NPR for North Texas
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The Reason You Can't Find All-Natural Cotton Nightgowns For Girls Goes Back To The 1940s

Lauren Silverman
Tags on nightgowns often say 'flame resistant' but don't specify whether there are chemicals used to meet that standard.

A cotton nightgown for your child seems like a pretty simple thing to track down. But it wasn't for John Rodakis, a dad living in Dallas. He’d heard about dangerous chemicals once common in kids pajamas, and out of precaution, he wanted a nightgown that was made from all natural materials. He’s not the only one. There’s a whole underground market for them. 

John Rodakis estimates his two kids spend about 11 hours every night in their pajamas. Mostly sleeping, but sometimes playing a toy guitar, too.

Tonight, his 6-year-old daughter has on a synthetic, sky-blue nightgown with white stars. She has sensitive skin and doesn’t like long johns, so Rodakis went hunting for an all-natural cotton nightgown. He checked retailers like Hanna Andersson and Target, but, no luck.

“They don’t make 'em!” Rodakis says. “I thought that was odd. And I think I did a Google search for ‘Why can’t I find a cotton nightgown?’ and was really surprised at the answer."

Credit Lauren Silverman / KERA News
One of the synthetic nightgowns John Rodakis' kid wears.

Going back to the 'Cowboy Chap Scandal'

The answer takes us back to the mid-1940s, when a handful of kids, wearing Gene Autry cowboy suits, were severely burned when their rayon outfits caught fire. Some of them died. The so-called“cowboy chap” scandalhelped launch a new law — the Flammable Fabrics Act of 1953 — aimed at making children’s clothes flame resistant.

In response, companies started adding chemicals to clothes to keep them from catching fire. The problem was that for decades, they added some pretty dangerous ones. Chemist Arlene Blum of the Green Science Policy Institute in California says in the 1970s, most of the children’s sleepwear in the country was treated with a flame retardant called TRIS

“And when we studied it,” Blum says, “it changed DNA and was likely to cause cancer.”

Blum and other researchers showed these chemicals would seep from the pajamas into the children after just one night of use. Parents were outraged.

“Every parent in America knew within a few weeks,” Blum says.

The response was so big that within just three months, the Consumer Product Safety Commission banned TRIS from use in kids pajamas. But the fear remained.

I realized there was definitely a market for gowns that weren't treated with chemicals and were all cotton because you can't buy them at a store.

What chemicals are used in nightgowns? 

Blum says companies today can pass the flammability standard by making tight-fitting pajamas — picture long underwear — that don’t catch fire so easily. But, if they want to make loose-fitting nightgowns — the kind John Rodakis' daughter likes — they have to use a special material or chemically treat the fabric.

“They can either be treated before woven into the fabric or the fabric can be treated after the fact,” says Jennifer Taggart, a California lawyer who specializes in consumer product safety and environmental law. Taggart says if a parent, like Rodakis, wants to know which chemicals are in a nightgown…good luck.

“It would require a great deal of research you could try contacting the manufacturer to find out, but if you’re standing in the store looking at a set of pajamas it’s probably going to be pretty hard to figure it out.”

The Consumer Product Safety Commission, also known as the CPSC, considers flame-retardant-treated pajamas to be safe. So do lawyer Jennifer Taggart and chemist Arlene Blum. Still, the CPSC doesn’t test flame-retardant chemicals. And there’s a lot of misinformation online.

There are blogs for parents — even pediatrician websites — that say chemicals in pajamas are tied to developmental disorders like ADHD. Blum says this isn’t true, but it has helped spawn an underground market for untreated, loose-fitting nightgowns.

I want to know exactly what is in anything I'm giving to my kid, be it a food or a fabric.

All-cotton nightgowns are illegal

Tara Pryde, of Kansas, sells hand-sewn nightgowns on Etsy. At first she just made them for her own little girls, then the kids of the PTA.

“And then, people started asking about them being 100 percent cotton,” she says. “I didn’t think about it at the time but then as I got more inquiries I realized there was definitely a market for gowns that weren’t treated with chemicals and were all cotton because you can’t buy them at a store.”

Because they’re illegal. Pryde says she didn’t know that. And she’s not the only one hand sewing and selling untreated nightgowns online. KERA found more than a dozen vendors on sites such as Etsy and Ebay. Attorney Jennifer Taggart says the CPSC likely won’t go after small-time sellers. And she understands, as a mom herself, why parents might be afraid of chemicals. But:

“If a parent's concerned,” Taggart says, “I would recommend electing to use only snug-fitting pajamas. I would not recommend using custom-made garments that don’t meet the flammability standards at all.”

Clothing-related burns are rare. And the number of deaths from these burns has been declining for decades. There were no such fatalities among U.S. kids at all in 2004, the most recent year studied, and only eight died in the five years before that. For Taggart, stats like these show how laws — sparked by flammable cowboy outfits in the '40s — can save lives. Parent John Rodakis sees the laws as well-intentioned, but is frustrated by the lack of transparency.  

“As a parent who cares a lot about chemical exposures and child health,” Rodakis says, “I want to know exactly what is in anything I’m giving to my kid, be it a food or a fabric.”

Lauren Silverman was the Health, Science & Technology reporter/blogger at KERA News. She was also the primary backup host for KERA’s Think and the statewide newsmagazine  Texas Standard. In 2016, Lauren was recognized as Texas Health Journalist of the Year by the Texas Medical Association. She was part of the Peabody Award-winning team that covered Ebola for NPR in 2014. She also hosted "Surviving Ebola," a special that won Best Long Documentary honors from the Public Radio News Directors Inc. (PRNDI). And she's won a number of regional awards, including an honorable mention for Edward R. Murrow award (for her project “The Broken Hip”), as well as the Texas Veterans Commission’s Excellence in Media Awards in the radio category.