Sleeping beauty: Cotton sheets make a comeback

February 07, 1993|By Rhoda Jaffin Murphy | Rhoda Jaffin Murphy,Contributing Writer

As soft as a rose petal, the sheet practically floats on your hand. Its damask rose pattern is as intricate as a tapestry. And if you had a magnifying glass and the patience, you could count 310 tiny cotton threads in every square inch of cloth. It seems like a fabric from out of this world.

The sheet's price is certainly stratospheric. At $190 for a twin flat sheet, this isn't the kind of bedding you send the kids off to camp with. But the "Tea Rose" sheet, woven in Italy for the William Sonoma-owned Chambers catalog, represents the natural culmination of the return of cotton to the American bed. These days, cotton is king-, queen- and twin-size.

And though there are still plenty of standard-issue, all-white sheets available, different types of cotton, various weaving techniques, higher thread counts, and a whole new range of color and pattern -- from the luxurious, high-thread-count linens to the environmentally correct unbleached sheets -- have made cotton sheets more fashionable.

"There definitely is a surge in all-cotton sheets," says Julian Tomchin, vice president and director of creative development for Fieldcrest. "But remember, it wasn't too long ago that all sheets were all-cotton. Polyester didn't come into play until about 25 years ago. So it's more that cotton is new again."

Nick Milos, executive director of the National Bed, Bath and Linen Association, cites Department of Commerce figures to illustrate that cotton is big on beds. Out of the 26.5 million dozen sheets (which is how the industry counts its output) produced by American mills in 1990, 11.5 million dozen were cotton-polyester blends. But in 1991, that number had shrunk to 10.8 million dozen. All-cotton sheets had picked up the slack. "There was a time around 1969, when the whole industry sold its last cotton sheets," says Mr. Milos. "In the '70s and '80s, the mills went to blends, but now 100 percent cotton is becoming more and more important."

The reason more people want to catch their Zs on 100 percent cotton sheets is fourfold. First, current concern about the environment has caused consumers -- primarily baby boomers -- to return to natural fibers in general.

Memories of cool

Second, for baby boomers, these sheets bring back memories of the cool, soft, cotton bed linens of their childhoods (and the image of their mothers patiently ironing them). "People want the same thing they grew up with," says Monelle Totah, buyer for Chambers. Mr. Tomchin concurs. "Cotton sheets are very soft and always slightly cool to the touch," he says. "And that's my memory of the sheets when I was young."

The third reason behind the cotton surge lies in the unique qualities of cotton itself: It is soft, silky, easily dyed, and highly absorptive. It also retains warmth when the weather is cold and keeps you cool when it's hot. "Once you've slept on 100 percent all-cotton sheets, it's hard to sleep on anything else," declares Ms. Totah.

And last, the great choice of colors, patterns and sty1es at all price levels has made cotton sheets more appealing to a wider range of sleepers.

Because the bed is inevitably the centerpiece of any bedroom, sheets are a relatively inexpensive way to make a powerful design statement -- or even several, depending on the season, or just your mood. For example, the brilliant blues and reds in the 200-count Cote D'Azur sheets -- just introduced by Utica and designed by Collier Campbell -- lend an instant Mediterranean air to even a very formal bedroom. When they're paired with a sisal rug and filmy drapes, one can almost hear tropical birds calling and the whir of ceiling fans overhead. For romantics, Wamsutta's lacy, all-white Chantal transforms a room into an airy hideaway. Moving up the price scale, Palais Royal's baroque Maintenon pattern lets homeowners bring home the opulence of Versailles.

An offshoot of the demand for all-cotton bedding has been the introduction of completely natural sheets. Brought onto the market by several large American mills during the past two years, these sheets are made with no dyes, bleach, softeners or the formaldehyde that most manufacturers have to use for sizing.

Though they are chemically pure, these sheets aren't much to look at. Until recently, the only color choice offered was beige. Customers who didn't like beige were pretty much out of luck. But now -- drum roll and fanfare -- J. P. Stevens has added a taupe stripe to its Simply Cotton line. Crisp and appealing in its simplicity, this pattern gives tailored elegance to a contemporary setting, or works well with unadorned furnishings such as Shaker pieces.

On the other end of the all-cotton spectrum are the luxury linens such as Chambers' Tea Rose sheets, Wamsutta's Supercale Elite or Fieldcrest's Charisma line, and, of course, those from the world-famous Pratesi and Porthault companies (the Duchess of Windsor was said to have slept on Porthault sheets).

Elite sheets

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