When things are going well we’re asleep for a third of every day – longer if things are going really well! And even when you’re not in it, your bed is the focus of the bedroom. The importance of a good mattress and good bed are difficult to under-estimate, but something goes frequently overlooked is bedding.
There are plenty of notoriously luxurious, beautiful and needful options. Egyptian cotton is a by-word for both luxury and durability: the higher the thread count the better. And, of course, there’s silk!
What’s wrong with Cotton & Silk?
High-quality cotton sheets are nice, but they absorb oils and moisture. This means more cleaning more often and that will eat into their lifespan. Not only that, but it will also mean more detergents, in the sheets and down the drain.
Cotton is also a poor heat regulator. If you’ve ever woken, hot and clammy in a plush hotel bed: that’s why! Cotton holds creases, making it harder to keep looking crisp.
On top of that, cotton production is among the most water intensive manufacturing processes.
Meanwhile, silk sheets have that gorgeous sheen and incredible soft texture. They can’t help but look smooth, luxurious and inviting. Beyond that, they’re hypoallergenic and a good insulator, keeping you warm in winter and cool in summer.
Of course, silk is expensive, but maybe it’s worth it. Good quality silk sheets are strong and long-lasting! But that high price isn’t only financial.
Animal cruelty groups such as PETA and the RSPCA have been making the case for years that the harvesting of silk requires the killing of multitudes of silkworms every year. In fact, it takes approximately 3000 silkworm cocoons to create a pound of silk. In 2015, it was estimated that 75 million pounds of silk were created internationally.
And each silkworm that makes each coccoon is killed in the harvesting.
That’s 225 billion silkworms killed in a year!
Some silk farms do create so-called “peace silk”. This process allows silk moths to mature and hatch before the silk is harvested. This sounds great! If that’s possible then surely it’s a win-win.
But it’s not. In order to hatch, a silk moth produces acid to weaken and break through the super strong fibres of their cocoon. This is natural, and amazing, but the process breaks down and shortens the threads, reducing their utility – to humans, at least. [Of course, not killing the pupating silkworm would seem to increase the utility of the silk to them, but that’s not going to get you the fine, fine silk threads you’re looking for.]
So, what if you want high quality, long lasting, luxurious feeling sheets, without the risk of your bed being haunted by the ghosts of 10,000 silkworms?
Have you heard of Tencel?
To read the publicity, Tencel sounds like the fibre of the future! All the benefits of silk (strength, longevity, moisture wicking for good insulation) with 100% fewer dead worms. Not only that, but it’s sustainable.
Tencel (which is the trademark name for generic lyocell) is made of wood. Sounds comfortable and luxurious, right? Wood pulp, that can then be drawn out into fibres and from there into fabric. It’s been successfully derived from oak and birch, but the perfect tree is eucalyptus: it grows quickly in a wide range of climates, without having to rely on irrigation and in locations that are otherwise non-arable.
In itself, wood pulping can be a very water and chemical intensive process, which is why paper mills are some of the worst polluters in the world. But not so for Tencel/Lyocell. The Tencel process is described as a “closed-loop” process, meaning that 99% of the chemicals and solvents used in the process are kept in the process and recycled. The whole process is so low in emissions and pollutants that it’s been recognised with the European Award for the Environment.
But, not only is it light on pollutants, it uses 2000% less water than the production of an equal weight of cotton. That’s very good in a world of water-shortages.
Where to Buy Tencel Sheets
For a fabric patented by Lenzing – an Austrian company – and developed throughout the 1980s in UK laboratories, you’d think a range of Tencel sheets might be available in a London store or two.
You’d be wrong.
Marks & Spencer has a 50/50 cotton/tencel fitted sheet.
In the US the options are slightly better. Even in London, the best value options come from the US brand West Elm.
And what are they like?
For want of a better word: they’re silky! The look and feel is luxurious. They wash and tumble dry easily, without creasing. They hold their colour.
So: Why Isn’t it Everywhere?
The answer is obvious: because people keep defaulting to the same old options!
Tencel is no more expensive to produce or work with than more traditional fabrics. There’s no appreciable difference in price, but a huge difference in environmental impact. Silk and cotton have their place…and it’s in the past!
Cotton is an immensely inefficient process. It takes an enormous amount of land that can be utilised for other crops. It’s labour and resource intensive. And it’s not really that great to sleep in!
And silk is wonderful, so long as you enjoy destroying billions of defenceless lives for a lightweight blouse.
Thanks to the 92nd Academy Awards, Tencel is having a moment as a fashion textile alternative. Actress Léa Seydoux wore a gown made from the silk-replacement textile. This is another one in a long history of somehow not quite making it to the forefront of luxury fabrics.
For all the same reasons that Tencel makes for such a great option in the bedroom, it is a great alternative for fashion too: durable, colour fast, moisture wicking, soft to the touch and relatively cheap and low impact to produce.
After 40 years will we be seeing Tencel cropping up in more options? That’s down to us! Consumers have all the power here in shaping what producers present us with.
If we demand the more sustainable alternative, they’ll find a way to provide it! So start looking beyond the obvious choice. You don’t need to sacrifice luxury or even comfort for sustainability. In fact, you could even save money!