Linen vs. Cotton - first, how are they alike?
Linen and cotton are both plant fibers; they take high heat and steam well, burn with a smell like paper (not surprising, since American money is a blend of the two), and crumble to a fine, white ash. They can both be used for clothing, and come in weights from fine and sheer for hankies up to heavy canvas. But they feel and wear very differently, and it's mostly due to where in the plant they come from.
Cotton - Gossypium hirsutum
(from goz, Arabic for 'something soft' and hirsutum, meaning hairy)
Cotton comes from the boll, or fruit, of the cotton plant, and is pretty much Nature's packing peanut. Its job is to cushion the seeds as they make their journey away from the mother plant. It is soft, fairly absorbent, and the fibers may be up to about an inch long. Each fiber is one long cell extending from the seed coat - the largest cell in the plant kingdom.
When the bolls are ripe, they are harvested either by hand or by machine, and put through a cotton gin to remove seeds and organic matter. Then the fiber can be spun into thread or yarn. Though cotton was originally a small tree, most farmers plant it as an annual crop. It's been farmed in India for over 7,000 years.
Naturally cotton only comes in a few colors - white, brown, and green. A very light blue shade has been reported from Uzbekistan, but it's not yet grown commercially. White is now overwhelmingly preferred so it can be dyed.
Cotton is native to both the New World and the Old; brown cotton fibers were used by the Aztecs as currency and made into nets by the ancient Peruvians. Surprisingly, the dark fibers were preferred; they were harder for the fish to see in the water.
The lint - the cleaned cotton fiber - makes up about 35-40% of the crop, with the majority of the rest being cotton seeds. These are pressed for their oil or ground up for animal food. The amount of trash - other organic matter that ends up mixed in - can vary from none in hand-picked cotton or up to 20% of the crop with certain harvesters. Eli Whitney's cotton gin cleaned the fibers and removed seeds and trash; it revolutionized the industry since each one could easily replace about fifty workers a day. It's grown to be the most widely used fiber in the world (no pun intended).
Linen - Linum usitatissimum
(Linum meaning linen, in Latin, and usitatissimum, meaning 'most useful')
Linen comes from the flax plant, and the source of its fibers aren't so readily apparent as cotton's. Instead of poufy bolls, flax only has small dry fruits packed with seeds - flaxseeds. Yes, this is the flaxseed and flaxseed oil you see in the health store; it's one of, if not the best source of alpha-lineolenic acid, an omega-3. It grows easily all over Europe and Asia, but the finest linen comes from places where it stays cool and damp - most notably Ireland, but also Scotland and Belgium. France and Italy produce fair linen, but Czechoslovakia and China, though large produces, are too warm to make such fine linens as grow further north.
So where in the plant is the linen? Actually, the linen fibers are hiding in the skin of the stalk. They are the bast fibers - sturdy strands that help keep flax plants upright in the sun and wind, and run the length of the plant. To harvest flax plants for linen, they must be uprooted, dried, rippled (removing seeds) retted (sunk in running water or laid on damp grass until the softer tissues have been decayed), scutched (any especially tough or broken bits taken off with a blunt blade), heckled (combed out and the long and short fibers separated), and then spun. It's a lot more work than cotton, but only takes a fraction of the nutrients and pesticides, making it far more eco-friendly. The best linen is pulled up by hand, so the fibers are as long as possible.
Line is what you grow flax for - long, strong, shiny fibers that can spin up into a fine, strong thread. Since the fibers are longer (from one to six inches) they make for a stronger thread with less ends poking out, meaning less fuzzies or pilling. They get stronger when wet, and are tough enough from their life supporting the flax plant to withstand a lot of abuse. They are often spun slightly damp to make a very strong and shiny thread.
Tow refers to the short, broken fibers of linen left over from scutching; if you've ever heard someone described as tow-headed or flaxen-haired, this is why. It's a light, soft golden yellow. Since the fibers are short, they spin up into a rather coarser yarn that is not as strong and are more of a byproduct than a reason to grow flax.
(Egyptian linen bag from the 12th Dynasty, filled with rolls of linen)
Fragments of spun linen found in a Georgian cave on the Caucasus date back to 36,000 years ago, making it the oldest natural fiber. The Shroud of Turin, the sails of Captain Cook, and Egyptian mummy wrappings were all made from linen. It was used on every plane in the RAF during WWII, for its lightness and strength.
Linen can absorb up to 20% of its own weight in moisture while still feeling dry to the touch. It gets softer every time it gets washed, and is about 30% stronger than cotton. It's slightly heavier, all else being equal, and is usually spun up slightly thicker than cotton to showcase the texture of the cloth. It can, and historically has, been spun incredibly fine.
Linen is virtually lint free, non-static, non-allergenic, naturally insect-repellent and gives UV protection. Its lightness and softness made it a natural for undergarments and bed sheets before cotton was introduced. Whether crisp or soft, linen has a distinctive feel that is cool and dry to the touch and very luxurious.
|From around the seeds||From the plant stem|
|Absorbent- up to 25 times its weight in water||Wicking - can hold 20% of its weight in water before feeling wet|
|Takes little manpower, but much spraying to grow||Takes manpower to harvest, but 1/5 of the pesticides and fertilizers to grow|
|Fairly soft and fairly sturdy||Starts crisp, then softens further than cotton. Very sturdy|
|Woven into - crisp percale, soft jersey, toweling, and denim - very versatile||Woven into the lightest cambric, sheeting, canvas, toweling, even high-quality burlap - very versatile|
|Fabric is very smooth and uniform; a basic blank canvas||Fabrics often show small 'slubs' unevenness in the threads that add subtle texture, like silk dupioni|
|Short fibers and affinity for water can produce weak fabric, lint, harbor allergens or bacteria||Long fibers produce little to no lint and are non-static, insect repellent, non allergenic and fairly stain-resistant. They also have antibacterial properties.|
|Matte finish, sometimes brushed up to be fuzzy (flannel)||Soft luster; higher if ironed on the front of the piece. No fuzz|
|High shrinkage||Moderate shrinkage|
In summary, they're both great fibers, and they're well suited for different things. Linen may be a bit more expensive, but for the strength, durability, environmental footprint, beauty, and softness, it's well worth the extra cost. We use Irish linen for all of our handkerchiefs and linen goods, and we'll never switch. Biased? Maybe - but give it a chance and we think you will be too.