Cotton, Linen or Silk: Which Fabric Is Best for Sleeping?
When you think about the fact that you spend an average of 2,920 hours per year in your bed, it becomes apparent that finding the perfect bed sheets is crucial. The only problem is, shopping for a set can become incredibly overwhelming. What colour should you get? What about the thread count? How much money are you willing to spend?
But before diving into thread counts and aesthetics, the most important question you should be asking is: what fabric should you choose?
Not sure where to start? We’ve broken down the pros and cons of the three most popular fibres - cotton, linen and silk - below, so you can spend less time deciding and more time getting those quality zzz’s.
What's the difference between cotton, linen and silk bed sheets?
Cotton is the most common of the bedding counterparts as it's affordable, soft and easy to source. Although the use of linen predates the discovery of cotton, the latter has since surpassed it in popularity due to the ease and high volume of cultivation. Importantly, the quality of cotton varies significantly—a factor that is born out of the different lengths of the material’s fibres that come in either short-staple or long-staple, with long-staple resulting in a more luxurious product.
On the highest end of the spectrum, long-staple cottons like Pima and Egyptian round out the strongest and most expensive kinds of cotton, with the least chance of pulling or lint accumulation. In every case, however, all cotton fabrics are relatively durable and chemically stable, meaning they can withstand the chemicals in human sweat, soaps and detergents. This is owed to the moisture-absorbent nature of cotton, that will wick away any trace of moisture from your skin.
The significant downside to cotton is that its non-organic variety can be extremely draining on our environment—from the pesticides and insecticides, to the compounds used during the production and dying process. These chemicals inevitably find themselves in our water, soil and air if not disposed of safely.
Moreover, cotton also requires huge amounts of water for production—it can take over 20,000 litres of water to produce a single kilogram of cotton—from which one t-shirt and a single pair of jeans may be made.
Should you choose to snooze in cotton, be sure it is an organic variety that's also ethically made, and keep these considerations in mind.
Even though it has been available for centuries, silk remains one of the most coveted textiles for bedding due to its supremely soft feeling and high price tag.
A lot of work goes into the production of silk—it's born from a delicate string-like substance that's derived from a small and rare insect called the silk worm. The harvesting process is laborious and expensive; the insects must be killed and their silk is wound up tightly enough in order to withstand the weaving process that follows. The resulting material is comfortable, breathable and antimicrobial. Yet unlike its cotton competitor, silk does not absorb natural moisture from your face and hair.
Other notable cons of silk come down to cost and care. Silk bedding demands handwashing—at least for the first few times of use—and must then be washed on cool, delicate cycles and only with gentle detergent.
The cellulose fibres that grow inside the stalks of the flax plant—from which flax linen is derived—are harvested and spun into linen, technically categorising our third (and most preferred!) alternative as a vegetable.
First cultivated some 8,000 years ago, linen is the oldest of the three textiles. Flax plants grow in subtropical climates, making it little wonder that some of the finest flax originates in France. Linen is as simple to look after as cotton, only unlike cotton—which may become threadbare as its fibres weaken—this third textile is much more durable and improves with each wash, rounding out the greatest longevity and cost-per-wear out of the three fabrics.
With silk—one of the most delicate textiles on the market—you'll find one accidental snag can completely spoil the fabric. On the other hand, linen is produced for wear and tear, making it difficult to ruin.
Of the three offerings, linen is the low maintenance textile par excellence that only improves with wear and wash. Not only will your linen bedding look more lustrous as time passes, but it will soften up with age, too.
Each fabric is breathable, yet linen contains a higher moisture absorbency than cotton and silk combined. Linen demands less resources in its production, making it a comparatively eco-friendlier and more sustainable fabric than its competitors.
Unlike cotton, with its excessive demands for water, or silk harvesting, which kills millions of rare silk worms, flax plants are the most environmentally-friendly and ethically conscious of the three.