Until the mid-nineteenth century, bed linens were made at home -- cut from wide bolts of fabric, painstakingly hemmed and embroidered, and passed on as household treasures from mother to daughter. Today, the store-bought sheet has replaced the handmade one. The quality and feel of a sheet depends on the fiber the fabric is made from and the number of threads woven per inch. The higher the thread count, the softer and more durable the sheet: Look for a thread count of at least 200; there is a noticeable difference with an upgrade to a count of 300 to 350. As for fiber, sheets can be linen (the finest and most expensive), silk, or cotton, which is often blended with linen, silk, or polyester.
Linen sheets are ideal for hotter climates because of the fabric's natural tendency to cool; fine linen sheets can also last for decades. Cotton sheets are perfect for any season and have the highest wear resistance of all the principal textile fibers; in fact, they become softer with repeated washings and use. Cotton fibers are classed according to their staple, or length (extra-long staple is the finest); grade; and color, or brightness. When cotton comes from the loom, it has to be finished -- through a process called mercerizing, after the English calico printer who invented it -- to give the fabric strength and luster, and to make it receptive to dyes. It may also be mechanically preshrunk to ensure that the finished article doesn't go from king size to twin when laundered.
Cotton sheets should be machine-washed on a warm setting and bleached only with non-chlorine bleach according to the manufacturer's instructions. Do not overload the washer or dryer. Tumble dry on the cotton setting; promptly remove and fold sheets when dry.
Vintage linens should be hand-washed in hot water with mild soap, rinsed, and line dried. Some ironing may be required: Mist with distilled water, and iron embroidery on the reverse side. Consider an ironing machine if you have a large family or lots of houseguests. For extra crispness, spray with size (preferable to starch, which is carbohydrate-based and can attract insects). Rinse out starch or size before storing linens.
Bed linens adorned with embroidery or lace, or ones with scalloped edges, should be ironed, but it is a delight to use unadorned cotton sheets and pillowcases just as they come from the dryer or clothesline. One of cotton's most endearing qualities is that it can look just as beautiful -- and feel just as good -- unironed. At the end of the day, it's comfort that counts.