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NUTS AND BOLTS

Satin to Cotton, Softness Common Thread in Top Sheets

June 29, 1991|PATRICK MOTT

Having never slept on satin sheets (and not being entirely sure that I want to), I would have to say that the greatest sheets in the world are the ones on hotel beds. There are at least three reasons for this:

* They're clean.

* They're starched.

* You don't have to make the bed.

Also, they're usually white--a pure, gleaming, radiant, no-nonsense kind of white that indicates that not only have they been sanitized for your protection, but they will probably maintain a cool, uniform temperature throughout the night, bearing you off to dreamland with the barest comforting rustle.

And the next day, magically, a brand new set of them will appear.

I have found, however, that others' tastes in sheets are not quite as robust. To the more sensitive sleeper, starched white sheets can be the equivalent of a rented tuxedo shirt. And anybody who has ever worn a rented tuxedo shirt knows what an iron maiden must have felt like.

Fortunately, sheet fans who require fabric softer than Charmin can find it if they're willing to dig a bit deeper into their pocketbooks. And, if they particularly like the looks of their purchase, they can use sheets as a true decorator item.

Nancy Bailey, an interior designer with the firm of Jon Jahr and Associates in Corona del Mar, has used sheets for years to accent nearly everything in a house. For the buyer who is primarily interested in stretching them over a mattress, however, Bailey said the choices are broader than many people think.

The two most encompassing categories of sheets are foreign and domestic, with the home-grown varieties usually being the most affordable. Softness is the selling point for both categories, however, and that is determined by a measure known as thread count, or the number of threads per square inch. The higher the thread count, the more luxurious the weave and the softer the sheets will become with washing, said Bailey.

Among domestic sheets, which can be all cotton or a blend of cotton and polyester, thread counts usually vary from 180 to 220, and most hover around 200. They often need no ironing, particularly the blends. The blends initially lack the softness of pure cotton, said Bailey, but repeated washing eventually will soften them.

A single word that indicates good quality in domestic sheets is percale, said Bailey. It means nothing more than that a set of sheets has a thread county of more than 180. Most domestic sheets today are percale, she said.

However, said Bailey, up one notch are sheets made from the same sort of cotton found in fine dress shirts: Pima.

"It's a long, staple yarn," she said, "and it has a higher quality and a softer feel than regular cotton."

Yet another step up are European sheets, which routinely have a thread count of 220 to 300 or more, said Bailey. The highest grade of cotton used in these sheets is Egyptian cotton, which gives the whole a silky finish. Also available are sheets made using a technique called satin weave, which gives them a smoother "hand" and a slight gloss, said Bailey.

There is a small price to pay in convenience for all this imported luxury, however. European cotton is not usually chemically treated, so it will normally need to be ironed. Neither is it preshrunk.

"They're sort of like working with a pair of jeans," said Bailey.

Three other fabrics are used in sheet-making, the most prevalent of which is linen, said Bailey. The finest quality sheet linen is known as handkerchief linen, which softens with laundering and needs ironing. It's particularly comfortable in hot climates because it breathes more easily than cotton, she said.

Silk is also available, but Bailey said it is the most expensive sheet material and tends to be impractical for everyday use. The colors available, however, "have a rich, rich quality" and are useful for decorating, she said.

Yes, decorating, and not just on beds. Bailey said she has been using sheets to cover nearly anything in the house since the beginning of her 12-year career as a decorator. Sheets are often cheaper than buying conventional decorator yardage, and even a cursory look around the fabric department will tell you that there are enough patterns and colors in sheets to satisfy the most runaway eclecticism.

A few applications: skirted tablecloths, children's rooms, comforter covers, dust ruffles, pillows on beds, drapery, slipcovers for chairs, various window treatments, upholstered headboards, upholstered walls and bed canopies.

Also, said Bailey, sheet manufacturers often also offer matching accent pillows in several sizes and such things as matching covered boxes to use as accents.

The only questionable choice among all this variety, at least in Bailey's opinion, are satin sheets. Satin, she said, is less a daily practicality and more of "a novelty. It's a personal kind of preference."

As I get it, there is quite a preference for them in places such as the honeymoon lodges in the Poconos, where people don't mind sheets with a distinct lack of traction. Granted, they look pretty luxurious, but I have been told by bruised friends that if you make one false move while lying between them you end up squirting out onto the floor like a watermelon seed.

No, I'll go with basic white percale with medium starch. At the Ritz-Carlton. One can only rough it so much.

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