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Sheet, Mattress Are Strange Bedfellows

April 24, 1986|DON G. CAMPBELL | Times Staff Writer

Question: I have run into something that I think people buying a new mattress should know. I recently bought a new king-size mattress as a replacement for a foam rubber mattress that I've had for about 20 years and which was crumbling. Since I had gone this far, I also bought a couple of sets of fitted sheets at the same time.

I almost broke a wrist trying to fit the too-small sheets on the new mattress, although they were clearly labeled "king" sheets. My first reaction was that I had ended up with some sort of maverick mattress, because there was no way in the world that the sheets were going to fit.

When I complained to the store where I had bought the mattress, I was assured that no, the mattress was all right. It was simply because today's mattress manufacturers are making them a lot thicker than they used to, and that the sheet manufacturers haven't got the message yet. This seems awfully odd to me--so much so that I'm inclined to doubt it. The man at the store where I bought the mattress also said this was a good reason to be very careful when buying sheets that are on sale because the stores are trying to unload the old, smaller fitted sheets. Is this true, or is the whole thing a product of somebody's imagination?--J.C.

Answer: Funny things happen in the world of home furnishings, and as strange as it may seem to thee and me that there might be little or no communication between the manufacturers of two household items so intimately bound together, that's largely the way it is.

Spokesmen for both of the industries involved admit with some rue that mattress manufacturers tend to go blithely their way and the sheet manufacturers--tra-la-la-la-la--go their way.

"I sometimes have the feeling," New York-based Donald H. Roberts, executive director of the National Bath, Bedding and Linen Assn., complains, "that we're the last to know when the mattress makers change their sizes. Here are all of these mills grinding out thousands and thousands of sheets that--as it turns out--are impossible to put on the new mattresses. They're not thick enough. And it's the poor consumer who gets hurt."

And Nancy Butler, vice president of communications for the National Assn. of Bedding Manufacturers in Arlington, Va., concedes that her people had, indeed, been slowly increasing the thickness of mattresses "for about two or three years," without apparently tipping the sheet manufacturers off to what was afoot.

"But," she adds defensively, "the sheet makers have never had any standards, anyway: You can buy supposedly identical sheets for identical-size beds from three or four different manufacturers, and no two of them will be the same thickness."

Confined to Thickness

Happily, the confusion is pretty well confined to mattress thickness--width and length, according to Linda Piper, assistant buyer in the Broadway's sheet department, have long been standardized. With (wouldn't you know?) one exception:

"We sometimes get people moving out here from the East or Midwest with a king-size bed, and they buy a fitted sheet for it that doesn't fit at all."

That's because the Eastern King is 78 inches wide and 80 inches long, and the California King is 72 inches wide and 84 inches long. (Californians have slimmer hips and greater height?)

The others, fortunately, are the same size regardless of point of purchase: The Queen (60 by 80 inches), the Double (54 by 75 inches), the Twin (39 by 75 inches) and the Extra Long Twin for gangly teen-agers (39 by 80 inches).

The thickness problem that you've experienced has frustrated retailers for some time, according to Gary Hyman, the Broadway's divisional vice president for home furnishings.

"The mattress makers have been steadily thickening them--making them more plush, quilting them and adding things like the 'pillow top'--and obviously not telling the sheet manufacturers about it," he adds.

"And the sheet makers have had it down to a science--knowing exactly, to the square inch--what this size mattress and that size mattress requires."

"The problem," the mattress manufacturers' Butler says, "is pretty well confined to your better sheets and mattresses. Most of your promotional, sales models have remained at about the seven-inch-thick level. But your better mattresses have crept up to eight, nine and even 10 inches in thickness, and this 'pillow top' model needs a 12-inch fitted sheet."

The fact that the mattress and sheet makers have finally started talking to each other can be credited to NBC-TV's consumer reporter, Betty Furness, who devoted a segment of her show to the problem last August. Says Butler: "There was quite a reaction to it, and, frankly, we hadn't been aware of it until then."

Now, the sheet makers--at least the major ones, such as J. P. Stevens, Fieldcrest, West Point Pepperell and Cannon--are moving to the thicker, fitted sheets, although, Butler adds, "there's an inventory problem in the stores as the new ones move out."

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