DIY: Sleep Pillows

In a good night, sleep sneaks in and drifts across the consciousness in a gentle wave.

Other times, it can be maddeningly elusive, staying just out of reach of a tired mind until it’s long overdue. Blame that last Stephen King chapter, the simmering aggravation of a traffic ticket, worry about a sick child, or perhaps that last stop at the espresso bar.

We herb fanciers have a grab bag of tricks to help turn loose of the day’s tensions and invite slumber. We can draw a warm bath and hang a bag of lavender under the faucet to release a calming fragrance. We can settle under a quilt with a soothing cup of chamomile tea. We can even tuck little sachets filled with soporific herbs into our pillowcases so that every time we stir we get a hint of relaxing scent.

Sleep pillows are an age-old tradition. The Romans used rose petals in theirs. King George III and Abraham Lincoln preferred a filling of hops. At naptime, Victorian ladies rested on lacy little pillows of lavender and rose petals. Legend has it that the cradle of the baby Jesus contained a sleep-inducing herb, Galium verum, known as Our-Lady’s-bedstraw.

The idea that herbs can be used to help one fall asleep or stay asleep is not just an old wives’ tale. Scientists have experimented with lavender oil to induce drowsiness in laboratory mice. Aromatherapists explore the role of fragrance in bringing about significant physiological and emotional effects. Because olfactory neurons are connected directly to the brain, simply inhaling a scent can stimulate the release of hormones that generate a range of feelings and responses; they can calm fear or anger, relieve stress or pain, and yes, bring on sleep. There is thus foundation for the belief that a pleasant fragrance in one’s pillow can alleviate mental and emotional stress, a frequent cause of sleeplessness.

Sleep pillows can be a pleasure even for sound sleepers. For people who have difficulty falling asleep or who are bedbound, herb pillows are a thoughtful and comforting gift. The pillows we offer here can be made quickly from bits of fabrics in pretty patterns and colors and trimmed with lace, ruffles, or ribbons, as desired. Lacy handkerchiefs may also be used. Our versions, 4 inches on a side when finished, are made from handwoven cotton checks and ticking stripes. We trimmed them with bits of antique lace or with piping of the same fabric cut on the bias to make them look like Grandma’s. Each pillow is an envelope designed to hold a separate herb bag made of muslin, tulle, or other thin fabric slipped in through the back. The outer pillow can be washed when necessary, and the herb bag replaced or refreshed when its fragrance fades.

Sleep pillows can be of any size, but traditionally they are small and relatively flat so that they will lie smoothly and unobtrusively inside a standard pillowcase or under a bed pillow. Some are so pretty that you may be tempted to keep them on top of the bed. Extras can be stored in the linen closet, where they’ll scent the sheets.

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