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A Mini Guide to Fabrics for Your Bedding

When we sleep, we should be as comfortable as possible. Fabrics for sleepwear and bedding can play a major role in how well we sleep at night. We want to be cool enough so that our bodies can drop off to sleep, but warm enough that we are still comfortable as well. We’ve probably all been told to wear lightweight, loose, breathable fabrics to bed for the most comfortable sleep. We’ve heard: don’t wear polyester fabrics because it prohibits air circulation; do wear cotton because it’s lightweight and breathable.

While that advice does remain true to a certain extent, we have entered a whole new world of fabric development and design and now we have more choices than ever before. Do you tend to sweat a lot at night? Or do you easily feel chilled? Choose the best fabrics that cater to your body and environment! Here is a list of some old and new nighttime fabric options.

Natural Fibers

Cotton

Cotton, a natural, soft fiber grown from the cotton plant, has been used in textiles for a long time, and for good reason. It is soft, lightweight, and breathable, which allows air circulation to your skin. It is extremely common, durable, and easy to wash. For all these reasons, a soft cotton fabric still may be a great choice for sleepwear and bedding.

There are seemingly thousands of different kinds of cotton fabric, so finding the best one for bed might take a little groundwork. For bedding, you might see labels like “Egyptian cotton,” “Pima cotton,” or “American Upland.” None other than home guru Martha Stewart explains that the different names refer to cotton fiber length and, correspondingly, quality. Egyptian cotton has the longest fiber length and is considered the softest of all cotton fabrics, Pima cotton has the second longest fiber and is considered the second best quality, and American upland cotton (usually written simply as “100% cotton”) is still soft but the quality can vary greatly.

It should also be noted that cotton does not insulate well (with the exception of cotton flannel), and therefore, if you tend to get cold at night, you should opt for another blanket or perhaps a different, more insulating fabric choice. In addition, cotton absorbs a lot of moisture, which means if you perspire a lot at night, the cotton fabric will keep the moisture pressed against your skin, potentially causing discomfort as well as creating a home for bacteria.

Wool

Wool is the textile made from the natural hair of a sheep, goat, or similar animal. When you see wool, you probably think “warm” and maybe also “itchy.” For many kinds of wool, this is can be true. Wool is an excellent insulator, but the amount of insulation you might want likely depends on your sleeping environment, so choose the weight and weave of your fabric accordingly so you don’t get overheated. Watch out: some wool can be quite itchy, which can irritate the skin at night.

Merino wool has gotten more popular for sleepwear, underwear, and active-wear alike because (1) it is made from the very soft, fine merino wool fibers (not itchy!), (2) it is absorbent (according to the Swartwool website, Merino wool can retain up to 30% of its own weight in moisture and still feel dry to the touch), (3) it is very breathable with good wicking capability (the wool fibers transfer moisture away from your skin so it can evaporate effectively), and (4) it is a great insulator, keeping you at the right temperature. For this reason, merino wool and merino wool blends are an excellent choice for soft, breathable sleepwear with a cozy feel.

Silk

Ahhh, what sounds nicer than a pair of silk pajamas or nestling into clean silk sheets? You’ll feel like royalty. Silk is a natural protein fiber made from the cocoons of silkworms. It is incredibly soft, strong, and is an excellent thermoregulator, keeping you cool when it is warm and warm when it is cool. All that being said, perspiration can easily weaken and stain silk, and therefore any fabric in contact with the skin (like, say, pajamas and sheets) should be cleaned regularly. Silk can absorb a lot of moisture, and that means a lot of sweat if you tend to perspire at night. It is also generally recommended that silks be cleaned with dry cleaning methods. Therefore, while certainly luxurious and comfortable, silk may not be the most practical choice for sleepwear and bedding. But, if you’d like good insulation, a super soft fabric, and don’t mind the dry-cleaning bill, then these might be worth looking into!

Linen

Like silk, linen is considered more of a luxury material for sheets and sleepwear (read: more expensive). Unlike silk, linen is a natural fiber derived from the flax plant. Linen has been around for centuries, but still remains popular because it is so breathable and cool. If you live in a hot climate, consider linen a great bedding and sleepwear fabric option. High-quality linen is soft, very strong, durable and can last decades (according to Martha), so even though it may have a higher initial price tag, it can be good value. Unfortunately, linen wrinkles easily, so if you mind the wrinkled look on sleepwear and sheets, be ready to get your iron out regularly.

Naturally-derived Fibers (Rayons)

Bamboo

Bamboo pulp fabric, a form of rayon, is becoming more popular because it tends to be soft, lightweight, breathable, and claims to be natural and antimicrobial. Anti-microbial sheets offer a snuggly-soft barrier against the bad elements that are found in the environment. For these reasons, true bamboo fabrics may be a good choice for sleeping.

The fine print:

Although the bamboo plant is fast-growing and considered a sustainable resource, the processing of the fiber is not always as eco-friendly. The most common way to process bamboo fibers, the viscose process, uses environmentally toxic solvents to make what is essentially rayon (cellulose fiber). In 2003, the Federal Trade Commission required Amazon and several major department stores to pay penalties and change textile labeling for incorrectly claiming that their bamboo rayon fabrics were eco-friendly. In addition, the FTC also notes that, through chemical processing, the claimed antimicrobial properties of bamboo are lost. For an eco-friendly fabric that retains its antimicrobial properties, look for bamboo textiles that are not made using the viscose method (but they may be difficult to find).

New rayons (lycocell, Tencel, Modal, MicroModal, etc.)

Like bamboo, Tencel and MicroModal are made of cellulose fibers and are considered something between a natural and synthetic fabric. Tencel, the branded name of lyocell fiber, and Modal, another rayon fabric, are derived from wood pulp and considered great cotton alternatives. These new rayon fabrics are becoming more mainstream in the fashion industry because they are soft, breathable, naturally wrinkle-resistant, biodegradable and environmentally sustainable. A study published in the Dermatitis journal reported that for patients with sensitive skin caused by atopic dermatitis, lyocell was preferred over cotton for clothing, sleepwear, and bedding because of its softness, temperature control, and wrinkle-resistance. A fabric that feels like silk with great sweat-wicking properties? Yes, this may be an excellent choice for nighttime sleepwear.

Environmental Impact

Not all rayon fabrics are environmentally friendly, but Tencel and Modal are! Business Insider and the ecologically-conscientious Patagonia blog write that most of the wood pulp used to make lycocell is sustainably harvested from the Eucalyptus tree, is generally processed with a nontoxic solvents in a ‘closed-loop’ solvent spinning process (solvent is recycled and not lost to the environment), and the pulp is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. Similarly, Modal fabrics are derived from European beech trees, which are sustainably grown and manufactured with a closed-loop process that conserves energy and recycles byproducts.

Synthetic Fiber

Polyester

You thought there were a lot of manifestations of cotton? Welcome to the world of polyester, one of the most versatile synthetic materials. Polyester is essentially a petroleum-derived plastic, and it can be manufactured to be anything from bottles to canoes to your business attire to your active-wear. Polyester was first manufactured in the 1940s as a cheaper, more durable alternative to natural fabrics like cotton. Fabrics made with polyester fibers tend to be very strong, durable, wrinkle-resistant, quick-drying, and fade-resistant. Because polyester is hydrophobic (water-resistant), it does not absorb moisture. This characteristic is ideal for outdoor clothing or fabrics, but for many years (think polyester suits from the 70s) polyester fabrics were not breathable, and therefore trapped perspiration against the skin.

Performance Polyester

Fiber science and design have come a long way, however, and now polyester fabrics are specifically manufactured with lots of micro-pores for great moisture-wicking and breathability. The “moisture-wicking” pores allow perspiration to travel from your skin to the outside of the fabric so it can evaporate (keeping you cool and dry). The hydrophobic properties of the material ensure that moisture isn’t absorbed by the fabric itself, so (unlike cotton) it cannot operate as a moisture reservoir against your skin. As such, new polyester fabrics are ideal for athletic clothing, outdoor clothing, performance professional clothing, and now even sleepwear and bed linens. So, we’ve learned: sleepwear and bedding made from moisture-wicking polyester can at once be soft and breathable. If you are prone to night-sweats or just want to keep really cool, the right moisture-wicking polyester can finally allow you comfortable, dry night’s sleep. Not all polyester fabrics are moisture-wicking through, so be sure to look at the label: these new fabrics will be labeled “moisture-wicking polyester” or “performance polyester.”

Environmental Impact

Look for polyester fabrics that are biodegradable or recycled. Most polyesters are not biodegradable, which means that they will take anywhere between 20–200 years to break down once discarded, and because they are made from plastics, are neither considered sustainable or environmentally friendly. Furthermore, researchers have found that microfibers from polyester and acrylic fabrics like fleeces, athletic-wear, etc., are poisoning water sources and wildlife. Biodegradable plastic fabrics are still more difficult to find (biodegradable plastics tend to be more prominent in the food-container industry). However, because polyester is so durable, it is also very recyclable, so if performance polyester is the fabric for you, you could look for garments made from recycled polyester bottles and fabrics like Patagonia’s Capilene line or Black Eyed Peas musician William’s new Ekocycle bedsheet collection soon to be sold through W Hotels.

Thread count and weave

As we’ve discovered, the material you choose for bedding and sleepwear can make a big impact on your comfort at night. But what are some other factors? Thread count and fabric weave can also influence a fabric’s breathability, insulation, and softness, so it’s important to keep them in mind as well.

Thread count

You’ve probably heard that a high thread count in bedding is softer and more luxurious, but what does that mean? Thread count is the number of threads in one square inch of material and generally ranges from below 200- to up to 1,000-threads per square inch. While higher thread counts are meant to indicate softer, better fabrics, many sources warn that they are not always a good indicator of quality. Depending on your budget and personal preferences, sheets in the 200–500 range made with a quality fiber will be comfortable, and anything above 800 you either won’t notice or may find too stiff because the fibers have been so closely packed together.

Weave and Fabric Manipulation

The fabric weave and weight of your sheets can affect how crisp, soft, warm, or cool they are. Here are a few common types of sheets and their qualities:

Percale weave, probably the most common weave type in sheets, is a plain weave that tends to be crisp and firm (but still soft) and feel cool against the skin. This weave type is perfect for warmer sleepers or hot summer nights.

Sateen fabrics are made using the satin weave structure, making them shiny, soft, and smooth on one side of the fabric (and matte on the other). This weave type will give you the feel of smooth, luxurious satin. Because the sateen is softer and less crisp than percale, it is also more wrinkle resistant.

Jersey fabric is knit rather than woven, giving it a soft and slightly stretchy feeling. Think of the comfortable, soft texture of an old cotton T-shirt: that’s what Jersey sheets will feel like. They are cozy, casual and easy to care for.

Flannel is a plain weave pattern, usually made from natural fibers like wool and cotton, that is physically manipulated to be soft and cozy with a heavier feel. The flannel fibers are either brushed to form a fuzzy nap, or the yarns are loosely spun to create a soft texture. The weight and nap of flannel tend to provide more insulation, keeping you warmer at night. This fabric is perfect for cold nights or if you like to feel particularly cozy snuggled in your sheets.

Microfiber is usually a fabric made in fine, plain-weave pattern constructed with synthetic or cellulose-based (rayon) yarns. It is usually tightly woven, so not particularly breathable, but very soft and wrinkle resistant. Because it is usually made from synthetic materials, it is hypoallergenic.

So many fabrics!

Phew, that was a lot! But now you’re equipped to pick the best sleep fabrics for you, or perhaps a few different ones to match the different seasons. If you’re unsure about all of these materials, don’t hesitate to head to your local retailer to physically feel them for yourself. What do you like best? Ideally, we spend one-third of our lives sleeping, so it’s important to pick what makes you the most comfortable!

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