Here in upstate New York, the air has a slight touch of fall, just enough to hint at the frigid winter months ahead and to put stacking firewood on my list of chores. As I found myself reaching for that sweater for the third time this week, I started thinking about some of the pleasures of winter: Steaming hot chai, reading on the couch in front of the woodstove with the dogs at my feet, and my pure wool comforter keeping me warm at night.
During the crisp fall and cold winter, sleeping under natural comforters, duvets, puffs and blankets is deeply restorative because the fibers are what are called “active” fibers, meaning that they work with our bodies, not against them. This means that they wick moisture off of our bodies, allow our bodies to breathe, and more. Because we perspire an average of 1 pint of moisture when we sleep, and we release poisons as we sleep, too, the sheets and comforters you use make a big difference.
Why eschew synthetic fabrics? For one reason, they don’t allow your body to breathe. (Imagine wrapping yourself in a plastic garbage bag on a hot day in August; polyester isn’t much different.) But there is more to it than that. Synthetic materials have an electrostatic charge.
Have you ever gotten a shock when putting on a recently dried piece of synthetic clothing? When you sleep cocooned within this electrostatic charge, positive ions are generated, pulling pollution to you. (For an extreme comparison imagine being in an LA traffic jam with air loaded with positive ions, compared to being at the ocean with the air loaded with negative ions.) Sleeping surrounded by positive ions can have a negative impact on your sleep. It's negative ions, not positive ions, that you want to surround you when you need rest and recuperation because negative ions promote healing. Negative ions are found near ocean spray and in the mountains, which explains why we seek rejuvenation at these spots. Further, because synthetic, petroleum-based materials are not made with renewable resources and add a chemical load to the earth with their manufacture and disposal, going natural is all the better.
Quite literally, my life changed overnight after putting an organic wool comforter on my bed. I woke up the next morning with a remarkable feeling of calm and serenity. Part of the reason was that I had replaced my polyester-filled comforter with something natural, but part of it was also the incredible power of wool.
Wool doesn't feel wet and clammy because it absorbs large amounts of moisture under warm or cool sleeping conditions. No other fiber does this as well. It can absorb 50 percent of its weight in water without dripping and 30 percent without feeling damp. It is resistant to mildew, to boot, which is a good thing given how much moisture it can hold.
Wool is also naturally flame resistant. So much so that wool can legally be made into a mattress without the addition of fire retardants.
Wool also springs back into shape and bends back onto itself some 20,000 times without breaking (compared with 3,200 times for cotton.) Although organic wool comforters are expensive, with proper care they can be passed on from generation to generation--making them a real investment.
For those allergic to wool, organic cotton comforters and blankets are the next best choice, and they are a bit cheaper than wool. If you want a down comforter, choose elderdown. It is very warm, can cling and compress, making it highly insulating. It also has great loft and can bounce back into shape easily. Because the dark brown elderdown is hand plucked it is more expensive, but the process causes no harm to the duck. In contrast, 90 percent of down is from slaughterhouses.
For sheets, pillowcases and comforter covers, choose organic cotton or bamboo. If you're on a budget, check out Target and other discount stores, which have begun to carry these items as the demand for green increases.
Fabric treated with no-iron finishes are highly toxic. The resins and sizing chemicals are a mixture of formaldehyde and other problematic chemicals that will off-gas. Chemical treatments for fabric are notoriously neurotoxic, harmful to the Earth's ozone layer and dangerous to the person who breathes them in. The new finishes are very tenacious--two years and still washing, I have still not succeeded in removing the finish from some cotton sheets I received as a gift. Unfortunately, these days it's not easy to find pure fiber sheets without finishes on them, but they are available. If you're trying to save money, or just can't find sheets without a no-iron finish at your local home goods store, try thrift stores and yard sales. Online green stores sell natural and organic sheets.
Organic cotton flannel pajamas are a cozy treat during the really cold winter months. Oh, and do stay away from electric blankets. They give off high levels of electromagnetic fields, using up precious fossil fuels because of their energy use in the process.
Want to be really cozy in the winter? Do what my friend Pat does for her children. Put hot water bottles between the covers to make the bed a warm, welcoming place.