Fleece; Cotton versus Polyester

The first time I came across polyester fleece in my local fabric store I was ecstatic. This was sometime in the early 90s and I was an avid sewer and the mother of a toddler. Cheap, soft, cuddly and warm, I thought I had found the perfect fabric for fulfilling many of my family's needs in our damp, cool coastal Northern California climate. I set about making jackets, hats, throw blankets, and even bathrobes.

rolled polyester fleece blankets in grey, brown and tan

Then I had the bright idea of making my toddler some one-piece footie pajamas. Why not, I thought, it's the same type of fabric that the big name-brand manufacturers use. And like most active toddlers my son was prone to kicking off his blankets during the night. This would result in him waking up cold, which would then result in him padding down the hall to our bedroom and climbing into our bed, where he would promptly fall fast asleep. If you have ever had a toddler in bed with you then you know first hand how much they thrash and kick! Our son would even spin himself so he was horizontal to us! Something had to give. I was starting to go batty from lack of sleep. 

The polyester fleece pajama experiment

All cozy in his new polyester fleece pajamas I tucked my son into bed feeling proud of myself, for I thought I had solved our nighttime sleep issues. Little did I know that I had just traded one set of problems for another. A couple hours after settling him in, out he comes into the living room. His cheeks are bright red, he has a light sheen of sweat on his face and neck and his hair is stuck to his forehead. I proceeded to talk to him like he was awake, asking him what was wrong. Mind you, his eyes were open. But low and behold, he was not awake! He was sleepwalking. I had never encountered a sleep walker before so I didn't realize what was going on and I ended up waking him up before I figured it out. This sent him into a two-hour crying jag. Boy, lesson learned. Never wake a little sleep walker. 

Over the course of the next few weeks this same scenario repeated itself a number of times and it was always accompanied by a red face and a sweaty body. I figured out along the way not to talk to him when he entered the living room but to just gently guide him back to bed, which was less jarring for him and us but didn't solve the overheating issues. 

Finding the solution -- all cotton pajamas

It was when a rash started to form on the inside of his thighs and armpits that I decided we both had had enough of this experiment, and I threw the polyester pajamas away. By this time I had done some research into the properties of

Close up of Cotton Bol

synthetic fabrics and had decided that all natural, cotton pajamas held the answer to our problems. I found some nice, 100 percent cotton fabric at a boutique sewing store and made new pajamas. Now totally covered in his cozy footie pajamas made from breathable cotton, our son slept soundly all night without overheating or sleep walking.

The properties of cotton and polyester fabrics

There are two main fiber classifications: natural and man-made/synthetic. Cotton, silk, wool, flax and hemp are natural fibers. Acetate, acrylic, nylon, rayon and polyester are man-made/synthetic. 

Polyester is made from terephthalic acid and ethylene glycol, both petroleum derivatives, the latter of which is commonly known as antifreeze. 

Polyester does not breathe and tends to stick to perspiring skin. If set aflame it does not burn, it melts. Fabrics made from polyester are generally less expensive then fabrics made from natural fibers.   

Cotton is hypoallergenic and does not irritate the skin. It is breathable, allowing more air flow so the body does not overheat. It burns as opposed to melting. When it is grown organically it is free of chemicals. Fabrics made from cotton generally cost more than synthetic fabrics. 

Polyester fleece and our ocean’s health

Fast forward 30 years and we now understand the dangers that plastics and synthetic microfibers pose to the health of our waterways, oceans and even our

Underwater scene of school of fish in the ocean

food chain. When we wash clothing made from synthetic pile fabrics like polar fleece, tiny threads shed from the cloth and travel to local wastewater treatment plants, ultimately ending up in rivers, lakes and oceans. Synthetic microfibers are particularly problematic. Being so small they are easily consumed by fish and other wildlife, traveling up the food chain to larger animals, like us! 

Scary as it is, with very little effort each of us can make a difference. Whenever possible avoid purchasing clothing made from synthetic fibers. Your family and your planet will thank you.