Home Decor

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

The great bedding debate rages on.

May 10, 2022
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 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. We even tested almost a dozen sets (!) to find the best ones. 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, smooth, and looks slightly shiny. Both are highly wrinkle-resistant, even if you leave them in the dryer long after they're done.

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 stiff.

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


Why We Love Each

Caroline, the Cotton Fiend:

So before we get into it: 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 crisp, white sheets at a hotel, it was probably a set of cotton percale 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 percent 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 washes) and they release so much dust. I find myself wiping down all the surfaces in my bedroom constantly when linen is on my bed.

Arati, Linen's Biggest Fan:

I wasn’t always a linen fan, preferring cool, crisp, doesn’t-try-too-hard cotton. However, over the last few years, as the demand for linen bedding grew (making it more accessible) and brands began getting better and better with colors, weight, and durability, I started shuffling over to the other camp.

So, why do I love linen so much? Well, first, I love linen’s breathability, despite its weightiness. The airflow through the weave leaves them cool and dry no matter how long they are in use—and I would know because my partner and I are both hot sleepers (not always fun, but hey, at least we’re compatible).

Linen sheets have also taught me an important life lesson, which is to embrace the imperfect. The feature I first reacted most viscerally to—the creases and wrinkles—became a prompt for me to not sweat the small stuff. Linen wrinkles—it’s what the fabric is supposed to do.

Oh, and can I just say saturated colors just work so much better on linen? Prints don’t quite catch on, but I was never a printed sheet gal anyway.


What Could Be Better

Caroline:

Cotton may be my favorite material to sleep in, but aesthetically, linen sure is beautiful. The casual crinkles, the marled fibers, the effortlessness 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—and I'm not one to press my sheets.

The other major drawback to cotton sheets is that they don’t last nearly as long as linen sheets, or at least mine haven't. Cotton sheets usually max out at about two years of regular use, but I've heard that good linen sheets can last 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. Look, linen sheets are never going to be the same kind of soft as cotton, so I’ve learned not to 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 who might run too hot at night. 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 up your budget, 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.)

So, yes, I’m what I’d call a realistic lover of linen. And because I see all sides of its personality, I’d like to think that just makes me a more cautious and pragmatic linen shopper.


Our Favorites Cotton and Linen Sheets

1. Brooklinen Classic Percale Sheets, $49.50+

Photo by Brooklinen

“I have several sets of the percale bedding from Brooklinen, and they're truly reliable, durable, and always crisp. I recommend Brooklinen for anyone looking to invest in their sleep and bedding. It's got a range of colors and patterns, including seasonal limited-edition runs like a limoncello-inspired yellow and a floral watercolor designed by artist Alexandra Karamallis. You can buy them as sheet sets or à la cart, so if you want to start with just a duvet or just a few pillowcases, you can surely do so.”—Caroline

2. Schoolhouse Gingham Cotton Percale Sheet Set, $159+

Photo by Schoolhouse

“Is there anyone who isn't drawn in by the rustic charm of gingham? Not me. This 100 percent cotton percale set in timeless mini checks will add comfort and polish to any bedroom. Available in two colors—Russet and Juniper—this set will go with any style, any space. For extra flair, throw on this vintage-y cotton quilt and these popcorn chenille shams.”—Arati

3. L.L.Bean Pima Cotton Percale Sheet Set, $119+

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 L.L.Bean does it.”—Caroline

4. Parachute Linen Sheet Set, $189+

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.”—Arati

5. Hawkins New York Stonewashed Linen Bedding, $78+

Photo by Julia Gartland

“Hawkins does jewel-toned linen like no one else (I've been looking for an excuse to treat myself to that gorgeous rust! Or was it terracotta? Maybe mustard?). In the end though, no matter what color you get, you're assured supple, breathable linen that lasts and lasts.”—Arati

6. Flax Home Linen Separates, $80+

Photo by Flax Home

“This linen really stands out for its softness and weight—which means it's somehow both cozy and cool at the same time (reason enough for me to get this linen bathrobe in a sunny marigold)! And while I have a fondness for the pebble stripes variant, what I love most is mixing and matching colors. My preferred combo? A fitted sheet in Dove, a Sage flat sheet, and pillows in Pebble Stripes. The brand also has a 30-night return policy, which means that if you don't love it, it'll take it back, no questions asked. Hi, cotton lovers, thinking of converting yet?”—Arati


This post was updated in May 2022 with more of our favorite cotton and linen sheets.

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.

  • Gammy
    Gammy
  • Rosalind Paaswell
    Rosalind Paaswell
  • Debbie Riordan Dionne
    Debbie Riordan Dionne
  • Bonnie Wiggins
    Bonnie Wiggins
  • D.E.
    D.E.
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.

44 Comments

Gammy May 16, 2022
Very interesting comments, thank you all! Have been wanting to try bamboo for some time, but don't know how they will hold up under constant use. First a question.... does anyone have the same issue I do with the band on the flat sheet that during washing and drying, insists upon "pleating" back and forth down the length of the sheet? Even though I remove from washer and gently tug to straighten the band before running through the dryer, they ALWAYS fold back and forth across the band. I also will IRON the band, hoping to fix any fiber memory, but alas, next time thru the washer, they just "pleat" again. BTW, sheets are 100% cotton sateen.
 
Rosalind P. January 23, 2022
NOT worth reading. Repetitive and annoying pop up ads. One of them practically took over my whole screen REPEATEDLY. It was animated and repeatedly covered all text. And did I say repeatedly?
Much more of this it's goodbye Food52. Are you ladies even paying attention?
 
Debbie R. January 23, 2022
Very useful article that helps your readers sort out all the different choices with a helpful, concise chart and working links. However, your 3 week timetable for changing your sheets was a shocker to this older reader who loves to climb into a freshly charged bed each week.
 
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.
 
Katherine O. January 15, 2022
I buy my duvets from Denmark also and as I used to live in England, I have duvet covers that are 200cm x 200cm. They can be found!
 
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.
 
Katherine O. January 15, 2022
Most sellers offer single sheets. I don't buy sets for the same reason and have always found singles: Parachute, Linoto, etc.