A memorable massage is the sum of so many parts. Although the technique and touch of a practitioner should be the centerpiece of any session, there are certain elements of a massage that might serve to enhance the overall experience. If not considered carefully, however, these same elements could distract from an otherwise heavenly session.
The standard components of a successful session include relaxing background music; a lubricant that suits the type of touch administered as well as the individual needs of the client; soft lights; soothing aromas; a sturdy, comfortable table; and a clean, quiet space.
Another important element—which may not spring immediately to mind when considering the components of massage—is the type of linens the therapist chooses to use. Similar to massage music, lubricants and lighting, linens are one part of an equation that adds up to a truly soothing session.
And just like the music, lubricants and lighting, a practitioner should select linens based not only on what she thinks will please clients, but on what best suits her own needs and preferences.
What follows is a guide to widely available fabrics—cotton, linen, organic and synthetic. We’ll explore the importance of thread count, what each of these textiles is made of, how the fabric feels, how it performs, the effects of these textiles on the environment and the level of care each one requires.
Thread count: Comfort
Rough and tough could be good qualities for a tablecloth or drapes, but certainly not for massage sheets. When searching for the perfect set of linens for bodywork, softness is a top priority. Thread count can help determine how soft a set of sheets will feel.
The thread count of material is defined by the number of horizontal and vertical threads woven in one square inch of the fabric. This number can range anywhere from 80 to 1,000 or more, and the higher the thread count, generally speaking, the softer the sheets will be. A high thread count also indicates resistance to pilling—when fibers ball up on the fabric surface—which is beneficial in massage sheets that are bound for repeated laundering.
According to Sharon Stevens, assistant coordinator for the Missouri Textile and Apparel Center at the University of Missouri-Columbia, high-quality sheets have at least 180 threads per square inch. Linenplace.com, a textile sales and information site, states that 200 to 220 is a good thread count; 230 to 280 is even better; and 300 to 400 is best.
However, a high thread count usually comes with a high price. It pays to consider other factors when choosing a fabric—such as what the material contains.
Karma sheets: Going organic
Few of us wonder about the source of the textiles in our favorite T-shirts, jackets and sheets. It’s the rare consumer who even considers the fact that the fibers in natural fabrics, such as cotton and linen, are farmed, just like fruits and vegetables. And just like fruits and vegetables, these fibers could be grown either organically or with the heavy use of chemicals.
The Soil Association, a certification organization for organic food and farming in the United Kingdom, reports that the textiles industry is one of the largest polluters in the world. Growing conventional cotton, according to the association, uses about 25 percent of the world’s insecticide supply and about 10 percent of the world’s pesticides.
Once the cotton has been harvested, the Soil Association reports that approximately 8,000 additional chemicals are used to convert the raw fibers into the material we use every day. The World Health Organization (WHO) classifies many of these processing chemicals as “moderately hazardous” or “acutely hazardous.” The WHO also reports that 20,000 deaths occur in developing countries each year from pesticide poisoning, and many are attributed to producing cotton—the world’s principal fiber.
The good news is organic cotton is grown in more than 22 countries, according to the Soil Association, and textile merchants continue to jump on the eco-friendly bandwagon in droves. For a list of companies that sell organic-cotton sheets, as well as sheets composed of other organic fibers, visit OrganicExchange.org, or check the label on linens to see if they were made with organic fibers.
Counting on cotton
The phrase “100 percent cotton” conjures images of a comfy, well-worn T-shirt. Imagine massage sheets that stir that same light, secure feeling, and you can see why 100-percent cotton is a popular choice. Another benefit of 100-percent cotton, besides its familiar feel, is that it breathes well—absorbing and releasing perspiration quickly—which helps keep clients cool and comfortable on the table. Pure cotton sheets typically can be machine washed and dried repeatedly without the risk of pilling, but they do have a tendency to shrink if not treated with a shrink-resistant finish.
One drawback of 100-percent-cotton sheets is they will wrinkle, but this aesthetic detail could be trumped by comfort when it comes to massage. Because of cotton’s tendency to wrinkle, sheets that blend cotton with polyester are popular, as polyester resists creasing, shrinking and stretching.
When shopping for cotton sheets, remember: Not all cotton is created equal. There are grades of cotton that range from low to medium to high. High-grade cotton is the softest and strongest of the crops. This category includes Egyptian, Pima, Supima, American Egyptian and Sea Island cotton, among other strains. Check the label on any set of sheets that claim to be made of high-grade cotton, as sometimes only a small percentage of the top-notch cotton crops actually are used in the material.
Linen is another option for those seeking a natural material in massage sheets. Made from the stalk of a flax plant, linen is one of the strongest plant fibers available, with nearly three times the strength of cotton. The subtle luster that gives linen its elegant reputation can be attributed to the wax content of the flax plant.
This textile’s durability will make it last, despite the amount of laundering endured. Linen also is highly absorbent and a good conductor of heat, working well to keep clients comfortable. However, anyone who has spent a day in linen pants knows this material is notorious for wrinkling. Depending on personal taste, the wrinkles could be considered a part of linen’s charm. If not, they can be ironed out easily when the linen is damp. But the poor elasticity of linen may result in visible wear and tear if repeatedly creased one way, so try to avoid folding linen massage sheets.
Against the skin, linen has a warm, textured feel, comparable to flannel, but without the high heat and fuzziness. At first, linen massage sheets may seem a tad too crisp for comfort, but machine washing and drying will add softness every time. Before tossing linen sheets in the washer, however, make sure they are 100 percent linen, as linen blended with other fibers, such as silk or rayon, may call for dry cleaning or hand washing instead.
On a quest for the best linens, a look at labels makes clear that most sheets, even those predominantly composed of natural fibers, such as cotton or linen, contain man-made or synthetic fibers. Sheets made with synthetic fibers are typically less expensive than 100 percent natural fiber sheets, and these man-made materials are often easier to care for.
Synthetic fibers start as liquids in a laboratory, and are then manufactured into filaments, or fine strands, and formed into various fibers, such as polyester, acetate and acrylic. Rayon is also man-made, although it’s not considered a synthetic fiber because it’s made of regenerated cellulose, glucose units that form cell walls in most plants.
Characteristics of polyester fibers, which are widely blended into cotton, rayon, wool and other textiles, include strength; resistance to stretching, shrinking and wrinkling; and tolerance to repeated at-home laundering. Although these aspects increase ease of care, the addition of polyester to natural fabrics can decrease the ability of the linens to wick away moisture and breathe.
Rayon, on the other hand, is highly absorbent. It can imitate the texture of silk, cotton or linen, and it does not insulate body heat, so clients will stay cool in hot or humid climates. However, the durability of rayon is quite low—it wrinkles easily, stretches when wet and shrinks when machine washed and dried.
Two other man-made fibers commonly blended into linens are acetate and acrylic. Acetate resembles silk in terms of softness and pliability, and although it does not absorb moisture well, it does resist wrinkling and shrinking. Acrylic fibers are more like wool—springy and warm—but they also tend to be nonallergenic, durable and easily laundered
Launder by label
Once you locate the linens that best suit your practice and preferences, it’s important to launder them properly in order to maintain a top-quality look and feel. How a massage therapist chooses to care for and clean linens is specific to his or her individual practice. For the practitioner in private practice, home laundering may be the most convenient and least costly method of care. If this is the case, be sure the sheets are made to withstand machine washing and drying, and follow the specifications on the label or packaging precisely.
For some massage therapists, hand-washing sheets, hiring a linen-cleaning service or paying a professional dry cleaner is out of the question, for reasons often related to time, money or convenience. If none of these laundering options appeal to you, rule out the purchase of linens that require such specialized care.
Carefully reading labels and packaging will help you determine which linens to purchase and how to launder them to last—one massage after another.
Comfort is queen
Whether massage sheets are made of lime-green linen, white cotton or a bright blend of synthetic materials, what’s essential is that they’re comfortable for both the client on the table and the practitioner above it.
Comfort for the client may mean a soft texture, cozy warmth, high absorption and adequate draping ability. For the practitioner, comfort could be defined by ease of care as well as a clear conscience about what’s in the linens themselves.
Take the time to figure out what comfort means to you, and choose the perfect linens for your practice. After all, massage sheets are an important component of a most memorable session.
Brandi Schlossberg is an avid bodywork client and full-time journalist based in Reno, Nevada. She has written recently for MASSAGE Magazine on “Retreat to Recharge! Wellness Retreats Replenish Energy,” (May), “Spa Stretching” (April), “How To Choose The Right Lubricant for Every Massage” (February) and “Hellerwork” (November 2006).