Skip to content

What is Linen? Everything You Need to Know About Linen Fabrics

what is linen - bedroom with a linen comforter

House of Harvee

Linen has been used in the home for so long, it’s turned into a generic term for bedding and towels. But the real thing is far more specific: true linen describes fabric made from the flax plant. The flax fibers used to make linen are long, resulting in a very different fabric than cotton, explains Jessica Mason, founder of Piglet, a direct-to-consumer homewares company, specializing in high-quality linens.

Meet the Expert

Jessica Mason is the founder of Piglet, a homewares brand that specializes in high-quality linens. She started the company in 2017.

Linen fabrics are durable and typically last longer than cotton fabrics made from shorter fibers. The longer fibers also make linen heavier and stiffer but also incredibly breathable. Linen also softens over time, and the construction makes it very durable and resistant to tearing. Here's everything you need to know about this versatile fabric.

Why Choose Linen?

Because linen requires little fertilizer and can grow using mainly rainwater, unlike cotton which is a ‘thirsty’ crop, it’s typically made in a very sustainable way, says Mason. Linen is actually considered a “carbon sink,” or something that absorbs more carbon than it releases. (Both cotton and linen, however, take far less energy to produce than synthetic fabrics.)

Linen products also tend to be more expensive than similar items made from materials like polyester and cotton since its labor-intensive to produce. But since linen typically outlasts other fabrics, it’s an investment-worthy option that you can enjoy in your home for as long as 30 years. 

How to Keep Linen Looking Good

what is linen - linen couch with white accents
Anne Sage

Linen is also relatively easy to care for. It can be machine-washed on either hot or cold and tumble-dried, something that Mason notes helps speed up the softening process. Regular detergent and stain treatments are fine, though you should avoid bleach, even on white linen fabrics. 

Even out of the dryer, linen will often look wrinkly and may also wrinkle easily with use. Again, this is due to the stiffer construction. If you must, you can iron linen fabrics, though you have to keep it damp as you do so. But many linen devotees love the wrinkled look. Because linen is such a timeless fabric, a nicely rumpled linen bedspread or tablecloth feels both classic and laid-back. 

How to Bring Linen Into Your Home

While linen is often synonymous with, of course, our bed linens, there are many ways to incorporate the fabric into your home decor. You can find linen undyed in a variety of natural colors, but even dyed fabrics in deeper or brighter hues often still have an organic feel that matches linen’s relaxed look. Whether you choose bright pops of rich color or muted neutrals, a well-cared-for linen piece can become a part of your home for years to come. 

In the Bedroom

what is linen - white linen bedroom in a beachy locale
Pure Salt Interiors

The obvious way to use linen in the bedroom is, of course, as bedding: Linen sheets, quilts, and duvets. Mason explains that the breathability of linen makes it excellent for bedding, “It helps to keep our body temperature very consistent while we sleep,” she says, “No night sweats!”

This makes it great for summer, but heavier linen will also keep you plenty warm in winter. Linen also doesn’t have that crisp, cool feel of cotton sheets, which may sound like a drawback but consider this: When you jump in bed on a cold winter’s night, sheets won’t feel cold to the touch, either. And, again, linen resists rips and tears, making it an excellent choice for one of our most-used fabrics. 

If you like the look of linen but want to stick with cotton sheets, you can also opt for a linen duvet, blanket, or even a few throw pillows into your bedding. 

In the Living Room 

what is linen - blue linen sofa in white living room
Bespoke Only

When looking beyond bedding, you may have to do a little research before buying decor that claims to be ‘linen.’ For example, ‘linen weave’ couches are often linen-polyester blends or 100% polyester that just resembles linen’s woven construction. Linen can also be used to describe a color that resembles natural, undyed linen, so a linen sisal rug, for example, is likely another material altogether. These aren’t necessarily bad things -- things inspired by the look and color of linen can look great, but you do want to be aware of when you’re getting the real deal vs. something simply inspired by the fabric. 

If you want to add real linen to your living space, pillows and throw blankets are a great option. Mason points out linen curtains also look great: it feels relaxed and still allows some diffuse natural light to fill the space. Like with linen bedding, all these items are machine-washable and easy to care for. 

In the Kitchen 

What is linen - Linen Towel on a stove top
Naked Kitchens

Eating and cooking have gotten more and more laid back over the years. Few people expect fine china at dinner parties, and no one wants to waste time polishing silver. Linen napkins and tablecloth perfectly match the modern approach to dining: unfussy but still elevated. Adding a linen runner to a table, or even wrapping up fresh bread in a linen cloth, can make any ordinary meal feel fancy but not stuffy.

Other popular uses for linen in the kitchen include aprons, placemats, and oven mitts. Linen can also be more than a pretty face: linen can be an alternative to single-use products. Linen produce bags, for example, can hold food at the grocery store and in the fridge. Linen bread bags are an alternative to storing bakery-fresh bread in paper bags. The porous material wicks away moisture, keeping bread fresher longer. 

Whatever you use linen for in the kitchen, you can know it will look good while still being easy to care for—simply throw it in the wash, dry, and use again, no need to worry about dry cleaning or ironing.