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Bed Linens 101

Martha Stewart Living, Volume 2 April/May 1992

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.


Comments (10)

  • 8 Nov, 2012

    I love satin too but only for special occasions, I definitely recommend flax linen, lasting for years, cozy feeling during summer nights, really warm and soft at the winter time, f.ex u can find some gorgeous sets here: Enjoy!

  • 20 Oct, 2008

    Re: crisp sheets. I snagged a set of Martha Stewart sheets from Macy's.

  • 20 Jul, 2008

    I worked in a luxury linens shop. The thing you want is 100% Egyptian cotton. NO POLYESTER- it doesnn n n n n n t breath. If you want a crisp sheet buy a percale weave. For a soft sheet, buy sateen. Jacquard weaves are often less wrinkly. Be careful not to over dry your bedding this will guarantee wrinkles. Take your sheets out when they are slightly damp, and smooth them out. Bleach yellows fabric overtime and fabric softener destroys fibers making them fuzzy and causing holes in your sheets.

  • 26 Apr, 2008

    Me Too...What happened to the old fashion Permanent Press Percale or Muslin sheets we used to buy? I just bought new sheet and in 6 months one set is all pilly and the other is sooo wrinkled...who has time to iron sheets. I don't mind soft sheets in the winter but for summer I want cool crisp bedding. What should I be looking for? Does anyone still make the Permanent Press Percale?

  • 10 Nov, 2007

    Give me sateen every time! I love the softness! Still, all sateen sheets are not equal, some are vastly softer than others. Add a down comforter and nothing else competes! OH! You also need a latex pillow! Be aware of the sizing. I, personally prefir the standard latex pillows, even though I have a king-size bed. The king-size are too tallfor me. Guaranteed excellent night's sleep!

  • 9 Nov, 2007

    I have both cotton/poly blend, cotton,

  • 9 Nov, 2007

    Egyptian cotton in a high thread count is very comfortable but expensive. I have some sheets that I've used for many years that are cotton/poly blend. They have a very smooth feel and are most comfortable in warm weather. They must be percale of course . Some of the 100% cotton sheets are just too fuzzy to give that cool, smooth feel.

  • 9 Nov, 2007

    The history and detail around how fabrics are created was very interesting. Nice article. Unfortunately I rarely have time to iron clothes, much less sheets. Oh well... you may not approve but I am OK with soft but wrinkled sheets.

  • 8 Nov, 2007

    I find sateen to be lovely and soft but with almost a surface "patina" of wrinkles. I live with it knowing that it is a natural fabric. Some of my cotton sheets have been treated to be iron free but others wrinkle. Doesn't seem to be any continuity but I still love the feel of them!

  • 8 Nov, 2007

    I am having trouble with my good sheets, as they always come out of the dryer wrinkled (cannot hang on line, I have asthma). I have some Egyptian Cotton sheets and 400 thread cotton and sateen sheets. I have even tried sending my Egyptian cotton sheets tobe laundered and they were still not up to par. What am I doing wrong ?