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Great Cover-Ups: Unraveling the Mysteries of Household Linens : Wrap Up Lasting Luxury With Smart Shopping and Care of Sheets, Down Comforters, Towels and Tablecloths


Given that sheets, tablecloths, and towels are part of every household, one would think that buying and caring for these familiar items would be a snap. Not so. The large array of linens available is staggering and can be confusing. Is it better to buy Egyptian cotton sheets or cotton percale? How high should the loop on a towel be for maximum absorption? And just how long should a tablecloth drop over the side of a table?

The differences in the types of bedding, dining and bath linens are not just a matter of style, but of quality and price. At the top end, the highest quality--and priced--linens are imported from Europe. Coveted for the use of natural fibers and fine workmanship, linens from Italy, France and Germany have a reputation for being the best. But their cost is often prohibitive to the person in need of everyday sheets, towels and table coverings. Linens made in this country--usually from domestically grown cotton--may not be as luxurious as top-line imports, but there are linens that come close and at a fraction of the price.

January is traditionally a good time to shop for linens because so many retailers have white sales. But with all the choices, it can be difficult to decide what to purchase.

Here are some of the basics about linens:


Only in the past few decades have sheets become available that are wrinkle resistant and so don't need ironing. Because of improved cotton strains and weaving techniques, as well as chemical treatments, most sheets rarely need pressing.

But with the new technology came a little less comfort, according to the pros. Many sheet manufacturers use formaldehyde and other chemicals to treat the sheets and make them wrinkle-free. "You can really smell it when you take them out of the package," said Sandra Tobin Marx, owner of Between the Sheets in Newport Beach. Her shop only carries European-made linens that have not been treated with chemicals. "People buy our sheets because they are softer and more comfortable, and they're not laying their faces on fabric soaked in formaldehyde."

The trade-off for softer sheets without wrinkle-free treatments is that they must be ironed or professionally laundered. There is also an enormous difference in price.

Thread count and cotton type are the criteria used to price sheets. Thread count refers to how many cotton threads per inch are used to weave the fabric. The more threads, the softer and smoother the sheet. Muslin comes in at a 160-thread count; at 180 the fabric is called percale , standard now for sheets.

"We don't even carry muslin sheets anymore because percale can be made so cheaply now that you can buy percale at muslin prices," said Gino Fabbricatore, Orange County district manager for Mervyn's.

The same is true for sheets made of cotton/polyester blends. Although there are still discount shops that sell them, the price for 100% cotton sheets has come down so much in the past decade that there is little savings in buying blends.

"Cotton breathes better and is softer than a blend. And with the price only a dollar or two more, people buy the cotton sheets," said Wade Mathieson, assistant manager of Bed Bath & Beyond, a national chain of discount retail stores with a location in Huntington Beach. "Everything now is percale and permanent press, until you get into the top end."

Sheets considered top-end have anywhere from a 200- to 600-thread count and will be made of either Pima or Egyptian cotton. Egyptian cotton is considered the best. Originally from Egypt, it is now grown mainly in Europe. It is the longest of cotton fibers and the strongest. Pima and supima are cottons grown in Arizona and are considered second only to Egyptian cotton.

European-made bed linens are considered superior because of the complex weaving process used to make the sheet, according to Tobin Marx. "It's a much slower weave, and the Egyptian cotton makes a finer thread, so you have a sheet that almost feels like silk. American cotton does not have the same long, stable yarns, and so, even though you can get a 300-count Pima cotton sheet, it's just not the same animal."

Cost is also considerably different between Pima and Egyptian cotton sheets. A king size Pima sheet will run about $85; one made from Egyptian cotton can cost anywhere from $150 to $300.

But the cost is not keeping some from buying the more expensive sheets. "People are becoming more demanding (of) their bed linens," Mathieson said. "I think it has a bit to do with the recession. Instead of going to France or wherever, they are staying at home and putting more money into their surroundings.

"We now carry supima cotton sheets at 300 count; 18 months ago the top we carried was 280 count."

Sheets made from these more expensive cottons are said to last longer than percale if they are cared for properly. If they are not professionally laundered, care must be used not to wash them in too harsh a detergent or to dry them in too hot a dryer.

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