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Here are 5 tips to help you tell the difference.
While the terms cotton and linen are often used interchangeably, the two textiles are not the same. How different are they and why does it matter?
The yarn used to spin cotton comes from the cotton plant, or genus Gossypium.
Cotton loves a warm climate and grows well in the southern United States and countries including China, India, Uzbekistan, Brazil, Pakistan and Turkey.
About 160 days after planting, cotton fibers burst from the boll of the plant (where the flowers once were) and are ready for harvesting.
The cotton is then picked from the plant using a machine, either a picker or a stripper. The cotton then goes through a series of mechanized steps to prepare it for spinning into yarn.
Most importantly, linen is spun with fibers from the flax plant, or genus Linum. Flax loves a cool, moist climate and is almost exclusively grown in a microclimate that stretches across Belgium, Northern France, the Netherlands and parts of Northern Ireland.
When grown in its ideal climate, flax requires only 3% of the water cotton needs to grow. And flax needs no artificial irrigation; rainwater is sufficient. It also grows well in poor soil and requires zero pesticides.
The Masters of Linen certification makes it easy to understand whether your linen was crafted from flax grown in Europe with no artificial irrigation and no pesticides.
While cotton comes from the seed pods of the cotton plant, flax fibers are harvested from the interior of the plant's stalk. Flax is, therefore, considered a baste fiber as is hemp and jute.
Approximately 90–110 days after planting, flax blooms white and blue flowers and is ready for harvest. To take full advantage of the entire 3+ meter long stalks, the plants are pulled out of the ground keeping the roots intact.
Then the flax stalks are bundled and left on the field for micro-organisms and moisture to naturally separate the inner fibers form the outer stems of the plant. This is known as dew-retting.
The flax goes through several additional steps, many requiring highly skilled artisans, to remove the fibers from the outer woody stalks and to prepare it for spinning into yarn.
As soon as the flax fibers are woven into yarn, the nomenclature changes from flax to linen.
While cotton is currently the most popular natural fiber, linen is the oldest known textile. Remnants of linen date all the way back to 8000 b.c. Even then, it was considered a luxury textile worn by royalty.
However, when the cotton gin was invented and slave labor was used, the textile landscape changed dramatically. Cotton became inexpensive to produce, was further mechanized and over time, became the most dominant natural fiber.
While linen makes up only 1% of the textile apparel industry, it’s making a comeback for its eco-friendliness and its unique textile performance properties.
The Federal Trade Commission requires every product to be labeled with the content of its makeup. For example, our hemp/linen towellabels read "50% hemp/50% linen."
Take a moment to read the label of the shirt you’re wearing. It's often sewn into the side seam or the seam along the back of the neck. What does the label say? Perhaps, 100% cotton or maybe 60% cotton and 40% polyester?
If a label reads 100% linen, the textile should be composed solely of flax fibers.
Is the fabric smooth with a very consistent weave or does it have a more obvious texture?
Cotton is often smooth and uniformly woven.
Linen, on the other hand has a stiffer, more textured hand-feel, especially earlier on. And if you look closely, you can see the linen yarns meander between thick and thin.
How does it age?
If your textile seems like it is becoming thinner over time, it’s likely cotton.
If it seems like your textile is getting softer and more supple over time, then it’s likely linen. Linen, when cared for properly, is capable of lasting up to three decades whereas cotton typically lasts 4-5 years.
Does your fabric crease when scrunched in your hand?
If so, it’s likely linen. Linen wrinkles more than cotton, especially when new.
As you break in your linen textiles, you’ll notice the wrinkles begin to relax as the material further softens.
How much does it cost?
Linen is known as a premium textile. If grown responsibly and ethical labor standards are adhered to during manufacturing, linen comes with a premium price tag.
However, because of linen’s longevity, the cost over time is less.
Cotton is less expensive up front. Producing cotton takes less time, is simpler and requires less human-powered labor.
There is also ample supply of cotton fibers and finished cotton textiles bringing the price down. The supply of linen, on the other hand, is limited.
We’re partial to linen, but that wasn’t always the case. Cotton is a natural go-to textile, especially in the US. Its general performance is decent, it’s easy to find and it’s a very familiar textile throughout most of the world.
However, the more we learned about linen, including its longevity, eco-friendliness and unique performance qualities, we found ourselves on the side of "linen is better than cotton" in most circumstances.
For example, according to the European Federation for Linen and Hemp, “Across its lifecycle a linen shirt requires 6.4 liters of water compared to 2,700 liters for a cotton shirt.”
What is the difference between linen and cotton? Oh, so many things…from the fibers points of origin to the harvesting and manufacturing practices, to the durability, look, feel and performance of the finished textile.
Interested in learning more about linen’s performance qualities? We’ve written about them in detail here “Why Linen is the Best Travel Towel Material.”
Did you learn something in this article? Let us know your thoughts!
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