person's feet on top of flannel sheets

Now that the days are getting shorter and the nights are getting chillier, you might have started thinking about ways to feel cozier at night. Rugs on the floor, thermal curtains on the window, and a heavier duvet will all go a long way toward keeping you toasty while helping you save on heating costs. Another favorite winter warmer: flannel sheets.

Most of us are familiar with the warm and fuzzy feel of flannel. But what is flannel, exactly? And are all flannel sheets created equally? Here's everything you need to know before buying flannel sheets.

The benefits of sleeping on flannel sheets

There are quite a few benefits to sleeping on flannel sheets. Here are the top ones:

  • Flannel is warm. Sleeping on high-quality flannel sheets will help keep you warm during the night without the need to crank up your thermostat. Flannel is able to keep you warm because it's made via a process called "napping," which creates insulating air pockets on the surface of the sheet that trap body heat. If you're worried about flannel sleeping too hot, look for sheets made of 100% cotton flannel. Like all cotton bedding, cotton flannel is breathable and great at absorbing moisture and wicking it away from your body.
  • Flannel is super soft. High-quality flannel feels fuzzy and extremely soft to the touch. Keep in mind that low-quality flannel, however, can feel rough against your skin.
  • Flannel is durable. If you follow the manufacturer's instructions and take good care of your flannel sheets, a high-quality set should last for years.

Related: Linen sheets: A buyer's guide

How flannel is produced

Flannel is a loosely knit fabric that can be made of wool, cotton, or synthetic fibers. It most likely originated in Scotland and Wales in the 16th century, when it was made out of brushed wool. After the Industrial Revolution, this fabric made its way to the United States, where cotton became the most popular flannel material.

Flannel gets its fuzzy feel through a process called napping. That's when a woven sheet of fabric is passed over heavy cylinders covered with thousands of fine metal teeth that brush the fabric, pulling tiny, fine fibers from it. This creates millions of little insulating air pockets that trap heat and keep you warm.

Flannel may be brushed on one side or both, or it can be unbrushed. Double-napped flannel (flannel that's brushed on both sides) is considered to be of the highest quality. High-quality flannel is soft and fuzzy but not bulky. Finer flannel will be more durable and less prone to pilling than bulky flannel.

Unlike other fabrics, flannel quality is not judged by thread count but by weight (grams per square meter, or gsm). The higher the gsm, the warmer and better quality the sheets. 170 gms is considered high-quality flannel and will be quite warm.

The country of origin matters too. Most high-quality flannel comes from England, Germany, or Portugal. Portugal, in particular, has a long tradition of creating flannel from long-staple cotton and produces some of the softest flannel out there. German and English flannel will typically have a denser feel.

Related: What you need to know before buying new sheets

Common flannel sheet materials

Today, flannel can be made from cotton, synthetic fibers, or a blend of the two. Less commonly it can also be made of wool.

Cotton is the most common flannel material. It's highly breathable and absorbs moisture well (which is a must for people who tend to sweat a lot at night). Cotton flannel sheets feel soft and dry. Keep in mind that 100% cotton flannel sheets may shrink a bit after the first couple of washings.

Synthetic flannel is made from very fine, tightly woven polyester fibers and is often called micro-flannel. The good news about micro-flannel is that it sheds less lint than cotton flannel and won't shrink in the wash. It may also feel softer than some cotton flannel because synthetic yarn contains more tiny fibers than cotton that are raised during napping, and it maintains the fuzzy feel for longer. But synthetic flannel can't compete with cotton in terms of breathability and moisture-wicking properties.

Some flannel is a blend of cotton and polyester. These sheets will have some of the qualities of both materials: They will be more breathable than purely synthetic flannel but will not shrink as much as 100% cotton flannel will. The drawback is that these sheets will be a lot more prone to pilling. That's because polyester tends to make the cotton fibers tougher, which creates many tiny fiber clusters (pills) that will remain stuck to the base fabric.

Wool flannel sheets are harder to find these days and often can only be made to order. If you crave the feel of wool, it'll be easier to achieve that by getting a wool flannel blanket or a wool-based mattress pad.

Related: How to read a sheet label

Flannel sheet costs

Expect to spend around $200 on high-quality 100% cotton flannel sheets, depending on the size. Synthetic and blend flannel will typically be less expensive.

Caring for flannel sheets

Always follow the manufacturer's instructions when washing flannel sheets. Wool flannel is usually dry clean only. Cotton and synthetic flannel should be washed with cold or warm water on a gentle cycle. Don't use fabric softener, as this will actually stiffen the fabric and reduce the softness of the sheets over time. Air dry if you can, or put the sheets in the dryer at a low temperature.

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If you spilled something on your sheets, don't fret. Follow our guide on how to remove any stains from your sheets. They'll be clean again in no time!

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