Andrea here, musing—not snoozing—today on the subject of sleep. Or rather, the bedsheets on which I sleep. As with most common items these days, there is a mind-boggling assortment of bedsheets, starting with the stuff of which they are made.
Linen, cotton, microfiber, bamboo, polyester, and an array of high tech synthetics that sound way too nerving. And then there is the weave and finish—sateen, percale, flannel . . . And thread count. (I’ve never taken my microscope out to check it, but do you honestly do you believe the ones that claim to have a 1,000 thread count?)
Now I am a big fan of the old-fashioned percale sheet. A quick bit research through ether waves turned a few basic facts. The term bedsheet is said to have originated in the fifteenth century. And percale refers to the weave—it’s a simple criss-cross weave that produce a tight yet breathable matte fabric that is often described as “crisp.” Think Cary Grant in a classic white men’s shirt. (More on that in a moment.)
The first evidence of actual sheets used as bedding comes from the ancient Egyptians, who cultivated flax, which was beaten into fibers and woven into what we call linen. Hence the tern “bed linen,” which is still used widely today, though only a small portion of high-end bedding is made of actual linen. (Though that age-old fabric is coming back into vogue.)
The ancient Roman appear to have adopted the the creature comfort of linen sheets and it’s speculated that they bought flax to Britain when they established their outposts, in order to be able to make linen bedding for their soldiers. By medieval times, the custom of sleeping on bed linen had spread to most of Europe—but only for the wealthy. Weaving was labor-intensive, and bed linen required a large amount of fabric, so it was a luxury.
My research also touched on what my Regency-era heroes and heroines would have slept on. By the early nineteenth century, bed linens had become de rigeuer in aristocratic households. Old-fashioned looms limited the width of fabric, so Regency sheets were pieced together with a center seam. Each set of sheets would be custom made, as there was no standard size for a bed. An interesting note is that bed linen was mostly made from bleached linen, not only because dying cloth was expensive, but also because white allowed one to gauge how clean the sheets were.
As the Industrial Revolution kicked in (with inventions such as power looms and the cotton gin radically changing the choice of material and the way fabric was produced) mass production made bed linen more widely available. In aristocratic households, the worn sheets were handed down to the servants. There was still a waste not-want-not ethos. Once the sheets had totally worn out—that tends to happen in the center—the sheets would be cut down to make pillow coverings, then used as cleaning rags, and finally collected to be for the ragmen who would sell the scraps for papermaking. (Rag paper rather than wood pulp! Which is why old books last longer than pulp paperbacks.
Now, getting back to percale . . . I confess that thinking about that image Cary Grant in his crisp white cotton shirt makes percale even more alluring . . . But I really like it because of the feel. I don’t like “flabby” sheets that are too soft and don't hold their shape. Percale has heft and texture without being harsh. It just feels “right.”
I have some very old pillow cases from the 1940s and 1950s that somehow got passed down in a family trunk. Cotton percale sheets were pretty much universal back then—no polyester or synthetic—and when I touch the vintage cloth I can’t help but giving a fluttery sigh. To me, it’s perfect—percale gets softer with each washing, yet it’s sturdy enough to hold its crispness. In the 40s and 50s, most people still hung their sheets out to dry, so vintage ones always feel like they hold a hint of fresh air and sunshine.
And when you look at the ads in women’s magazine from the 40s and 50s, you see that percale sheets were a big business!
It’s not easy to find really good cotton percale sheets these days—and when you do, they are not cheap. However, for me it’s worth it . L.L. Bean makes wonderful 280 thread cotton percale sheets that harken back to my grandmother’s vintage linens . . . and I very sleep soundly on their tried-and-true traditions.
What about you? Are you persnickety about what sort of sheets you sleep on? Do you have a specific preference or a favorite brand? Sateen? Flannel? All cotton or a blend? Please share!