found Rough Linen sheets. Their dense, heavyweight fabric is wonderful, after a few washes, and is holding up well as my winter sheets for the past 7 or 8 years.
 
Cheryl August 15, 2021
Call me old fashioned: 100% cotton muslin. Sigh, those can't be had anymore so percale it is! The feeling of sateen is just creepy.

However, my biggest gripe about sheets is that none actually fit anymore.

It used to be that mattresses were a uniform thickness and sheets all fit that thickness. Yes, I'm showing my age.

Now, with mattress companies trying to out do each other, sheets are "one size fits all", meaning they don't fit any well.

It infuriates me to spend a fortune on sheets only to have them sag, bag and wrinkle uncomfortably under me as they move with me instead of staying snug. No sheet preference, cotton, linen or otherwise will feel good under those miserable circumstances.
 
Kartoffellöffel August 16, 2021
Have you tried making up a bed with two flat sheets? I never buy fitted sheets for two reasons. The first is, as you mention, getting the bottom sheet to fit properly. The other is that sheets will last much longer if you're able to rotate sheets from top to bottom. I don't have any problem with a bottom flat sheet bunching or wrinkling. I simply fold the top and foot end of the bottom flat sheet under the mattress, then mitre the corners before tucking the sides under. As long as the bottom flat sheet is sufficiently sized, it will remain tightly tucked in place.
 
Cheryl August 16, 2021
Thank you. My white cotton muslin sheets are vintage and not long enough for these newer mattresses. Mattresses used to only be about 8" thick or so. Alas, I also have a son who does battle with his bed linens every night, most of which land everywhere except on the bed!
 
Bonnie W. August 22, 2021
I totally agree with Cheryl.
 
Meryl August 15, 2021
I have Eileen Fisher linen sheets. They were soft and comfortable from the first wash.
 
Chris74 August 15, 2021
Honestly, Ikea has me sold! Switching to all of their bedding. Recently bought the NATTJASMIN sheets/pillowcases paired with their VÄGTÅG duvet and the combo is just dreamy. Soft and cozier with each wash! I know the quality (hang dry duvet) isn’t comparable to what is mentioned in this article and comments, but a great budget option nonetheless!
 
Leslie August 15, 2021
What about bamboo, guys? You don't even mention bamboo. I LOVE bamboo, but so far, it seems like they don't last as long as cotton or linen. Or maybe I just bought the wrong brand.
 
[email protected] August 15, 2021
Back in the 80s I wanted to get really good sheets as a young adult. I found Charisma 300 thread count and loved them. My husband almost passed out out from the cost. Then I saw an add in the L. A. Times for a sale on Pratesi which I had read about. I took the plunge and never turned back. I always bought on sale and once you’ve slept on super luxurious sheets, everything else is like cardboard unfortunately. Unfortunately after over 100 years the factory has closed.😖 Restoration Hardware make fabulous linen sheets that I haven’t seen any like them, substantial, soft like Pratesi the will last a lifetime. I am a linen lunatic and really enjoyed this article. If you spend time in bed, get the very best you can afford and take good care of them.
 
Kartoffellöffel August 15, 2021
I've searched for years for the perfect cotton or linen sheets, sourcing from from sellers in Europe and N. America. I prefer pure white flat sheets for both bottom and top, so generously sized sheets are a must. For my money, the two very best brands are Linoto.com for linen, and Red Land Cotton (redlandcotton.com) for cotton. Linoto.com is a minority owned company in New York, with excellent customer service and a top quality product. I especially love their pillow shams. Red Land is based in Alabama turning out 100% American-made sheets with American-grown long staple cotton. If you're of a certain age and long for the crisp percale sheets your mother or grandmother used to put on beds, you will love Red Land Cotton!
 
Hillary August 15, 2021
I recently read about a hotelier in Puglia who makes the beds with percale on the bottom and linen on the top! Isn't that radical?
 
Laura N. August 15, 2021
Nice article. But I’m a little shocked that 64° is considered “polar” at night. 😳 That’s my daytime setting in winter! Night is 54°. Don’t buy a heavy blanket! Turn down the thermostat and layer regular blankets on! So cozy 💚
 
MamaCruz4 August 15, 2021
Wow, can I come live with you folks? My family freaks out if I turn the thermostat below 73° at night! I try to tell them it's easier for THEM to use extra blankets than for me to take EVERYTHING away and still be too hot, but I still get a lot of arguments. I'll take 64°, my Grandma was a quilter and I've still get some of her work around here somewhere.

I'm a fan of linen all the way, totally worth the extra $$$. Like this article says, it's a long-term investment. If linen wraps were good enough for Egyptian Pharaohs, I should be able to make mine last for at least 30-40 years without having to bury them in the sand, right?
 
llhjortsberg August 15, 2021
I am a life long linen fan. I have a Swedish linen blanket my daughter covets so I bought her one before I sent her off to college last year. I also like a high quality percale, but what I absolutely cannot tolerate are flannel sheets! They are soft and tempting when the thermostat is set low in the winter, but I inevitably wake up in a pool of sweat. The worst!!
 
Janis O. August 15, 2021
Maybe the sweet spot is a blend of organic linen/cotton? I hope so because I’m waiting for a set to arrive.
 
Jenny August 15, 2021
I have the Target/Magnolia cotton/linen blend and I really like them. But then I like really crisp sheets like the percale from the 1950{s.
 
Kartoffellöffel August 15, 2021
Like you, I remember crisp percale back in the 50's. I searched high and low for a company still making it, and finally hit pay dirt at Red Land Cotton (redlandcotton.com). They are making percale sheets using the same looms, 100% American-grown cotton, and 100% American labor. Check them out. I have been 100% pleased!
 
Janis O. August 16, 2021
That’s exactly what I have on order. Happy to hear a positive comment from someone who has used them, thanks. Can’t wait for them to arrive.
 
Janis O. August 16, 2021
Sorry, meant my reply for @Jenny re: Magnolia bedding.

Red Land sounds interesting and I’m going to check them out next.
 
Lindi August 15, 2021
I like both, cotton/bamboo is great for our extreme summer nights they are light a nd cool to sleep under a ceiling fan, but in the winter the linen is the go for me. I don't really feel the cold, the Duna has only just gone on rhe bed and I was sleeping with just a top sheet and the duna cover. I find the linen sheets are a little more dense. I have to use satin pillowcases, I have super fine hair so with satin no more bed hair....
 
PaddyValentine August 15, 2021
Recent convert to bamboo/cotton sheets after wearing bamboo/cotton sunshirts for the past decade +. I'll be sticking with the bamboo combo for sure. Now I just hope they are durable.
 
Tina H. August 15, 2021
I have two sets of beautiful linen sheets, from different retailers, both fitted sheets have failed where my husbands feet rest at night. I like the linen but am sorely disappointed.
 
Janet M. August 15, 2021
Sorry to hear this--I just bought a set of linen sheets because my husband can destroy cotton in a relatively short period of time--his feet absolutely don't "rest" at night. I was hoping for more durability, although he has already complained that they aren't as smooth as cotton. I wish sheets were more often sold as singles instead of sets for that reason. I can go through at least 2, maybe 3, bottom sheets and still have serviceable tops. I have some deliciously soft old (at least 50 years) flat cotton percale sheets that live on the double bed in our guest room.
 
Joan August 15, 2021
I still have some pillow cases from long, long ago and I don't know what they are made from (I always guessed percale) but they wash beautifully, come out of the dryer wrinkle free and are so soft! I haven't found anything like that since...until I tried the bamboo sheet selection. Can I say where I got them? Reasonable priced and great color selection. They are really soft, moisture wicking, and have huge fitted pockets with an added thick elastic band. I think these will be good summer and winter.
 
nina August 15, 2021
My current favorite ? Combination bamboo/ cotton sheets fom the Company Store. Softness from the bamboo but some needed heft and durability from the cotton.
 
Mary G. August 15, 2021
Love cotton sheets. I have them on our beds at home and all 5 beds at our AirB&B. People always comment on how wonderful the bedding is. And to shock you all, our bedroom temps during the winter are closer to 60, 10 deg cooler than our living space. Can’t sleep or breath in a hot room. And yes, we live in northern VT!
 
Jenny August 15, 2021
What brand?