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You Snooze, You Lose

Getting the best linens for your money means knowing your Egyptians from your Pimas from your Percales.

February 24, 1996|VALERIE J. NELSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The rich and famous are different from you and me. They sleep on sheets we could only dream of.

Unfettered by the annoying concept of shopping around, they stop in at Pratesi Linens Beverly Hills and drop as much as $3,000 for a king-size sheet, woven in Italy of the finest Egyptian cotton, of course. (To be fair, a twin fitted sheet is a mere $260).

Pratesi is the sheet of choice of Prince Charles and Pope John Paul II, along with a slew of Hollywood royalty, including Elizabeth Taylor and Steven Spielberg. "It's like dealing with a Rolls-Royce rather than a Ford Escort," says Ann Parker of Pratesi Linens Beverly Hills, one of seven such "salons" in the United States.

But what if a Ford is more in keeping with your budget? Are there secrets Mother never told you about furnishing the place where you will sleep away a third of your life? That old axiom "You get what you pay for" rings true, but sheets built to last for years can be had for less than $30. The packaging may also hold clues to a sheet's quality--if you can decipher how much and what type of fabric it contains.

Compare labels and buy the highest thread count you can afford. "Thread count" refers to how many threads per inch are used to weave a sheet. When the number reaches 180, it's called percale, a standard weave for sheets. As the number inches higher, the sheets get softer and tend to last longer. Most salespeople recommend sheets with at least a 200-thread count. (Even the Los Angeles County Men's Central Jail provides its guests with 180-count percale sheets, but in a less supple, 50-50 polyester-cotton blend.)

Pratesi sheets, made in Italy, are coveted for their Egyptian cotton, a long fiber that makes for a stronger, softer, more luxurious linen; for their thread count, which ranges from 320 to 380, the highest available; and for their European craftsmanship. American pima cotton, grown mainly in the San Joaquin Valley, is not as fine as its Egyptian counterpart, but it can be woven into a luxurious sheet at a fraction of the price. A high-end queen-size sheet in Egyptian cotton sells for $120 at Bed Bath & Beyond stores. A similar sheet in pima is $50.

"I have owned both, and personally, I don't find enough of a difference to go with Egyptian. And I would prefer to stay with American made," says Sally Headapohl, assistant manager of the Studio City store, one in a national chain of discount retail outlets.

How much you decide to spend will probably hinge on how many you need to buy. The rule of thumb for a basic linens wardrobe? "One set on the bed, one in the wash and one in the closet," says Carol Morgenstern, a sales assistant in Chicago with Springs Industries, which also owns Wamsutta. Having three sets pays off over time, since each set endures less washing and drying.

It's wise to stock up on sheets you really like, especially if you've planned a whole room around a pattern. Linen designs, like all fashions, come and go. "I can't tell you how many times I get calls from consumers who say, 'What do you mean it's been discontinued? I've got my whole room in it,' " Morgenstern says.

But it may be more economical in the long run to choose something in a beige or cream, both popular neutrals now, than a bold color or busy pattern. Another approach is to invest in versatility: The duvet covers sold at Dormire, a new Italian bedding store in Santa Monica, are reversible. With two sets of linens, and two duvet covers, you can create four looks. Of course, you will have spent from $220 to $500 for each set, which includes a fitted sheet, the duvet cover and two pillowcases.

The look in linens in general is leaning less toward country and more toward "a cleaner, simpler look," says Francesca Bianchi, the store's co-owner.

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Young professionals are building their European linen wardrobes piece by piece at the Duxiana bedding store on Beverly Boulevard, spending an average of $175 for 350-thread count linens with scalloped edges and a satin finish. People who buy a sheet or two at a time make up 50% of his business, says Garvan Kelly, president of Duxiana Los Angeles. European linens are superior because "they've been doing it longer," he believes, and because they're produced on a much smaller scale.

But finer threads have also come to JCPenney. The Laguna Hills store started selling pure cotton sheets alongside blends less than a year ago, and they're doing well. Queen-size 200-thread-count sheets, made by a major manufacturer but sold as the house brand, are $29.99 apiece.

"People like the feel of cotton. They are cooler to sleep on," says Claudia Short, who has worked in the store's linen department for 15 years.

Cotton is softer and breathes better than a blend but tends to wear out sooner. A blend also wrinkles less, even though all but the high-end cottons come in permanent press.

Once the linens turn into laundry--once a week, if you listened to your mother--the experts offer tips to help extend the life of your sheets. Wash them in a mild detergent in warm water (no more than 104 degrees Fahrenheit) and avoid using bleach. Put them in the dryer on low, stop the cycle when the sheets are slightly damp, then let them air dry or sit in an open dryer for 10 minutes. Overdrying wears out the cotton fibers, Bianchi says. Dedicated home launderers coddle their sheets by hanging them to dry.

"If everybody would take good care of their sheets, they would last decades. But the thing is, actually, we never do. Even with my fine clothing, I forget," Bianchi says.

Pratesi, which has been in the linens business for more than 100 years, didn't have a lot of laundry tips to pass along. "Many of our customers have a household staff," Parker says.

Oh, the stuff that dreams are made of.

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