“We have been using flannel sheets year round for the past 20 years. These are by far the softest, thickest, nicest flannel sheets I have ever bought. They keep you warm in the winter & cool in the summer.” – Betsy from Bradenton, Florida
It was late fall in Pemaquid, Maine, in a seaside cottage on the water, when I first slid between a pair of welcoming old flannel bed sheets. Science says that flannel’s brushing process, mastered by Portuguese artisan craftspeople, fluffs up the downy surface, or “nap” of the fabric, creating tiny pockets of air. These pillows insulate, and hold in glorious body heat. Warmth and softness at the end of an active day kayaking and hiking? Yes, please. It’s like sinking into a hug.
What Is Flannel—Isn’t It the Same as Brushed Cotton?
The thing that makes a fabric flannel is the brushing those Portuguese artisans developed: nowadays it’s a mechanical process where fine, metal brushes gently loosen and raise the minuscule fibers in a fabric’s weave, which in turn creates a ‘nap’ and gives flannel the familiar softness we all crave, whether it’s in our beloved flannel shirt, or our inviting sheets.
And what of brushed cotton? Some insist it’s the same thing as flannel, while others maintain brushed cotton has been softened—call it flannel-ized—on one side only. These purists hold that for a material to be considered a true flannel, it must be brushed on both sides. You could call it picking at, well, fibers.
A Brief History of Flannel
The wonders of flannel feel fresh to me, like a new discovery, but 17th-century Welsh farmers knew the truth. To them, it was gwlanen, the warmest lightweight fabric with the best range of motion available. Their wives and women began carding wool, and weaving this element-resistant fabric made of worsted yarn, for wearing in the fields. Flannel finally reached America’s shores in 1869, at first popular among the working class. While the earliest versions were all wool, today there are many more types of flannel, made in wool, cotton, or even synthetic fabrics.
Flannel vs. Cotton Bed Sheets: Which Are Better?
Bed sheets can in fact influence your well being: nobody needs to explain the benefits of sleeping soundly. Are flannel sheets better than cotton sheets? The answer is, sometimes. Because flannel is inherently soft, it does not irritate your skin—this appealing quality may matter to you if you have a skin condition, for example eczema, or if you simply enjoy flannel’s exquisite feel. And like cotton, flannel is breathable: it allows air circulation and helps wick away moisture from your skin. Most of us would agree that flannel also feels exceptionally warm.
Cotton sheets, by contrast, promise the maximum amount of air circulation, and can actually help you stay cool in the heat. So it’s no surprise we defer to our cotton percale bedding in the warmer months, and our flannels in the winter. Insofar as softness, cotton sheets can also be supremely soft: it’s mainly a matter of the thread count. And both cotton and flannel sheets are easy to wash and maintain, so that’s a win-win.
Are Flannel Sheets Warmer than Cotton Sheets?
Flannel sheets at least feel warmer. Why? Because flannel’s napped surface traps body heat and helps retain it—in other words, it insulates you. The comparatively smoother surface of cotton sheets can’t do that, but cotton ‘wins’ in the warm summer months precisely because it does not retain heat.
I’ll admit that I’m something of a sheet snob these days, after a youth of sleeping in practical, economical, rough-hewn poly-cotton-blend bed clothes. I learned the joys of high thread count, Egyptian cotton sheets largely in sleek, cool, upmarket hotels. Now I treat myself to sets of my own.
Only in recent years, though, have I become a convert to the soothing delights of brushed flannel bedding. Sure, there was always something romantic about the idea…it was much touted in the film The Sure Thing, starring my teen heartthrob John Cusick. Along with Daphne Zuniga, he dreams of renovating a Vermont farmhouse, and kitting it out with well-worn flannel sheets.
Now I find myself seeking comfort and warmth to support me through the stretch of winter days and nights ahead. I’m relishing my plush purple slippers, wrapping myself in my fleece bathrobe, and I’ve dressed my bed in brand-spanking-new flannel sheets. And I, for one, am grateful for those Welsh farmers’ innovation. While I neither must toil outdoors in the damp fog, nor rely on burning peat to warm my home, the luxury of my snug flannel jammies and my toasty, sumptuous flannel bedding cheers and soothes me.