The Secret of Cozy Winter Nights: the Perfect Flannel Sheets

Summary: Flannel sheets feel instantly warm, unlike blankets or comforters. Flannel sheets made of cotton are warmer and more breathable, while polyester flannel sheets are cheaper and easier to maintain. A number of commonly held beliefs about flannel are not true - for instance, that all flannel gets too hot later in the night, or that jersey/ fleece/ microfiber sheets are both cheaper and warmer than flannel. While flannel sheds, it can be well maintained for years with a small amount of care.

Is it worth buying flannel sheets for a few months of winter? If yes, which flannel sheets are the best value for money? This article will answer your questions, and address a few more issues:

  • Why consider flannel, if you already have blankets or comforters?
  • Cotton flannel or polyester flannel?
  • The #1 reason why some swear never to use flannel ever again
  • The 5 most common flannel myths
  • What to look for when you're buying a flannel sheet
  • How to make your flannel last for years 
  • Our personal favorite flannel sheets

The instant warmth from flannel sheets improves quality of sleep

Flannel sheets have a few advantages over blankets and comforters. 


1. Help you sleep better:

Flannel sheets provide instant warmth. When you put on a pair of jeans right after the dryer is done, they feel warm, dry and inviting. This is what a good flannel sheet feels like.

    This instant warmth is important if you toss and turn at night. With a regular blanket or comforter, when you turn around at night, you wake up searching for a warm section of the bed before falling asleep again. Flannel sheets give you more uninterrupted sleep. 

    The instant warmth provided by flannel sheets also make you look forward to getting into bed.


    2.Are healthier than indoor heating:

    Using flannel sheets is much healthier than relying on indoor heating to keep your bedroom warm. Health experts warn that indoor heating dries up the air inside your house. Dry winter air can dry out your nasal passages and throat, leaving you vulnerable to cold, sinus infection and the flu.


    3. Reduce your heating costs:

    Sales of flannel sheets have been the highest now than at any time over the last 60 years, according to Debenhams, the British retail chain. This is because people discovered that flannel sheets help reduce their heating costs.

    4. Relieve joint pains for older people, especially those with arthritis:

    Older people with joint pains know their pains get worse during winter nights. Flannel helps them stay warm, even when they toss and turn. Flannel sheets make for a thoughtful Thanksgiving or Holiday season gift. 

    Many families use flannel sheets simply as a way to welcome winter. 

    By trapping heat in air pockets, flannel provides warmth

    Simply speaking, flannel is made by brushing a thick cotton sheet using a rough metal brush. By doing this, hundreds of tiny fibres of cotton get pulled out and give the flannel a fuzzy texture. These fibers form air pockets between each other.

    These air pockets trap heat in them. When you lie down on a flannel sheet, these air pockets separate your skin from the cold sheet and make you feel warm. Even when you are away from bed, these pockets continue to retain the warm air in them. This is why flannel sheets feel warm the second you get into bed.

    But high quality flannel also needs to dissipate heat later at night, if it gets too hot under the sheets. More on this later.

    Before buying any kind of flannel, there are a couple of things you must know.

    All flannel sheets shed, shrink and pill.

    Flannel sheets change after the first few washes:

    All flannel sheets shed - it doesn't matter what kind of material they are made out of.

    This is because during manufacturing, tiny fibers get cut off from the base fabric but remain on the surface of the flannel sheet. During the first few washes, these tiny pieces of fibre get shed in the dryer.

    But 80% of the shedding usually happens in the first wash.

    Flannel sheets usually become warmer and fuzzier after the first few washes. This is because once the brand new sheets are folded and packed, the packaging pushes down the fibers into the base fabric. The first few washes loosen up the fibers and bring them back up.

    This is why, at Perfect Linens, we wash our sheets ten times before we test them: so you'll know what your sheet will feel like after many washes.

    Flannel sheets are made larger than usual to allow for shrinkage

    All flannel sheets shrink. But all flannel sheets run large to accommodate this.

    Flannel sheets pill more than regular sheets

    Pills are tiny rough balls on the surface of bed sheets that get formed when the tiny sheet fibers get entangled. Flannel sheets pill more than regular sheets because they have so many fibers sticking out from their surface. If you toss and turn at night more than usual, you will find greater pilling.

    There are two types of flannel, depending on the base fabric they are made from: cotton flannel and polyester flannel. From our laboratory tests, and from customer reviews over the years, we believe that both types can be equally warm. 

    Cotton flannel is more breathable and wicks away moisture

    • Breathes better. Because cotton flannel is thicker than polyester flannel, it 'holds its shape' (imagine a thick curtain) and doesn't stick as much to the skin as polyester flannel. So it gives your skin more breathing space.
    • Feels drier. If you've read our guide to finding a cool sheet, you know that cotton absorbs much more moisture than polyester does. So if you're sweating under the sheets, cotton flannel will help you stay dry.
    • Feels more luxurious. Cotton flannel feels more luxurious than polyester flannel for two reasons. One, it's heavier. A cotton flannel sheet weighs about 25% heavier than a polyester flannel sheet on average. This makes it feel more comfortable and luxurious. Two, cotton flannel absorbs moisture better. Because it's a natural fabric and wicks away moisture, it gives you a more luxurious feeling.

    A word of caution though: if you're suffering from night sweats or just generally feel more sweaty at night, you're better off with a specialist sheet that can help you manage your night sweats better. Cotton flannel does absorb more moisture than polyester flannel, but it can't dissipate that moisture to the air as fast as one of our cooling sheets can.

    • Can feel rough. Because cotton flannel is made from a thick base fabric, it can feel rough. So if you have excessively sensitive or dry skin, polyester flannel may be a better fit for you. 


    Polyester flannel is cheaper and more durable

    • Feels softer than cotton flannel. This is because polyester yarn is made by combining many fine filaments together (kind of like twisting together a bunch of thin wires together). After the brushing process, these filaments then stick out from the surface of the fabric and give the polyester flannel a more velvety feel.
    • Cheaper than cotton flannel
    • Doesn't shed as much lint as cotton flannel. This is because the fibres in polyester flannel don't have as much electrostatic activity as those in cotton flannel do.
    • Shrinks less than cotton flannel. From our experience, cotton flannel sheets shrink about 8-11% from their original size, while polyester flannel sheets shrink much less than this.
    • Dries faster because it holds less water than cotton flannel, so it also saves on drying costs.
    • Lasts longer than cotton flannel. The tiny fibers on the surface of a polyester flannel sheet tend to be strong because they are made from a synthetic material (polyester)
    • Doesn't stain as easily as cotton flannel - so if you have young children on the bed or if you tend to drink your hot chocolate in bed and worry about getting your sheets dirty, polyester flannel is easier to maintain.
    • Doesn't repel pets, especially cats! Because cotton flannel has so much electrostatic activity, cats can be struck by sparks when they get on to a cotton flannel sheet. Not so much with a polyester flannel sheet.

    One main drawback of polyester flannel is that because it's thin and drape-y, it sticks to the skin. If you use a moisturizer or skin lotion at night, it can get sticky under a polyester flannel sheet.

    The #1 reason people swear never to buy flannel again

    People who've bought flannel sheets often complain that their flannel sheets became uncomfortably rough. Or that they wear out so much that they become bald and almost transparent. Why is this?

    People traditionally buy flannel sheets during fall and winter to stay warm. This time of the year is also when retailers have the big sales of the year (Thanksgiving, Christmas, etc). So the big box retailers have flannel sheets for $19.99 a set that we can't resist. To be able to sell a flannel sheet set at such low prices, manufacturers use cheap materials of poor quality. These cheap flannel sheets pill more and become rougher with time. They are also more susceptible to tears. Sleeping on a coarse 'flannel' sheet with not much fuzz is not really a flannel-like experience. Put off by such sheets, we swear never to buy flannel sheets again.

    We have also heard some other beliefs about flannel sheets that we need to dispel.

    Flannel myth #1: "Flannel sheets feel great for the first few minutes and then you're sweating"

    People usually combine flannel sheets with something else, say a blanket or a down comforter, to stay warm. If you're feeling too hot, the reason is probably one of these:

    1. Your blanket or comforter is too thick. You would feel too hot even if you used a cotton percale sheet instead of flannel. Switch to a thinner blanket or comforter and that should solve your problem.
    2. You are using polyester flannel. Using a cotton flannel sheet will help you stay just as warm at night but will let your skin breathe.
    3. It's time to replace/ upgrade your cotton flannel sheet. A good quality cotton flannel sheet will not feel too hot later at night.
    4. You probably have night sweats, and should consider using a specialist cotton sheet to solve this issue.


    Flannel myth #2: "My old flannel sheet has lasted for so many years and is still so soft that I don't need to replace it"

    As a cotton flannel sheet gets old, it often still feels soft, even if it has pills. This is because it's made of cotton. But because the flannel sheet has lost all its fibers and the air pockets they form, it has lost its instant warmth. What we've seen over the years is that when someone who has used a flannel sheet for years tries out a new good-quality flannel sheet, they exclaim "I can't believe how warm this is!". They didn't know what they were missing till they tried it.

    Flannel myth #3: "Jersey sheets/ fleece sheets/ microfiber sheets/ electric blankets are cheaper and warmer than flannel"

    Jersey is a knit fabric (unlike cotton flannel, which is a woven fabric) and is a fabric that soft T-shirts are usually made of. Jersey sheets are indeed cheaper than flannel sheets. While they are soft, they are not as warm as flannel sheets. 

    Fleece sheets are those soft, thick synthetic sheets you find retailing at very low prices in big box retailers. They seem great value for money because you get such a bulky sheet for such a low price, but they are neither warm nor breathable.

    Microfiber sheets have the same issue. They are synthetic, and are usually soft, but are neither warm nor breathable.

    Brushed microfiber sheets are the same as polyester flannel. So if you hear someone recommend brushed microfiber sheets for winter, you know they are making a wise choice.

    Electric blankets are downright dangerous, and should never be considered as a safe alternative to flannel sheets.

    Flannel myth #4: "It's not worth buying flannel because it can only be used in the winter"

    While flannel was traditionally used in the winter, you can also use flannel through the year. One of our favorite tips is to use a flannel sheet in the spring/ summer, but to layer a cotton percale sheet over it. This makes the sheets very soft but not warm.

    Flannel myth #5: "Flannel has almost no color choices. You can find it in only plaid"

    This used to be true till a few years ago, but now, flannel sheets are available in multiple colors, especially polyester flannel. Toastmaster - our very own polyester flannel sheets - are available in 17 different colors.

    What to look for when you're buying a flannel sheet:

    • Weight (5-6 ounces), not threadcount. Flannel is described by weight. So if you see a set of flannel sheets marked 5 ounces, it means that one square yard of the sheet weighs 5 ounces. But heavier is not always better - you can also find cheap, poor quality flannel that is heavy and bulky.
    • The best flannel sheets are marked between 5 and 6 ounces. As a point of reference, regular cotton sheets weigh about 4 ounces. If you see a flannel sheet set without the weight or mentioning threadcount, walk away - poor quality flannel will not mention the weight.
    • If you tend to feel hot or sweaty at night, or if you tend to use skin lotions, or you want to avoid having your skin come in contact with a synthetic sheet all night, cotton flannel is a good choice.
    • On the other hand, if you have dry or sensitive skin, or you have a limited budget, or are looking for a flannel sheet that is easy to maintain, polyester flannel is a better choice.
    • Supima cotton flannel is the best, because the fibers are soft and will not prick your skin (our guide to cool sheets will tell you more about why Supima is so good)
    • Look for flannel sheets that explicitly mention that they do not use chemicals, especially flame retardants. Some manufacturers use harmful chemicals in their flannel sheets. Because your body is in close contact with these sheets for 8 hours every night, this is not a risk you want to subject your family to.
    • Country of origin matters - Germany or Portugal are the best. From our experience with flannel sheets from both places, Portuguese flannel is marginally better since it tends to be softer.
    • If you're looking for flannel sheets with colorful patterns on them, make sure you buy a set that weighs closer to 6 oz. A light flannel sheet with multiple colors on it can wear and tear easily.
    • Beware of cotton-polyester blends that promise to combine warmth with durability. The polyester makes the sheet fibers tough. This is great for durability, but it also makes the pills hard and doesn't allow the pills to separate easily from the base fabric. You end up with a flannel sheet with lots of hard little pills that remain stuck to the stick.


    What do these complicated words on flannel packaging mean?

    Double napping: This feature indicates that the manufacturer brushes the base fabric on both sides. Most cotton flannel usually undergoes double napping. Polyester is too thin to withstand double-napping.

    Cotton velvet flannel: Fancy marketing phrase that just means that there are so many fuzzy fibers on the surface of the sheet that it almost feels like velvet. Otherwise, this is just regular cotton flannel.

    Combed cotton flannel: This is a type of cotton flannel in which the base fabric has only long yarns. We believe that this doesn't make a difference to how the flannel feels. For good flannel, all you need is a bulky base fabric, so the length of the yarn doesn't really matter.

    Plain weave vs. twill: This describes the weave structure of the base fabric. Again, this is a term thrown about by retailers that shouldn't make a real difference to you. Most flannel sheets are made of plain weave.

    Change what you combine your flannel sheets with, depending on how cold it gets.

    When it's mildly cold, pair your flannel sheets with a woolen blanket.

    When it gets really cold, combine your flannel sheets with a thick down comforter.

    In spring and summer, combine a cotton sheet (ideally a cotton percale) with your flannel sheet to get a surprisingly soft but not warm sheet.

    Here's how to show your flannel the love it deserves:

    Washing tips:

    • Wash your flannel in cold water on medium spin for only about 20 minutes
    • You could wash flannel with white vinegar the first time. My grandma swears by it: vinegar acts as a natural fabric softener without any lingering smell.


    Drying tips:

    • Do not over-dry your flannel sheets. This is important. During drying, the fabric rubs against itself. The resulting abrasion can cause pilling. If you dry your flannel sheets too much, there is not enough water to cushion the abrasion. This will cause your flannel sheets to pill.
    • Take your flannel sheets out of the dryer when they are damp in the afternoon, and leave them on the bed. By sleep-time, your flannel sheets would have dried out completely. This will also reduce the amount of wrinkles in your sheet. And don't worry about the amount of water drying out of the sheet - it will be less than half a cup.
    • Do not mix your cotton flannel sheets in the dryer with any other clothes. If you mix cotton flannel in the dryer with any other fabric, the flannel's sensitive fibers will get roughened up. Let alone the zipper on your blue jeans, even the fabric of the jeans itself is enough to damage your flannel sheets.
    • Clean your lint filter regularly before and after drying your flannel sheets.
    • Do not use fabric softeners or dryer sheets, if you don't want your sheets to feel like plastics. Both of these will make your sheets feel waxy, and ruin their breathability. This is just true for all cotton sheets, not just for flannel sheets.

    General flannel care:

    • Use a fabric shaver (only $8 here) to get rid of the pills on your flannel sheets, if they are bothering you.
    • Don't use a lint brush on your flannel sheets. Using one may get rid of some pills, but it will do more damage to your flannel sheets by pulling away those tiny fibres that make your flannel sheet feel warm.
    • Do not sit for too long on your flannel sheets. If you do this, the fabric brushes against itself and the pressure could result in pilling, leaving your flannel sheet feeling rough.

    The best flannel sheets we have found: Let It Snow and Toastmaster

    As you probably know, we test all our sheets and sell only the top performing few sheets.

    If you decide to go with a cotton flannel sheet, we recommend Let It Snow. In our tests, it not only ranked high on warmth but it was also one of the smoothest flannels we tested. Excessively long fibers can lead to pilling, and make a flannel sheet rough over time. Let It Snow is made using a unique shearing process that trims the fibers, and reduces pilling. In our laboratory tests, we found that Let It Snow pills and sheds much less than cheaper, mass-market flannel sheets. Because of this, Let It Snow is more durable than most cotton flannel sheets.

    However, if you need a polyester flannel sheet that is easy to maintain, we recommend Toastmaster. Unlike most polyester flannel sheets, Toastmaster is napped on both sides. The fibers in Toastmaster are also smaller and more pliable than in most flannel sheets. This makes the surface of the sheet exceptionally smooth and even. Toastmaster is also available in over 15 colors.

    Both Let It Snow and Toastmaster do not use flame retardant chemicals, so they absolutely safe for you and your family.

    If you have any flannel related questions, just ask us below and we'll get back to you pronto. And please share this article with any friends or family who you think will find this useful. We appreciate your help.