They feel like plush cotton and kill germs too.
Those are two of the selling points for an emerging breed of bed linen made from eucalyptus fibers, according to Diana Dobin, senior vice president of design and sales at Valley Forge Fabrics, which supplies fabrics to the hospitality industry.
The eucalyptus sheets can also withstand the constant cycles of washing that hotel linens must endure without piling or deterioration. The sheets will not likely cost more than standard cotton or cotton/polyester sheets when they start appearing in hotels next year. (A few hotel chains are currently testing the sheets.)
"A 300 thread count sheet feels like a 600 count," Dobin said. Because a hotel needs three sets of sheets for every bed, "the volume is tremendous."
And the sheets did quite well with a dust mite test by the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM). More on that in a bit.
The sheets are part of an overall green initiative at the Florida-based company. Like Interface Global, the billion-plus industrial carpet maker that has championed corporate green initiatives, Valley Forge says that its sustainability programs have had a cascading effect: Costs go down, public relations increase, and overall job satisfaction among employees rises.
Since 2006, Valley Forge's greenhouse gas emissions have declined by 35 percent. At the same time, 60 percent of employees now cite the company's sustainability initiatives as one of the top reasons for staying at it. The majority of the time spent on sustainability initiatives, moreover, is voluntary. Over the same period, revenue has risen 20 percent. The company brands all of its initiatives under the acronym FRESH, which stands for "fabrics redefining environmental standards for hospitality."
Valley Forge, admits Dobin, started from scratch three years ago. It didn't have a sustainability plan and is located in a county where waste companies do not pick up recycling at commercial buildings. At first, the company had to collect its own recycling. After one of the employees learned that the country also only recycled two types of plastic, it began taking any plastic to the next county over, which had a more comprehensive recycling program.
Since then, the company has expanded its recycling program to become a drop-off point for light bulbs, batteries and Crocs shoes. It will also take in old sheets and linens from hotel customers, which now have to pay to get rid of them. (A set of sheets lasts about 18 months at a hotel.)
When paper towels were removed from the restrooms at Valley Forge, it caused some consternation but eventually the employees got used to the upscale air hand dryer. The company also paid to have songs composed about the program. It's a bit Japan-in-the-1980s and it costs money, but the songs reinforce the message.
The main greenhouse gas reductions, though, have come through different shipping techniques and changes to the products. In the past, for instance, Valley Forge made almost all of its curtains with polyester thread.
"There are very strict fire codes and no natural fibers meet them," she said. "Natural fibers also don't meet the longevity requirements for hotels," which is around five to seven years.
But, since polyester is made from fossil fuels, the company has shifted to thread made from recycled plastic. When melted, recycled plastic beads turn into wisps, sort of like cotton candy. The wisps are then woven into thread.
Some early movers into the plastic thread curtain market charged a premium, but Valley Forge decided to eliminate that and sells them at roughly the same price as polyester drapes.
The eucalyptus sheets, meanwhile, emerged from a collaboration with an Austrian company called Lenzing, which had developed eucalyptus fabric about a decade ago called Tencel
"Eucalyptus trees grow 120 feet in eight years," Dobin said. Eucalyptus is also easier to turn into a pliable, soft fabric than bamboo.
Unfortunately, the early sheets did not hold up to repeated washing. Valley Forge and Lenzing went to the lab and created a variant of Tencel, which seems to hold up.
The fabric can also be used to fill pillows, which brings us to the dust mite test. To pass the test, inspectors place mites on a piece of fabric and subsequently measure the size of the colony. Eucalyptus has natural antibacterial and antimicrobial properties and the size of the colonies left on the eucalyptus fabrics has been lower.