Part 2 – What are sheets made from?

COTTON, BAMBOO, LINEN, SILK, SYNTHETICS

Sheets are made from a variety of fibres, some natural and some human-made, and each affect temperature differently.

In our experience, human-made fibres don't breathe like natural fibres. Often, when it's a hot night, human-made threads feel hot, and when it's cold they feel cold. Preference also play a part, some hate the slippery feel of synthetics, while others avoid synthetics just because. You know what you like but it's important to understand what different fibres are, how they feel and how they affect temperature.

BAMBOO, TENCEL, EUCALYPTUS

Depending on what you read, you'd be forgiven for thinking these kinds of sheets are completely natural. But they fall into two camps; viscose rayon, and lyocell rayon.

Viscose rayon sheets are much more cost-effective, usually under $400 NZD per Queen set. They start with wood pulp (like bamboo) and go through a chemical manufacturing process to produce rayon.

In 2013 The US Federal Trade Commission warned the industry that advertising bamboo sheets as 'natural' misleads consumers and fined retailers USD 126 million. As a result, bamboo sheets sold in the US must now be labelled; rayon (or viscose) made from bamboo.

If you sleep on these sheets and love them, that's all that matters. Just be aware they're not natural. And if you're a hot sleeper, you'll probably want to avoid them because on our experience, synthetics are hotter than natural fibres.

The second type, lyocell rayon or the Tencel® brand, also start with wood pulp (usually bamboo or eucalyptus) but use more eco-friendly enzymes to break-down the wood, allowing the fibres to be combed out and spun into yarn. This process is similar to the way linen is created from flax which uses less toxic chemicals than viscose rayon. These sheets also usually priced the same as high-end linen ($400+ NZD).

However, be aware that strong, highly polluting chemicals can also be used to produce lyocell rayon so it's often safer to choose the Tencel® brand which is guaranteed to be more eco-friendly.

In our experience, Tencel sheets feel quite different from cotton or linen. They're thin, soft (or slippery) and never seem to have that fresh, crisp feeling like cotton sheets (if you like that). They can also be difficult temperature-wise, making you feel cold when it's cold, and hot when it's hot - a bit like a synthetic shirt.

Much is also made of the moisture-wicking ability but in our experience, it they seem to repel moisture, which doesn't feel as good in hot weather because the moisture kind of stays on you. At least that was our impression. Of course, all of this is subjective and everyone is different. So if you love the feel of these kinds of sheets, enjoy them. The good ones are as expensive as good linen sheets and are eco-friendly.

SILK SHEETS

For around 5,000 years, humans have been making silk textiles from the mulberry silk moth. Unfortunately, cheap silk sheets are most likely fakes made from a synthetic. A quick way to test (besides the price) is to hold a small part of the sheet (like the bottom corner) to a flame. If it melts, it's synthetic. The slippery feel of polyester silk is also a dead giveaway.

Again, if you have synthetic silk sheets and love them, enjoy them. However, if you're a hot sleeper, avoid cheap silk sheets as cheap ones are most likely synthetic, and hotter than natural fibres.

Unfortunately, real silk sheets are expensive and we don't have first-hand experience sleeping on them. Real silk is known for its smoothness and lightness and as soon as we sleep on real silk, we'll update this guide. If you have experience sleeping on silk, drop us a note and we'd be happy to include your experiences.

LINEN

Linen sheets are made from flax and are natural. Irish linen is legendary but linen sheets, in general, have seen a resurgence around the world. They breathe exceptionally well so are fantastic in summer or tropical climates. However, depending on your taste, they take a long time to wear-in (up to a decade), so if you love cotton, you might be in for a shock.

Cards on the table, we're yet to find a set of linen sheets we liked, and have tried the expensive ones. At worst, we felt like we were sleeping in a sack and at best, we felt like we were sleeping in linen clothes. However, this is all subjective so if you love the feel of linen sheets, enjoy!

Many also like the relaxed look of linen, and people tell us they don't feel pressure to iron them. Personally, we don't feel pressure to iron in general but everyone is different.

Preferences aside, who should buy them from a sleep comfort point of view? Well, because of their exceptional breathability, linen sheets are particularly excellent for hot sleepers, hot climates, or summer months.

COTTON SHEETS

Cotton is a popular natural fibre which feels beautiful close to the skin, and depending on the weave and thread count, breathes very well. However, unlike linen, cotton is an exceptionally thirsty crop and isn't as environmentally friendly. Moreover, cheap cotton sheets which are replaced every 1-2 years, consume enormous amounts of drinking water. The textile school at Otago University tell us that New Zealanders throw out an average of 37kg of home textiles per person, per year. And some consumers tell us they replace cheap sheets each year and couldn't care less - each to their own.

Cotton also comes in grades, short-staple, medium-staple and long-staple. Generally, the longer the staple, the stronger, finer and more amazing the sheets, especially over the long-term. However, country of origin also plays a huge role in quality. For example, while China has cotton with the longest cotton staples, it's nowhere near as good as long-staple Egyptian, Supima (USA) or Pima cotton (Peru). Generally, the longer the cotton staple, the higher the price.

Long-staple Egyptian cotton is widely regarded as the best cotton, as is long-staple Supima or Pima cotton. However, both are pricey. We could dedicate several pages to cotton but will revisit cotton grades when we discuss longevity and feel.

Temperature-wise, Cotton is a good all-around fibre for sheets because it can be woven hot or cool and serves as a good base layer for both hot and cold sleepers in the same bed.

CHECKLISTS

Cold sleepers

  • Cotton or synthetics

Hot sleepers

  • Cotton or linen

Hot & Cold sleepers in the same bed

  • Cotton or linen, then use layers

NEXT: 3 YARNS & WEAVES