After testing four sets of highly rated linen sheets on our own beds, washing and drying them 12 times to test for long-term wear, and diving deep into user reviews, we think that if you want to buy a set right now you should get West Elm’s Belgian Flax Linen Sheets.
The West Elm sheets are softer than some of the sets we tried, they feel luxuriously airy to wrap yourself up in, and they’re comfortable in both hot and cool temperatures. Compared with other linen sheets, they receive fewer troubling complaints about wearing thin after a few years. They’re among the most reasonably priced sets we’ve found, too, and you can pick them up for even less during one of West Elm’s frequent bedding sales.
Rough Linen sheets are crazy-expensive (around $160 for one queen sheet when we checked), but they’re popular among linen lovers. We found them a little grainier against the skin than the West Elm set, but their construction is nicer. If you have the cash, these sheets could be worth the investment for a couple of reasons. Rough Linen sells only flat sheets—you can use one as a bottom sheet folded with hospital corners—so you can rotate the top and bottom sheets for more-even wear. (Keep in mind, however, that we have read at least one complaint about these sheets developing small holes.) Because the sheets are sold individually rather than in a set, you could just buy a top sheet and shams but use a more durable or less expensive fitted cotton sheet to get that airy linen top layer without fretting about the more heavily used bottom sheet wearing thin. A queen-size top sheet and two pillowcases will set you back around $240 at this writing.
Although many people think of linen sheets as a buy-it-for-life purchase, our research revealed durability issues with a lot of modern linen sheets. Your ancestors might have slept on a set for 50 years, but you should consider today’s linen sheets more of a luxury purchase than a long-term investment. We didn’t notice any troublesome signs indicating that any of our tested sets were wearing thin or developing holes—but we washed them only 12 times, a process that can’t simulate the wear of years of use.
In preparing this guide we spoke with Shannon Maher, a former product designer for The Company Store and currently an assistant professor in the Textile Development and Marketing department at the Fashion Institute of Technology. For some insider perspective on what makes great linen, we spoke with Hank Patterson, owner of the luxury linen towel company Deck Towel.
We didn’t find any comparative reviews for linen sheets. So we looked closely at the offerings and user reviews on the sites of Amazon, Bed Bath & Beyond, Costco, Macy’s, Target, and medium and small retailers such as Garnet Hill, Restoration Hardware, Rough Linen, and West Elm to see which sets people loved and hated. We also combed through user reviews on Reddit and Apartment Therapy to get a sense of people’s experiences with sheets from various brands.
Preethi Gopinath has worked for 20 years as a textile designer. Among other things, she has designed bed linens for Spring Industries and Designerie, and taught textile-science courses in FIT’s Textile Development and Marketing department as an adjunct professor. She also wrote our full guide to cotton sheets. Christine Cyr Clisset sews with linen and has observed how good and bad linen respond to long-term wear and multiple washes. She edits The Sweethome’s bedding guides and has also written reviews of sewing machines, blenders, and a range of kitchen appliances and tools for the site.
If you know that you like the feel and old-world European charm of linen, you might like linen sheets. Take a cue from your wardrobe: If you like wearing linen, you’ll probably enjoy sleeping on it.
Linen wicks moisture from the body well—even better than cotton does—so it will keep you feeling dry but comfortably warm both in summer and winter. It’s a great option if you sleep like a furnace and your partner is always freezing (or vice versa), because it does a great job of regulating temperature.
Whereas cotton sheets can feel either crisp and cool (in the case of percale) or silky and warm (as with sateen), linen has an airy feel but the fabric also has some weight to it (like a very light blanket). The fabric’s texture grabs onto your body and keeps it in place. The effect is kind of like sleeping in a lovely summer breeze.
Linen isn’t for everyone. If you like silky-smooth sheets, linen may feel too grainy or scratchy against your skin. It will soften up after many washes, but achieving the same smoothness you get immediately with cotton percale and sateen sheets takes years.
If you hate wrinkled bedding, skip linen (unless you have a staff to iron your sheets). It wrinkles easily and will never be totally smooth without ironing. If you prefer crisp-looking bedding, we suggest percale sheets. If you want bedding with a buttery drape and a soft luster, go for sateen sheets.
If you have calloused feet, snaggy toenails, or pets that like to claw your bedding, linen might not wear well for you. It would be a bummer to invest in expensive sheets that quickly develop holes. At the moment you can get especially high-quality, durable cotton sheets for $150 and reasonably good budget ones for around $50.
As with good cotton sheets, linen sheets should be comfortable, durable, easy to care for, and relatively affordable.
The fibers used to make linen come from the stem of the flax plant. The resulting fabric is strong and breathable. Linen is even better than cotton at pulling moisture off the skin and allowing it to evaporate, which is why linen helps you stay cool in muggy, hot weather.
Historically, the best linen comes from Europe, specifically Belgium and Ireland. Lithuania is also known for good-quality linen. Flax grows best in temperate climates (while cotton thrives in hotter places like Texas, Egypt, and Turkey). Belgium in particular is known for its high-quality flax because of its climate and soil conditions.
But not all “Belgian linen” is really made in Belgium, and companies often use the term to market inferior fabric. Frequently, the flax is grown in Belgium but the fabric is woven and sewn into sheets in places such as China or India. That in itself isn’t bad. But linen fabric produced in other parts of the world may or may not contain 100 percent Belgian flax. We’ve read complaints about many modern linen sheets thinning or developing holes within a year to a few years, which could indicate low-quality fibers. “If that happens when the sheets are not that old, it would be a quality issue stemming from the fiber and yarn stage,” FIT’s Shannon Maher explained in an email. Maher went on to say that you “can experience ‘thinning’ of the bottom sheet with all fabrications over time but sheets with better quality fiber, yarns, and construction will provide a longer life.” Some retailers list their sheets as Belgian flax linen, as West Elm does with its sheets.
Fabric treatments also affect the long-term wear of linen sheets. Linen is a notably durable material, but some treatments that manufacturers use to soften the texture can weaken the fibers and decrease durability. For instance, you’ll often see “vintage wash” on labels; similar to the process of distressing jeans, this treatment gives the fabric a worn look and a softer feel. Linen sheets don’t naturally feel that soft until after years of washing. To combat wrinkling and shrinkage, as well as to increase softness, manufacturers usually apply finishes to the fabric. The finishes allow the sheets to come out of washing and drying with fewer wrinkles and a tendency not to shrink too much. If you pull out new linen sheets from their packaging and they feel especially soft, it’s because they have finishes that are making them feel that way. After successive washes, some of the treatment will come off. If you find that your sheets are getting rougher after multiple washes, it’s likely because those finishes are wearing away.
Like good cotton sheets, linen sheets will typically soften over many washes. The joke goes that linen sheets are really soft—after 10 years of use! Ideally, good-quality linen sheets should last 15 to 20 years (good cotton sheets should last 10 to 15 years). But again, we’ve read discouraging comments about modern linen sheets wearing thin much more quickly.
Manufacturers don’t advertise linen sheets with a thread count. They calculate thread count by adding up the vertical warp and horizontal weft yarns in a square inch of fabric. The finer the yarns, the more that will fit into a square inch, resulting in a smoother and more durable fabric. Linen yarns are thicker than cotton ones, so fewer fit in a square inch, and the resulting thread count would look dismally low. Hank Patterson, owner of linen towel company Deck Towel, told us that linen thread counts generally range between 80 and 120. By comparison, high-quality cotton percale sheets range between 250 and 300; sateen, between 300 and 600. The lower thread count is why linen sheets feel rougher than cotton ones—the yarns are thicker and therefore more pronounced in the fabric, giving it more texture.
While you can pick up decent-quality cotton sheets for as low as $50 for a queen set, linen sheets start at around $200 for the same size. The volumes of production are much higher for cotton (more land area in the world serves to cultivate cotton, to start with), so more cotton is available. Since less linen is available, it tends to be more expensive. Although the processes for making cotton and linen used to be labor intensive, machines now do most of the work, so it isn’t that linen is a more difficult fabric to produce.
We didn’t find any good comparative reviews of linen sheets. Outlets such as Consumer Reports (subscription required) and Sleep Like The Dead, which we relied on for our cotton sheet guide, don’t review linen sheets. Our best editorial sources were a couple of posts on Apartment Therapy from May 2015 and July 2015, which served as a good starting point even though they didn’t involve comparative testing. We looked closely at user reviews on retailer sites when they were available (for many retailers, they weren’t), and we also dived into several Reddit threads (here, here, and here) where we saw an active dialogue among people who have purchased and used various brands of linen sheets.
We saw a handful of sets for around $400 or more, such as those from Matteo, but that seemed beyond what most people want to spend. The cheapest sets we found cost between $200 and $300 for a queen set from sellers such as Costco, Restoration Hardware, and West Elm. Although we had seen mention in Apartment Therapy (and from commenters there) about cheaper linen sheets from H&M, IKEA, and Target, all of them turned out to be either duvet covers or just bottom sheets. We ended up choosing Costco’s Calme Linen Sheets (out of stock at this writing), Restoration Hardware’s Stonewashed Belgian Linen Sheet Set, and West Elm’s Belgian Flax Linen Sheet Set, and we also threw in a set of the much more expensive and lauded Rough Linen sheets to see how they compared against the lower-priced ones.
To eliminate brand bias, we removed tags from the sheets and marked them with numbers. We also washed and dried all the sheets before conducting any tests. To gauge the initial softness of each set, we rubbed the fabric against our cheeks (a common test for determining fabric softness) and slept one night on each set. We then washed, dried, and slept on them once more. We washed them an additional 10 times to simulate wear and tear over several months to a year of use. We asked Sweethome and Wirecutter staffers to try them out in our office. And then we slept on the sheets again to see if or how they had changed.
We conducted all tests on a queen-size bed with a foam mattress and a thick mattress pad, measuring about 10 inches thick in total. The four sheet sets we tried for this round had pockets averaging 15 inches deep, which is large enough to fit on most beds without being too saggy. Although people do sleep on thicker mattresses these days, any pocket more than 10 inches deep should fit on most beds.
All four sets of linen sheets we tested felt luxurious to sleep in and kept us comfortable on warm evenings; honestly, we’d be happy sleeping in any of them. The West Elm Belgian Flax Linen Sheet Set beat the rest because these sheets were among the softest, and they were among the only ones for which we found no complaints about the material wearing out after a few years. This is also one of the least expensive linen sheet sets we’ve found.
As far as softness, you can feel the texture of the yarns in the West Elm sheets, but they don’t feel scratchy (as one tester found the Rough Linen). The sheets do have a slight underlying prickliness, but we think that’s just part of the texture, and it’s no worse a feeling than we got from any of the other sets. We actually preferred Costco’s more affordable Calme-brand set, which felt softer out of the package and continued to soften with progressive washes. (Unfortunately, Costco temporarily pulled the Calme line due to some sizing issues.) In comparison, the West Elm sheets felt slightly grainier. The fabric of the West Elm sheets also felt a bit slick, as if it had a slightly waxy coating (probably a finish to make the sheets softer or less wrinkly). The effect wasn’t necessarily unpleasant to us, but these sheets did feel more coated than the others we tried.
We don’t yet know how the West Elm sheets will hold up after years of use, though we will test them over the long term. So far we haven’t found the kinds of complaints we’ve seen about the Restoration Hardware or Rough Linen sets. We first saw comments in two Apartment Therapy threads (here and here) about the Restoration Hardware set and in two Reddit threads (here and here) about both brands. Then, two Sweethome writers told us they had each seen Restoration Hardware linen bottom sheets develop large holes after just one to four years of use. We haven’t found any user reviews for West Elm linen sheets (the company doesn’t have any on its site), but commenters on Apartment Therapy, Reddit, and other sites aren’t complaining about West Elm’s offering as they are about both the Restoration Hardware and Rough Linen sets.
None of our tested sets softened significantly after 12 washes, but the West Elm sheets did retain that soft, almost waxy coating, which made them feel softer. Anecdotally, we know one person who has used the West Elm set for three years and says that the sheets have softened nicely and worn well. We’ll keep using ours to see how they soften with more use and washes.
At about $240 for a queen set at the time of our tests, the West Elm sheets were the second least-expensive set we tried (the Costco Calme sheets were $20 less). The price is still high in comparison with high-quality cotton sheets, but for linen it’s affordable. And given that we didn’t feel a huge difference between the West Elm sheets and those from Rough Linen (which are almost twice the price for a set), we think most people will be happy with them.
Like the rest of the sets we tried, the West Elm sheets feel airy. They manage to sit lightly on the skin while also providing some weight. Similar to any linen fabric, these sheets crush easily and hold on to wrinkles, but they didn’t wrinkle any worse than the other sets we tested. They come in a nice selection of four or five colors (depending on availability), and you can purchase a matching duvet cover. The sheets and duvet are made from Belgian flax and constructed in China.
In our opinion, most people will like the West Elm set, but if you’re looking to upgrade or to purchase by the piece, Rough Linen sheets are a popular per-piece option. These sheets are slightly rougher feeling than the West Elm ones, and almost twice the price if you buy an entire set. We like the flexibility that buying by the piece gives you.
We should preface this recommendation by noting that we didn’t test other linen sheets in this price range (around $400 or more for a set). We wanted to focus on more-affordable sets, which we think are better for most people. We chose Rough Linen because the small company has a loyal following among linen lovers. (People who have bought these sheets call them “sublime” and of “superb quality” in this forum, while on Apartment Therapy one commenter praises their “sturdy, soft, excellent quality.”) If we see enough interest, we might consider testing a wider variety of expensive sets.
We don’t think they feel significantly thicker than the other sets we tried, and we have read comments in this Reddit thread and in the comments section of this Apartment Therapy piece about the sheets developing holes or tears, so we’re not sure whether they will prove more durable over time. But even the people in those threads who say they have had small holes develop in their sheets still seem to like them. Rough Linen advertises the sheets as “pure Belgian linen,” but the site offers no information on where the fabric is made. The sheets are constructed in the United States.
When we were blind-testing these sheets, we actually thought they were among the cheaper sets in our testing, because they felt rougher. The texture bothered some of our testers but felt nice to others. We didn’t notice a huge difference in the actual linen. It felt about the same weight as the Restoration Hardware fabric, and a little thicker than the West Elm material. It’s still thin enough that you can see your hand through the white sheet. Where we did see a real improvement over the West Elm and other sets was in the construction: The Rough Linen flat sheets have lovely seams and a particularly nice and thick top hem, which gives the sheets an elegant finish.
Rough Linen doesn’t sell fitted sheets; instead you’re supposed to use two flat sheets, one folded around your mattress with hospital corners. We like that you can rotate the bottom and top sheets for more-even wear, which might help the sheets’ longevity.
Alternatively, you could purchase one flat sheet and two shams and use them with a good fitted cotton sheet (such as our favorite from L.L.Bean), which may prove more durable. This is exactly what one Sweethome writer started doing after she had two linen fitted sheets (one from Restoration Hardware, the other from Cuddledown) shred on her in less than a year of use. We tried this combo for a few nights and found it a nice mix. The percale underneath traps a little more heat than a linen bottom sheet but also provides more structure to the surface of the bed, so it feels a little firmer to sleep on. And you still get to enjoy the lovely, airy, luxurious feeling of the linen top layer. This combination may help if you (or your partner) have rough feet or sharp toenails that tend to snag or sand away at sheets.
Machine-wash your linen sheets and dry them on a medium heat setting. Some manufacturers recommend washing with cold water, but you can wash in warmer temperatures. Manufacturers almost universally caution against using bleach. Tricia Rose of Rough Linen recommends using Biz detergent to banish stains on white fabric. This detergent uses enzymes to remove stains and is particularly effective at eliminating substances such as oil and residue from the body. OxiClean stain remover may be more effective at removing stains from blood or chocolate, but it will also break down the sheet fibers more because it’s a little harsher. Try your regular detergent before using either of these methods, and check to see whether the stains have come out before you dry (you don’t want to set the stains in the dryer). We like Tide detergent. Rose has a few other detergent recommendations on her site.
Some people strictly advise against using fabric softeners on linen, because a waxy buildup from the softener can inhibit the fabric’s breathability. But if you find that your sheets are particularly scratchy, using a softener every once in a while is not a big deal. A softener acts in a similar way to conditioner that you might use on your hair; using it every few washes shouldn’t create much buildup.
If your sheets are really wrinkled out of the dryer, Rose recommends dampening them slightly and letting them air dry. In our experience, air-dried linen feels rougher and stiff. We prefer the more supple feel of linen dried in a dryer.
Calme Linen Sheets
These sheets, sold through Costco, were our absolute favorite. And at around $220 for a queen set at the time of our testing, they were also the least expensive. Unfortunately, they aren’t available right now; the pillowcases and shams had sizing issues, so the company is currently sorting those out. Once that happens, the sheets should be available at Costco again, but company representatives couldn’t tell us exactly when. Right out of the packaging, these sheets felt softer than all of the other sets we tried, and they continued to soften nicely after progressive washings. They come in only a few colors, but the hues are neutral and nice looking. Once these sheets are available again at Costco, we plan to test them once more and report back.
Restoration Hardware Stonewashed Belgian Linen Sheet Set
This set was originally our second favorite, after the Calme set. The fabric felt a little thicker than that of the West Elm set, about on a par with the thickness of the Rough Linen sheets. Compared with the Rough Linen or West Elm sheets, the material had a slightly softer crumple to the way it wrinkled. We were concerned when we read multiple complaints on Apartment Therapy (here and here) and in one Reddit thread about these sheets—the bottom sheet, in particular—disintegrating in the wash. Then we found out that two Sweethome writers owned this set and experienced the same issue within less than one year to four years after purchase. We thought these sheets felt nice in our tests, and the available colors are beautiful, but we can’t recommend this set with the consistent complaints we’ve read.
We also considered but didn’t test the following:
Eileen Fisher Washed Linen Sheets
These sheets have good user reviews on Garnet Hill’s website and come in some great colors, but we thought the frayed edges might be a turnoff to some people. They were also expensive at the time we checked, about $375 total for a queen set (sold by the piece). For that price, we were more interested in trying a set from Rough Linen.
Matteo Vintage Linen Sheets
Matteo is a Los Angeles–based home and apparel company, and its linen sheets look nice. At about $385 for a set with shams at the time of our testing, they were close in cost to the Rough Linen offering. Since we were testing only one set at this price range, we wanted to try the Rough Linen sheets instead. But we may consider this set for an update.
Linoto 100% Linen Sheet Sets
These sheets receive high ratings on the Linoto site and come in a wide range of colors. At $285 for a queen set at the time we checked, the price wasn’t bad, but we were more interested in trying the similarly priced Calme, Restoration Hardware, and West Elm sets this round. We might consider this set for an update.
Lands’ End Linen Solid Sheet Set
Judging from the reviews on the Lands’ End site, we thought these sheets looked reasonably promising, but we didn’t see them recommended in any editorial reviews. They come in only three colors, too. We may consider testing them for a future update.
Pottery Barn Belgian Flax Linen Sheet Set
We found no editorial or user reviews for this set. It came at a reasonable price when we checked, and it’s even better if you can catch it on sale. But we were more interested in trying the Calme, Restoration Hardware, and West Elm sets, which cost about the same.
H&M Linen Sheets
One Apartment Therapy post mentions these sheets as a good budget option. But on closer inspection, H&M seems to sell only fitted linen sheets on its site, and they’re available only in white. A queen fitted sheet cost about $70 at the time of our research, and that wasn’t much cheaper than the sheets from Costco, Restoration Hardware, or West Elm.
IKEA Linblomma Linen Duvet
We noted several Apartment Therapy commenters highly recommending this duvet on several occasions, and the duvet and two shams cost only $80 at the time. One commenter suggested buying a second duvet and using it as a bottom sheet. But we thought that seemed impractical for most people.
Nine Space Natural Living Linen Sheet Set
With no reviews on the Bed Bath & Beyond site and no editorial recommendations for these sheets, we opted not to test them.
Kenneth Cole Reaction Home Sheet Set
This linen-cotton-blend set has poor reviews on the Bed Bath & Beyond site. We opted to skip testing.
In comment threads (again, mostly on Apartment Therapy) posters recommended various other higher-end brands, including Bella Notte Linens, Cultiver, and Frontgate. As with the Eileen Fisher and Matteo sets, we were more interested in trying the Rough Linen sheets.
(Photos by Michael Hession.)
Originally published: June 27, 2016