Cotton vs silk: Which is best for sleep and bedding?
You’ve spent a third of your life in bed, so it makes sense that you should be thinking about what kind of sheets will make for the most comfortable nights.
Chances are cotton has always held an allure as being refreshing and cool against our skin; however, there is more than one option when considering which material to use for your bedsheets.
While cotton has done a good job carving out a reputation for comfort, silk bedding scores highly not just for comfort, but health, durability, sustainability and even affordability when considering its useful lifetime.
These are two fabrics that score high points in luxury bedding.
Long seen as a luxurious material, silk sheets and silk pillowcases made from Mulberry Silk are becoming increasingly popular as they have many properties that aid in a good night’s sleep.
It is recognised around the world that the finest cotton sheets are made with Egyptian cotton in high thread counts, 800+ for the most luxurious. The most popular weaves being percale and sateen.
So how does silk stack up against cotton?
Cotton vs Silk: Everything you need to know
What is silk?
Silk is the strongest natural fibre on the planet, made from silkworms the fibre is mostly from a protein called fibroin, which is comprised of many amino acids. It is the natural properties of the protein fibre and the length of thread that gives silk the soft and smooth feel which has made it a prized possession for over 4000 years.
Did you know that a single strand of silk can be longer than 1 km?
What's more, its one tenth the width of a human hair and when compared to the same thickness in steel, silk is stronger.
Silk is graded into quality levels ranging from 6A, 5A, 4A, 3A, 2A, A, B, C, D, E, F. With 6A being the highest grade.
Mayfairsilk uses only Grade 6A Mulberry Silk fibre to produce our products.
Silk is sold by its momme (weight), similar to how cotton is sold by thread count. For use in bed linen, 22-25 Momme is considered the optimum weight for balancing the two variables of cost and performance.
Consider that 25 Momme silk has over 30% more silk per square inch than 19 Momme silk. Cost obviously increases with higher Momme as more silk is being used in the fabric.
What is cotton?
Cotton on the other hand is a staple fibre, which means the yarn is made from different varying lengths of short fibres and this is woven to create a soft, durable fabric. Cotton is primarily composed of cellulose, an insoluble organic compound.
Misconceptions about silk
When people think of silk sheets, there are often a few misconceptions that immediately spring to mind – it’s too slippery, too delicate, too hot and too difficult to handwash.
However, these presumptions arise from past experiences with either delicate silk apparel (which is made in a low momme weight) or with 'satin' made from polyester.
Silk and Satin? Are they describing the same thing?
Silk and 'Satin' are not the same. Briefly, we'll cover the difference between the two, so you're more informed when you come across these terms being used to describe fabrics.
To begin, silk describes the actual fibre, whereas satin is a name given to a type of weave.
Fabrics are woven using many types of fibres. These can be natural fibres, such as silk, wool, cotton or cashmere, or man-made such as polyester or rayon to name a few.
What is satin
Satin, is a type of weave that creates a super smooth fabric on one side that has a soft hand and drapes well, the underside is dull in appearance. The satin weave is achieved by ‘floating’ the warp or weft yarn over four or more of the opposing yarn and under one before repeating the process again.
It is this length between the interlocking yarns that creates the smooth, lustrous sheen on the surface of the fabric.
'Satin' was popularised in the 1980s when manufacturers discovered they could imitate the look of silk by using man-made fibres such as polyester and rayon. 'Satin sheets' featured in Madonna's hit song Express Yourself, however, the experience of sleeping on satin sheets made from polyester is not a very comfortable one. They're very hot, slippery and generate static electricity. Not a combination for a deep restful night sleep.
Unfortunately, many people associate 'satin' sheets with silk, because on first look they can have a somewhat similar appearance, but that's where the similarities end. Polyester no matter how it's weaved cannot match the numerous tactile, and health-promoting properties of silk.
Don't be fooled by unscrupulous sellers that label their fabric as satin silk. It's often used to dupe unsuspecting buyers to think they're buying silk, when in fact they're buying an imitation of silk. Read the description and press them for further details on exactly what fibre is used and in what momme.
A satin weave can also be used with cotton as the fibre and this is called sateen. It has a more distinctive sheen and smoother feel than conventional cotton, however, it also traps a lot of heat especially as the thread count gets higher.
If you're a hot sleeper, you'll want to stay away from 'satin' made from man-made fibres or 'sateen cotton'.
Silk can be woven into a number of types of fabric, such as Charmeuse (a type of satin), Dupion, Crepe de chine, Crepe backed silk, Satin, Chiffon, Habotai and Shantung and Taffeta to name a few.
Silk sheets are usually made from Charmeuse or Crepe-backed-satin with variations in the warp/weft ratio. The finishing process also plays an important role in how the finished fabric looks and feels.
Mayfairsilk has perfected the style of fabric and finishing to give our products their trademark look and feel.
All our silk sheets are made from 22 Momme silk and our silk pillowcases from 25 Momme silk.
It's elegant and provides the most luxurious feeling with a soft, sensuous touch.
12 Tips to compare these two popular fabrics
We sometimes hear of the cooling feel of cotton, especially on a warm day, but did you know that in terms of regulating your body temperature to keep you comfortable, silk consistently outperforms it?
Silk is also much softer and smoother than cotton. This means silk helps prevent damage to your hair and reduce skin aging / wrinkles from sleep creases. Silk is less abrasive than cotton to sleep on and doesn't draw out the moisture from your skin and hair like cotton.
2) Temperature regulating
There is a common misconception that silk can feel sticky and warm in the summer, but it's actually the opposite.
Silk as a natural fibre is breathable and keeps you feeling fresh during the night. Silk is a natural insulator also, trapping small amounts of air between the fibres to keep you warm when it's cold outside, yet it also vents excess heat when you overheat. So it feels cool and light on those stuffy summer nights and the perfect temperature on a winter’s day.
In short, silk keeps you in a temperature-controlled environment that is synergistic to what the human body desires. This is important because as we sleep and drift into a deep sleep, our body loses its ability to regulate temperature - both heating and cooling. This is why it's vital during this time that our bedding takes over and keeps us in a comfortable temperature band. This reduces tossing and turning, sweating, or lifting the blanket to allow heat to escape. Do you put your feet out of the bed? This is a telltale sign that your bedding is too hot and your body is using your exposed feet to cool down.
Cotton is a slightly denser fabric and for some skin types, it can be irritating. Bed linen made from cotton, whilst initially feeling cool doesn't have the insulating or temperature controlling properties of silk. Whilst cotton is generally a highly breathable fabric, this property significantly reduces in higher thread counts and particularly in high thread count sateen weaves. If it's cool outside, cotton does not insulate effectively, and likewise when you overheat, the cotton absorbs the sweat deep into the fibres. Once cotton becomes saturated, it loses all insulating properties and the body heat will reflect back at you making you hotter and the vicious cycle increases. Cotton's ability to dry out is very slow compared to silk and this leads us on to the next important point.
3) Dry and comfortable
Staying dry is key to a comfortable night sleep between the sheets.
Silk is hydrophobic, meaning it does not absorb water efficiently, however, it is an excellent wicking material, meaning you'll feel dryer all through the night, providing a fantastic sleep environment.
Silk preserves your hair and skin's natural oils and moisture levels, leaving you with a brighter, plumper complexion in the morning.
Cotton on the other hand can absorb moisture up to 27 times its weight. When you consider that most people sleep for between 7 and 8 hours a night, this can lead to a lot of moisture being drawn out of your body, which can dry out skin and hair.
This is an excellent property for bath towels, but as it doesn't then evaporate moisture effectively so it becomes waterlogged.
Egyptian Cotton sheets, being made from a short-staple fibre that is made into yarn and woven into fabric cannot match the smooth, soft feel of silk due to its short fibres.
Many of our customers write to us trying to describe the feeling of sleeping on silk sheets. They've said it's like floating in water without the feeling of being wet, or like floating in a cloud.
If you want the true feeling of luxury, high quality, high momme silk is a must.
Silk made in lower momme, 12-18 Momme, requires more delicate care as the thread of the fabric is looser and more prone to snagging. However, silk sheets and silk pillowcases made in higher momme from 19 - 25 feels thicker, is more opaque and can be machine washed in most cases (best to read the care instructions of the individual product).
Mayfairsilk has perfected modern weaving technology with a high momme rating, which means there is more silk per square inch that creates a highly desirable bedding that can be machine washed (following these simple care instructions) and will last for many years to come. Do not wash silk with standard detergent - you must use one that's designed for silk/wool.
As grade 6A silk is a long-fibre, one thread can be over 1 mile long, the smoothness is unparalleled by cotton. The lustre and rich colours you get from silk are also beyond peer. This is down to the fact that silk fibre is a prism that refracts light differently from different angles. This means the colour depth and shade will be altered depending on your viewing angle and the current light source.
Mayfairsilk finishing gives our silk a slightly more muted, 'matt look', rather than the overly glossy look of others. Our colour palette is calming and balanced, playing with contrasts and vibrant highlights to create an aura of beauty and happiness after a long day.
For many of us, getting a good night’s rest can be just what we need at the end of a long day. However, for some, getting into bed can be a trigger for allergies. Many people suffer from allergies to dust mites and other micro-organisms. This is hardly ideal at a time of day when you’re supposed to be at your most relaxed.
Cotton as we have previously stated is highly absorbent. This moisture that's trapped deep in the fibres, along with your body heat is an ideal environment to encourage the growth of bacteria and dust mites. This is a recipe for household allergies and the reason you should wash cotton sheets regularly.
Thankfully, silk is hypoallergenic. It won’t aggravate allergies in the same way cotton and synthetic fabrics do. Among its beneficial properties is the fact that it prevents the growth of bacteria, mould, mildew and dust mites. These are the major causes of discomfort for those who are sensitive to dust mites or who have respiratory issues.
8) Reduces sleep creases, dry skin and hair frizziness
Silk is widely recommended by dermatologists and leading skincare specialists to assist in maintaining healthy skin as hydrated, plump skin cells show fewer lines, wrinkles and greater luminosity.
"Did you know the second leading cause of wrinkles is sleeping? After sunlight/UV exposure, squishing your face into a pillow for approximately 2,500 hours per year is like ironing wrinkles into the skin. In fact, by the time someone is in their mid-40s, I can usually look at their face, neck, and chest and determine if they are a side or back sleeper! Trust me, it shows.”
- Renée Rouleau, Celebrity Esthetician & Skincare Expert
9) Free from all toxic chemicals and dyes
All Mayfairsilk products are certified Standard 100 by Oeko-Tex to be completely free of all toxic chemicals and dyes in the entire production process.
Cotton production and processing use a lot of chemicals and pesticides to grow and treat the fibre. Many of these residues remain on the cotton and this can cause irritation to your skin.
One of the main benefits of silk bed sheets is softness, but when produced in a high momme, it's certainly not lightweight when it comes to durability. It may be formed through a delicate process, but it is definitely built to last. Silk fabric can withstand a lot of wear and tear when it has a higher momme weight. When following a few simple care tips, silk will stand the test of time.
Cotton is a durable material too, but requires more frequent washing and can become less soft and more irritable. Cotton’s strong fibres are also more likely to be adversely affected by moisture, which can also lead to more degradation.
Silk farming is a sustainable process perfected over 4000 years and made more durable via modern technology. It's a model of agroecology by the Food and Agriculture Organisation.
Production takes place in regions that have high annual rainfall, uses No Pesticides, No fungicides, No insecticides, No herbicides, Biodegradable and By-products are used in the community.
It's a fully circular economy, even the silkworms are consumed as a delicacy in Asia where production takes place.
Whereas 50% of cotton is grown in arid regions and it requires huge amounts of water to grow and process, including many toxic chemicals, pesticides, fungicides and formaldehyde. It's estimated to use 2700 litres of water to make one t-shirt.
Silk production emits 814x less carbon than cotton. 34kg CO2 per tonne vs cotton 27,680kg per tonne.
There is no escaping the fact that silk bedding is generally more expensive than cotton bedding. This is partly due to the long process taken to make silk and the fact that it is largely a natural process that can’t be hurried along by human intervention.
However, while the cost may be higher, silk bedding represents excellent value. You will replace cotton bed sheets much more regularly than silk due to silk’s great quality and durability.
Committing to investing in silk bedding can seem daunting for some. Therefore, why not consider starting small and getting a feel for the material before pushing the boat out? The most affordable way to dip your toe into the world of silk bedding is with our pillowcases. Enjoy the soft and luxurious feel of mulberry silk and decide for yourself. You won’t be disappointed.
In conclusion, cotton fabric has natural water absorbency, is lower on initial cost and has good breathability but this is offset by a courser hand feel, drying of your skin and hair, it's is not hypoallergenic and it requires more frequent washing which reduces lifespan.
Silk bedding is a luxury worth seeking out. Not only will you enjoy a good night sleep, but you will be working towards clear skin from the inside out. It has numerous benefits for your skin and reduces exposure to pollutants and allergens. So say goodbye to those chemicals and opt for pure silk instead. Its softness on the skin can also reduce dryness and irritation, resulting in greater comfort and improved quality of sleep. Silk is temperature regulating so you can remain in deep sleep without disturbance.
Discover for yourself why silk has been considered the Queen of Textiles for over 4 millennia.
I hope this article has been helpful in comparing the differences between cotton and silk when choosing your next bed linen.
At the end of the day though, reading from a page is just intellectual understanding. Trying is believing, so get started today and test drive us with our silk pillowcases before investing in a set of your own silk sheets. Browse our full collection of silk pillowcases, silk sheets, cushion covers, sleep masks, scrunchies and face coverings.