Linen vs Cotton: What makes the best summer shirt?

Linen vs Cotton: What makes the best summer shirt?

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We've probably all been there: A wedding in summer, a company get-together, a hot summer day outside an airconed office or inside a non-airconed office. 

Usually we dress in a cotton suit, or a little more casual in jeans or chinos and a cotton shirt - if we're lucky we can wear a cotton t-shirt or a cotton polo. We all know the stains by our armpits or collars and the shirt sticking to our body from the sweat.

Nowadays about a third of all clothing is made of cotton and the majority of the remainder from polyester. Mostly, because it's cheap. Fast-fashion has boosted the use of cheap materials at the expense of mother nature.

So our choice based on the two most popular fabrics is mainly between cotton and polyester - and sweating in polyester...well.


So the question is:  

Beach wedding

Is cotton the best fabric to wear in summer?

To make it brief: No!


But what is a better alternative to cotton in summer


As real linen fanboys-and girls we need some science to decide objectively what makes the best summer fabric

Cotton vs. Linen

Today "the best" is certainly over-used. We define the best summer fabric as a combination of comfort, look and sustainability.


It would greatly help to add ethical aspects to the equation but it is impossible to generalize ethical conduct based on the geography fabrics mostly come from.


Comfort in summer

For comfort summer fabrics should be breathable (permeability to air), light, thermal resistance and absorbing moisture (or simply put our sweat). To measure the comfort of cotton, linen, polyester and viscose we rely on a study from CELC (please find all data here).


1. Breathability

The breathability is measured as RET (water-vapour resistance) - m²Pa/W in a so called skin model test (ISO 11092 standard). The lower the RET score the more the fabric lets perspiration pass through. Linen scores the lowest which in this case shows that linen allows your body's sweat to pass through the fabrics easily. 


100% Linen (long fibre): 3.84 

100% Cotton: 3.86

50% Linen/ 50% Cotton: 4.37

100& PES (Polyester): 4.7

100% Viscose: 4.73


2. Permeability of fabrics to air

The permeability to air is expressed in mm/s and expresses how ventilating a fabric is. Linen along with viscose scores the highest underscoring the natural cooling effect that linen is known for.


100% Cotton: 499

50% Linen/ 50% Cotton: 786

100& PES (Polyester): 958

100% Viscose: 2293

100% Linen (long fibre): 2294


3. Absorption of water (or sweat)

The higher the absorption of water the less your apparel feels soaked or damp. The absorption capacity (instant or slow)  and drop diffusion (direction and distribution) from linen is the highest followed by viscose. Linen also dries really quickly which is nice after a wash or when you get a drink spilled over you in a beach club (unintentially).


100% Linen (long fibre): 0.388 

100% Cotton: 0.386

100% Viscose: 0.340 

50% Linen/ 50% Cotton: 0.316

100& PES (Polyester): 0.314


4. Insulation 

Insulation measures the ability of a fabric to retain (body) heat. It would appear that a good insulation score does not necessarily add points to the best summer fabrics. Linen ranks second for retaining heat (PES 1; cotton last).

It means that linen offers great comfort in summer but also in winter. From our experience the looser it is from the body the cooler it keeps you in summer while tighter apparels are warming in winter.


5. IMT Comfort Index

According to the IMT Comfort Index the ratio between insulation and breathability indicates what fabrics are most comfortable to wear. 100% Linen scores the highest comfort with an index of 0.388 followed by cotton with a score of 0.386 and PES being last.


Result: Linen is the most comfortable wear in summer 

With regards to comfort linen scores best - on ventilation, breathability, comfort, liquid absorption and moisture management while still being able to retain heat. 



Look - cotton vs. linen

Looks are subjective so there will not be a winner in this category. We will however visualize the differences between the look our top dog cotton and the most comfortable (summer) fabrics - 100% linen.


1. Elegance 


"Elegance is the only beauty that never fades." - Audrey Hepburn

When we see men or women in formal wear the pieces worn are most of the time made from cotton. With very high thread counts and regularity, cotton certainly is a great choice for formal wear. 


Formal wear - cotton 

When it gets hot it is often unbearable to wear cotton suits. That leads to a very understandable down-dressing (we all have our polos and t-shirts) or "soaked" cotton shirts.

 Man wearing a cotton t-shirt in summer


Like hardly any other fiber, linen is associated with summer in the Mediterranean - the picture of a French vinemaker overlooking his or her vineyards and drinking a rosé wine with friends as the sun sets - or an Italian casanova on his boat with a few beautiful ladies ankering in a little bay on Capri. 


Friends overlooking vineyards in linen shirts


Quite the stereotypes but you get the picture. 

Linen - even fine linen comes with little irregularities and less thread-count (a little see-through) that might not make it the perfect fabrics for a black-tie event. 

However, it comes with a more effortless elegance good for those who want to dress up without looking too corporate. 

Even in hot temperatures linen shirts can be worn without overheating. So linen shirts are an elegant alternative to polos or t-shirts in hot temperatures.


White Linen Shirt


2. Allrounder linen vs. cotton made for specific occasions  

The fashion industry has used cotton to market a huge selection of different apparel pieces - from t-shirts all the way to smokings, from bikinis all the way to coats.

That way we got used to wear different pieces of clothing for different occasions - leading us to buy clothes for many occasions, changing amany times during the week or even within a day. We also need to plan ahead in the morning to dress accordingly for the day's different occasions.


Cotton's large range


Linen on the other side is a less known and still lesser marketed material who has not been put in boxes by the fashion industry. We claim it is the ultimate allrounder that frees you from deciding what to wear in the morning.

Just wear a fine linen shirt and a fine linen pant (coming soon) and your good to go for almost any occasion. For some inspiration have a look at our linen style-guide here

Depending on what you combine it with it always looks effortless yet elegant - be it on the beach, in the office or on a rooftop dinner. We call it the smart natural look.


Woman in Linen Shirt


Since linen also does not take on odors easily, linen shirts are also great for summer vacations as you can pack lightly. One linen shirt works for up to one week easily - different occasions included.


Result: Linen is more universal than cotton

Cotton is great for specific looks - either casual or formal wear. Cotton is a very regular fabrics that give its wearer a look of perfection.

Linen clothes, like shirts however are great for those who want to dress up in summer without looking corporate.

With linen you need a lesser range of clothes as it goes well for most occasions - meaning you do not have to think in the morning what to wear depending on what the day brings. Great for holidays - but also for everyday piece of mind.


What is more sustainable - cotton or linen? 

1. The good, the bad and the environment 

There is a lot of talk about sustainability but for customers who care it really is hard to tell which apparel is truly sustainable.


According to a newer study by Centrocot (find the Italian only version here) analysing linen's supply chain comes to the conclusion that its average environmental impact is low compared to other traditional fabrics like cotton, wool, polyester and viscose.


2. Especially cotton's thirst is immense

According to a peer-reviewed study of Textile Exchange with its organic Cotton Life Style Assessment (LCA) from 2014 compared to the LCA from Cotton Inc. a conventional t-shirt requires 8,200 liters of water (2,168 gallons) while an organic one would require 700 liters of water (186 gallons). A pair of jeans requires 37,500 liters of water (9,910 gallons) while organic ones require 3,500 liters of water (932 gallons).


Unlike cotton,

  • linen requires minimal to none irrigation (European Flax and Masters of Linen certified linen requires none)

  • linen requires minimal chemicals (flax is a robust plant that is cultivated in crop rotation and acts as a fertilizer while  cotton's monoculture eradicates the soil)

  • is durable, biodegradable, GMO-free and every part of the plant is used 

  • looks good even when it is not ironed and needs a wash after several days only (does not take on odors easily)


In another article we will dig deeper into different textiles' environmental footprint.


Result: Linen is more sustainable than cotton

Studies proved the outstanding comfort of linen - particularly in summers as well as its low environmental impact.

Taking the relatively high initial costs of linen (it lasts for long and will be worn a lot) aside the style factor is subjective.

Linen is for those who want to look elegant yet in a more effortless and less corporate way.


So after all this reading: Will you join team linen? 

Friends in Linen Shirts


Head over to our shop and have a look at our shirts here.

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