Donna Chambers first heard about weighted blankets when her grandson was diagnosed with autism. It was just before his third birthday, and someone Chambers knew recommended giving him a heavy quilt with plastic pellets sewn in to help him relax and fall asleep. “It was like somebody’s grandma was making them,” Chambers remembers. “They said, ‘You can talk to this lady, and she can make you one.’” She looked online and found a few other options; mostly, though, she saw an opportunity. She contacted a friend from her church in Chattanooga, Tennessee, who could sew: “I was like, ‘I want to make one of these blankets. Do you think you could help me?’”
So when Chambers started her weighted-blanket company, SensaCalm, in 2008, she knew she hadn’t invented the device. Rather, she’d joined a tiny cottage industry of weighted-blanket makers—many of them small companies with names such as Therapy Shoppe, DreamCatcher, and Salt of the Earth Weighted Gear that sold blankets alongside products such as weighted vests, shoulder wraps, and lap pads. Research suggests that deep pressure on the body can calm the nervous system. One parent of a 12-year-old with Asperger’s wrote in a heartfelt product testimonial that her son’s first night with a weighted blanket was his best night of sleep ever.
In the past decade, most of Chambers’s business has come from word-of-mouth evangelism between parents of kids with special needs. SensaCalm grew from just Chambers and her friend to a staff of 30, and the company’s year-end order total has doubled every year of its existence—except for this year. Now, for the first time, SensaCalm is looking at smaller sales than expected. Similarly, the Nebraska-based Salt of the Earth has had to reduce its workforce from eight women who worked at home, some while homeschooling their kids, to just two. Chambers and Salt of the Earth’s owner, Annie Peters, both know why: Starting in late 2017, “you couldn’t go on the internet or turn on the TV without seeing those beautiful ads,” Peters says.
Last year, the best-selling Gravity Blanket parlayed a mega-successful Kickstarter campaign into a wildly popular product: one of the first weighted blankets marketed to the general public. Made in Shenzhen, China, and sold for $249 by the products wing of the New York–based Futurism media company, Gravity Blankets had grossed some $15 million in sales by May 2018. Last month, Time magazine named “blankets that ease anxiety”—the Gravity Blanket and other popular models that have hit the market since—one of the best inventions of 2018.
When I asked Chambers what reading that felt like for her, she laughed politely. “Frankly, it was a little bit infuriating,” she admits. Not all weighted-blanket companies have been hurt by the sudden influx of competitors; Mosaic Weighted Blankets, for example, founded in 2012, has seen its sales increase this year. But to people like Chambers, the triumphant story of the Gravity Blanket and many of its new contemporaries sounds more like a story of appropriation—a story about the sale of the special-needs community’s promise of life-changing comfort to the meditation-app-using, Instagram-shopping masses.
Weighted blankets have been used as sleep aids and calming aids in special-needs communities for years. Some of the earliest implementations date back to 1999, when the occupational therapist Tina Champagne began using weighted blankets to help some mental-health patients. Autism researchers such as Amanda Richdale at La Trobe University in Australia estimate that up to 80 percent of children with autism-spectrum disorders have sleep problems—which often stem from sensory issues, such as sensitivity to particular textures grazing the skin, according to Lindsey Biel, the author of Sensory Processing Challenges: Effective Clinical Work With Kids and Teens. Weighted blankets tend to decrease movement and thus friction. Many special-needs individuals also tend to experience overarousal of the nervous system, Biel says, and in recent years, the blankets have been implemented to help veterans with PTSD symptoms sleep through the night without panic attacks or night terrors.
Peters told me that in her 15 years making weighted blankets, “I’ve had people call me and just go on and on about what a difference it makes to have their child sleep all night. Because then the parent can sleep all night. Then they can cut back on meds. The kids don’t go to school under [the influence of] drugs or groggy.”
But companies such as SensaCalm and Salt of the Earth have largely been relegated to footnotes in the sensational success story of the Gravity Blanket and the new generation of mass-market weighted blankets it has spawned. They get mentioned only passingly, and rarely by name, as a brief nod to the blanket’s origins.
I first encountered a weighted blanket out in the world sometime around 2011. A close friend of mine in college got one as a gift from her boyfriend—still, in my opinion, the greatest boyfriend gift I have ever witnessed—and soon all of our friends had tried it out. We were dazzled. What was this heavenly object, and how did being under it make us feel so sleepy, so fast?
I thought about the blanket on and off for the next five years, fondly, the way you might think about someone you met just once who enchanted you and then vanished into your past. Finally, in the late months of 2016, at the low point of a bout of wintertime loneliness, I decided to buy my own from the company my friend had recommended—SensaCalm. But when I looked at the website and read the glowing testimonials from parents of kids with autism-spectrum disorders, I got a weird feeling. I don’t have autism or a sensory disorder. This product was not marketed to me—and if I were to buy one of these blankets and then inevitably preach the gospel of weighted blankets to my non-special-needs friends, would we be hijacking their purpose? Worse, would our custom-blanket orders knock theirs further down the list and make their wait time longer?
It’s hard to argue that the proliferation of weighted blankets is a bad thing, from an overall well-being standpoint—the feeling of being held or swaddled is, after all, known to have a calming effect on all types of people throughout life. One could even argue that the weighted-blanket craze has helped normalize needing help getting to sleep at night or feeling calm. Biel, the occupational therapist, says it was “no surprise to see this wonderful and potentially powerful calming tool reach the general population.” Peters, the Salt of the Earth owner, agrees: “They’re an amazing thing, and I’m just glad they’re out there.”
Still, the mainstreaming of the weighted blanket seems to imply a conflating of chronic anxiety or sensory issues with feelings of stress—or, perhaps more ominously, the repackaging of a coping strategy that originated in a marginalized community as a profitable relaxation fad at a moment when people feel particularly stressed.
The economic story line in the weighted blanket’s rise to mass-market popularity is, all told, an unremarkable one, and these small-business owners know it: That a company with ample resources (and savvy branding strategies) might shift profit away from its rivals with less and flood the market with even more competition should surprise nobody.
But the precise moment of the Gravity Blanket’s arrival may have also had something to do with its success. Mike Grillo, the co-founder of the Gravity Blanket, told Time that while he was aware that he didn’t invent the weighted blanket, he credited his product’s success to its look and feel (more luxurious than some of its predecessors, Time explained) and to good timing. “The 2016 election was still fresh in people’s minds,” he told the magazine. People were anxious and looking for relief.
Indeed, it’s not uncommon to attribute the new popularity of weighted blankets to a rise in feelings of stress and worry in the United States. In early 2018, Jia Tolentino wrote in a New Yorker essay titled “The Seductive Confinement of a Weighted Blanket in an Anxious Time” that “it struck me as not coincidental that Gravity’s Kickstarter success arrived deep into a period when many Americans were beginning their e-mails with reflexive, panicked condolences about the news.”
When I spoke to Grillo for this story, he characterized the surging popularity of weighted blankets as just one piece of the recent cultural obsession with sleep and its role in a wholesome, healthy lifestyle. At Futurism, he says, “a lot of the stuff the readers were gravitating toward were like the science of sleep and the science of meditation and mindfulness. So we started thinking of things we could build in that space.”
Grillo says he was aware that weighted blankets had been popular tools in populations with specialized needs. If it helps these populations, he figured, maybe it can help the rest of us, too. The research they drew on, he says, “was conducted in these smaller patient populations—kids with autism, adults with PTSD, [people] in psychiatric hospitals going through very acute bouts of anxiety or psychosis.” But while he likes to emphasize that there’s science to support the benefits of weighted blankets, the company also wanted to make a few changes from the existing models (a few of which it bought and tested, and found to be “really dope”) to appeal to a broader customer base: “We don’t want to make it feel too clinical for our customer.”
There are moments, though, when the mass-market weighted blanket seems to emphasize its clinical pedigree. While the most popular way for newer manufacturers to describe the appeal of their product is something along the lines of “It feels like getting a hug,” the more sciencey-sounding benefits are a close second: The Kickstarter campaign for the Reviv Blanket explains to readers that that feeling of being hugged “increases serotonin and melatonin, while decreasing the stress hormone cortisol.” Baloo Living writes on its website that “the deep pressure touch soothes the nervous system, alleviates stress and anxiety, and increases serotonin production.” Other brands, meanwhile, like to claim that their products can flat-out “reduce anxiety,” as the Amazon-selling brand YnM does in a graphic.
As The New Yorker noted, Gravity got “busted” early in its Kickstarter campaign by the health-news website Stat for claiming that it could “treat a variety of ailments,” such as insomnia, PTSD, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and ADHD. The language on the Kickstarter page was changed to say that it could be “used” for those ailments, and then was removed altogether. The Gravity Blanket website still claims that the blanket “increases serotonin and melatonin levels and decreases cortisol levels—improving your mood and promoting restful sleep at the same time. All without ever filling a prescription.”
Chambers reassures me that she’s always had customers who didn’t have special needs but who caught on to how nice a weighted blanket could feel; she doesn’t seem to believe any person or any kind of person necessarily deserves the benefits of a weighted blanket more than anyone else. Still, she says the current weighted-blanket fad has altered the longer-established weighted-blanket industry, and maybe permanently. “We’ve always had competitors,” she says. “There’s always been room for all of us. But Gravity Blanket was kind of a whole different thing.”