Like all young mums, Pia Maguire has joy and love in abundance. What she could do with more of is sleep: that delicious state of blissful unconsciousness that parents of babies and toddlers crave.
Pia’s beautiful daughters’ sleep patterns are further complicated by their suffering from eczema.
“Sometimes it has been so bad that Maya, who is five months old, would scream with the pain and irritation,” says Pia, who works part-time in human resources. Three months ago, Pia, sleep-deprived and wanting to help her girls, did some research into eczema and found a reference to wool bedding improving sleep quality, particularly for people with skin disorders.
“I ordered wool cot duvets, pillows and mattress toppers for the girls’ beds and the difference was immediately noticeable,” says Pia, who lives with her husband, Ben, Ava, two and a half, and Maya, five months, in north London. “Ben was sceptical and wasn’t sure I was spending the money wisely, but he’s now a convert. After the girls’ sleep improved, we ordered wool bedding for ourselves, and we sleep better now too.
“What was also pleasing was that the wool came from British sheep, rather than from cotton from the Far East or goose down from Eastern Europe. It’s helping sheep farmers look after our countryside by making it worth their while to keep sheep. It made me feel proud, in a way,” says Pia.
Anecdotal evidence such as Pia’s is always nice to hear, as the British wool industry, once the mainstay of our rural economy, is struggling to assert itself despite its impeccable eco-credentials. Not only is British wool recyclable and local, but sheep farmers do much to maintain our rural landscape.
Ongoing studies into wool and sleep at the University of Sydney appear to confirm Pia’s experiences. Researchers at the university’s Faculty of Health Sciences conducted “polysomnography” tests, which use sensors to measure the amount and type of sleep that people get.
Eight healthy volunteers slept in and on wool, cotton and synthetic sleepwear and bedding at three different temperatures: hot (29C/84F), neutral (22C/72F) and cold (17C/63F). The differences in sleep quality showed that wool produced more deep sleep and longer sleep, with the difference at high temperatures most marked. Here, the average night’s sleep was 448 minutes (seven hours 28 minutes) with wool, compared with 426 minutes (seven hours six minutes) with synthetic nightwear. Cotton performed better than synthetic bedding, but worse than wool.
The research, due to be published later this year, complements previous findings on the benefits of sleeping on wool and sheepskin both for healthy people and for those with bed sores and skin problems. Scientists believe the wool improves sleep because it absorbs much of the sweat bodies produce at night, keeping skin dry and comfortable. It regulates body temperature, keeping sleepers warm in winter and cool in the summer, a feature that is particularly helpful for babies, who have trouble regulating their own temperatures.
Jo Dawson, of H Dawson Wool, a family wool-buying business since 1888, says the British are slowly rediscovering all sorts of uses for wool, including bedding and sleepwear as well as unusual architectural and interiors applications. Designers have even made load-bearing structures with wool, including staircases.
“British lowland wool is particularly good for bedding because it is naturally bouncy and springs back into shape when depressed.” He says that for years wool bedding was only of minority interest because it was difficult to wash, but now washable duvets, pillows and mattress toppers are available thanks to modern wool processing methods. Certainly wool mattress toppers, which cost between £100 and £125, are kinder on the pocket than wool mattresses, which can cost £1,000-£2,000.
Children’s sleep expert Andrea Grace says: “It doesn’t surprise me that children sleep better on wool bedding as the natural fibres are likely to help regulate temperature. I would, however, advise parents to check their babies aren’t allergic to lanolin first if they are tempted to try wool.”