Faking Good Breeding Begins with Good Linens

The bed has become a place of luxury to me! I would not exchange it for all the thrones in the world!

– Napoleon Bonaparte

Bed is the poor man’s opera.

– Italian proverb

“Wow. I just want to tell you – I was wrong about the towels. These towels you registered for are fucking great. It’s made me think that maybe I ought to quit picking up towels out of the dumpster and the middle of the street.”

– Jack, my husband, after ten years of bachelorhood

If there is one thing that gets me more excited than French bread, it’s linens.

Here’s the thing about linens and entertaining: they’ll make or break both a planned and unexpected entertaining experience. I can’t count the number of times we’ve just had people from out of town drop by, and after long talks and lots of wine, it would be silly (not to mention dangerous) for them to get in a car and find a hotel.

In addition, we do a lot of planned entertaining as well; we house my brother-in-law and his wife at holidays, we provide lodging for my out-of-town girlfriends from college when they come to visit, we sleep my mother in the guest room when she travels without my father. And on more than one occasion, we’ve provided solace for friends who were having everything from one-night spats with their significant others to girlfriends of mine fleeing abusive relationships.

Now, this is because we have a large house that, if pressed, can sleep five people in addition to Jack and I. We are the obvious couple that people think of when they need a place to stay, and we are lucky enough to have a house that can accommodate large groups of people. But I ran into the same problem when I had a small two-bedroom apartment as well; when people (from Mama to old friends) drop by unexpectedly – and they will – I said a silent prayer each time that I’d washed towels and cleaned the bathroom toilet.

Bed linens are what I looked forward to most about our wedding registry. But once I really began running a household – we had our queen bed to consider, as well as the guest bedroom, and the bed in the study – things became a little more difficult than just picking a nice bedspread.

There were a plethora of options with complicated vocabulary – standard, boudoir, european – and that was just the pillow cases. I knew enough about thread counts to know that the higher the thread count, the better, but that was about it. What were all these fabrics? Was there a difference in “cotton” and “sateen?” Did I need both a coverlet and a duvet? What the hell was a coverlet, anyway?

And so I give you the answers to the questions I wish I’d asked before I got married:

Faking Good Breeding Begins with Good Linens

To begin, let’s start with the basics:

  • A fitted sheet is the one with elastic that goes on the mattress
  • A flat sheet is the one without elastic that gets laid on top
  • A “standard” sheet set should include both a fitted and flat sheet, as well as two “standard” sized pillow cases

Now, onto more complicated things. If you already know how to size your sheets and bed, skip on past this next section.

Sizing Up Your Bed

How do I know what size sheets to buy? What do all these words like “Eastern” and “California” mean?

Sheet sizes depend on the size of your bed. Generally, beds come in five sizes:

Twin/Single Bed: The size you likely slept on in your college dorm room. It’s the smallest of adult-beds and it sleeps one, average sized person comfortably. An “extra long” twin is five inches longer, and requires sheets that are also five inches or so longer.

  • Twin bed width: 35 inches (about three feet)
  • Twin bed length: 79 inches (a little over six-and-a-half feet)
  • Sheets:
    • Fitted Sheet: 39″ x 75″
    • Flat Sheet: 66″ x 96″
    • Pillow Case: 20″ x 26″

Double/Full Bed: A double bed and a full bed are the same thing, which was confusing when I moved into my first apartment. They can sleep two average-sized people comfortably, but if you have pets that sleep with you or if you’re taller or wider than “average” or if you just like your own space, damn it, you’ll want to look at a larger bed.

  • Double bed width: 54 inches (four-and-a-half feet)
  • Double bed length: 75 inches (a little over six-and-a-half feet)
  • Sheets:
    • Fitted Sheet: 54″ x 75″
    • Flat Sheet: 81″ x 96″
    • Pillow Case: 20″ x 26″

Queen Bed: This is what Jack and I sleep on, because we have two puppies that sleep with us. It’s a good mid-sized marital (or living-in-sin) bed, especially if you have pets or kids that like to snuggle. Note: a “California Queen” usually refers to the wood-framed waterbed, which is largely going out of style. If you’re looking at willingly paying money for a waterbed, I wash my hands of you.

  • Queen bed width: 60 inches (five feet exactly)
  • Queen bed length: 80 inches (a little over six-and-a-half feet)
  • Sheets:
    • Fitted Sheet: 60″ x 80″
    • Flat Sheet: 90″ x 102″
    • Pillow Case: 20″ x 30″

King Bed (Standard): A King bed is what my parents have always used, because my father is 6’7″ and a standard (or “Eastern”) King Bed is the widest bed available. It’s certainly a luxurious amount of space, but good luck fitting it into a small bedroom.

  • King bed width: 76 – 80 inches (a little over six-and-a-half feet)
  • King bed length: 80 inches (a little over six-and-a-half feet)
  • Sheets:
    • Fitted Sheet: 76-80″ x 85″
    • Flat Sheet: 108″ x 102″
    • Pillow Case: from 20″ x 36″ to 20″ x40″, depending

California King: A California King, also known as a “Western” King, is not as wide as a regular king bed but is longer, which also helps with the lengthy-husband issue. If you want a large bed, this may fit better in the structure of your bedroom, so be sure to look at both this and a Standard/Eastern King.

  • King bed width: 72 inches (exactly six feet)
  • King bed length: 84 inches (exactly seven feet)
  • Sheets:
    • Fitted Sheet: 72″ x 84″
    • Flat Sheet: 102″ x 110″
    • Pillow Case: from 20″ x 36″ to 20″ x40″, depending

A note on Mattress Depth: Mattress depths vary widely by manufacturer. You’ll want to measure the depth of your mattress before purchasing a set of sheets. Standard and older mattresses are usually 9″-12″, while newer pillow-top mattresses are 14-16″ deep and up. A deeper mattress will require additional depth in your fitted sheet, and a larger flat sheet. (You’ll want to be able to tuck 8″ inches or so under the end of the bed.

Fabric & Thread Count

When Jack and I first started living together, I insisted on having more than one set of sheets so I wouldn’t have to do laundry every week. He went to the grocery store, and bought 150 thread-count sheets.

I stared at the package.

“I didn’t know they even made 150 thread count sheets anymore,” I said.

“Oh?” he replied. “Does that matter? They were only $8.”

And not only were they like sleeping on loose-leaf notebook paper, but we wore holes through them within two months.

The lesson here is that 250 thread-count is the minimum number you want to look for when buying sheets.

What is thread-count, anyway? Does it matter?

“Thread count” is the number of horizontal and vertical threads in one square inch of fabric. The price of sheets goes up with the thread count.

Yes, it matters, but no, don’t be obsessive about it. Often, manufacturers will twist two threads together in such a way that it gives a higher thread count, but doesn’t actually make the sheets much softer or make them last much longer. Between 250-350 is fine. Any thread-count above 380 and you’ll probably want to ask some questions about just how the sheets are made.

Linen, flannel, and jersey sheets have lower thread counts because of the type of fabric, but this does not automatically make them bad sheets – it all depends on what you’re looking for. If you live in Minnesota, where the temperature can be as low as -40 degrees in the winter, fuck the trendy “thread count” issue and buy the flannel sheets.

So what about the fabric, anyway?

My number-one recommendation, personally, is 100% cotton sheets. Cotton breathes, and so it won’t feel sticky against your skin. It’s cool in the summer and holds heat in the winter. Percale, flannel, jersey, and sateen are all mostly made with cotton, although the weaves and finish are different, and they may also use other fabrics (like rayon in sateen) to weave in as well in order to give the fabric a softer or more lustrous finish.

Most stores will offer displays to let you touch these different types of fabric. If there’s no way you can feel the fabric of the sheets you’re buying, then scrape that store entirely – the most important thing about bedsheets is whether or not they are comfortable to you. After all, you spend eight hours a day on them.

What about satin sheets? Aren’t those extra-sexy?

Here’s the thing about “satin” sheets: most “satin sheet” sets found in department stores are made of knit acetate, which makes the surface shiny but the feel rough. “Acetate” is not the problem here; “knit” is. It does not look sexy on your bed, and you will not want to sleep on it. A knit satin bedspread is alright, because it won’t be what’s directly against your skin all night, but I always have trouble getting a satin comforter (knit or not) to stay on the bed at all. One move and the thing slips off.

Instead, you want a “woven” satin fabric. “Woven” is key. If it is not “woven,” then run from it – run far and fast. Here’s the long-and-short of satin fabrics:

  • Silk is a natural fiber, and usually very expensive. The thread is very fine, and it gives off a more subtle shine than ultra-shiny man-made fabrics. It can’t be over-exposed to sunlight, and it must be dry-cleaned. It also tears easily.
  • Acetate is made from wood fibers and may be your best bet if you have skin allergies. It’s allegedly the “closest” to silk, and must be dry-cleaned, no matter what the label says.
  • Nylon is petroleum based, so if you’re ecologically conscious, you may want to avoid buying sheets that require oil to process. However, it is a very thick fabric, strong fabric and can be machine-washed. It does break down easily in sunlight and can pill after washing. Some less reputable companies bill their sheets as nylon when they are really acetate, which is problematic when you try to wash them at home.
  • Polyester is also petroleum based, but is one of the strongest and most machine-washable. Woven polyester is one of the easiest “satin” fabrics to care for.

The Pillow Dilemma

“You know how many minutes a day I spend getting throw pillows on and off the bed? How many? Four minutes in the morning, four minutes at night. That’s eight minutes of my life. That’s nearly two days of my life a year I spent putting pillows on and off a stupid bed!”

– Ben Stiller in Along Came Polly

Mr. Stiller is correct. He can also bite me, because the right sets of pillows are precisely what makes a bed look made-up and inviting.

Here’s a Common Fancy Pillow Arrangement diagram, with some vocabulary explanation after it:

Pillow Vocabulary:

  • Standard Pillowcase: 20 inches x 26 inches. A standard pillow case is what you probably think of when you think of a pillow. It’s rectangular, and fits twin and double beds just fine.
  • Queen Pillowcase: 20 inches x 30 inches. A Queen pillow is the same height, but four inches longer, to better fill out your bed. Most Queen pillows fit inside a standard pillowcase. (That’s what that extra four inches of fabric on one of the sides of the pillowcase is for.)
  • King Pillowcase: 20 inches x 26 inches. “Standard” pillows will look tiny on a King-sized bed; you’ll need King sized pillows and pillow cases.
  • European Square: 26 inches x 26 inches. Those large square pillows that go at the very back of a pillow arrangement. They go on the bed first; think of them as the basic canvas you’ll build upon. They’re especially good for leaning against if you sit up and read in bed. A European Square pillowcase will be like a
    standard pillowcase, but european-sized and square.
  • European Sham: A sham is also usually 26 inches by 26 inches, but the border is often a different color or decorative, and will sit out from the pillow, giving it a fuller, more “hotel-like” look.
  • Boudoir Pillow: A boudoir pillow is a small decorate pillow that is rectangular, usually 12 inches x 16 inches. It is also called a “breakfast pillow.” I have no idea what it’s actual, practical purpose is other than to give decoration and depth to a pillow arrangement and for chunking at the dogs when they start to gnaw on something in the bedroom.
  • Square Throw Pillow: 18 inches by 18 inches. Like a boudoir pillow, but square. It’s listed as “decorative pillow” in the diagram above. Sometimes they’ll be plain, sometimes they’ll have lace. Jack uses ours for extra lower-back support.
  • Neck roll: 6 inches x 13 inches, and round/cylindrical. The smallest and last pillow to go on the bed. Good for neck support or lower-back support, but mostly decorative.

Coverlets, Quilts, and Duvets: Basic Bedding Vocabulary

A coverlet and a quilt are often interchangeable, although some coverlets are more like throws – they are meant to be folded at the foot of the bed, and unfold to cover about half your bed, to add extra insulation in the winter. Be sure to check the sizing before you buy.

Coverlets and quilts lay flat – they’re good for a clean look with straight lines. Duvets, however, are a different thing altogether.

A duvet has two layers of fabric with insulation in-between. It usually comes with a washable cover. This washable cover is a pain in the ass to take off, get back on, and generally keep straight. And yet, I keep buying duvets for some reason. Duvets are nice if you like a fluffy look to your bed.

How to Make Hospital Corners

Hospital corners can be tricky to explain without photographs. The easiest, most no-bullshit video I’ve found is here. If you want to attempt it by worded instructions, Martha Stewart has this to say:

  1. Stand at the middle of one side and pull up edge of sheet a little more than a foot from the corner. Lift up edge to make diagonal fold, and lay fold back into mattress.
  2. Tuck hanging edge under mattress with other hand. Drop folded portion and pull smooth.
  3. Tuck hanging portion of sheet, or let it hang down.
  4. Leave the sides of the bed untucked for easier sleeping — this also makes it easier to get in and out of bed.

How to Fold a Fitted Sheet

Martha Stewart has a better article (with pictures) on folding fitted sheets here.

Karen at ExpertVillage also does a good 3-step video for folding fitted sheets to fit perfectly on whatever sized shelf you have: Step One, Step Two, and Step Three.

What bedding do you use, Lily Beth?

Martha Stewart has a pretty good bedding collection at Macy’s. She is also the Queen of Decorative Pillows. Her Trousseau Collection is what’s on our master bed currently.

We also own a set of Nautica sheets that I love. Bed Bath and Beyond carries a good selection of Nautica bedding; they’re a safe bet if you like simple stripes or plaid.

If you’re going for a hotel-look and don’t mind the price, Restoration Hardware has a very nice selection of hotel-like linens. I can’t vouch for them personally, as we’ve never owned them, but I do embarrass Jack constantly by rolling around on them whenever we are in the RH store. One day – one day, they will be mine.

Our guest bedroom is done in Pottery Barn’s Matine Toile bedding, because I love toile. Unfortunately, they don’t seem to carry our spring-green color anymore, but they still have cranberry, espresso, ink blue, and powder blue.

In college, I had an expensive set of Nicole Miller bedding – all ivory and powder pink satin, with little pink decorative pillows that had feathers. I loved it, but as soon as anyone sat on the think, the bedspread slipped off and the pillows slipped flat. I would never do it again.

But what about towels?

Bath linens are a whole other issue, but one that I’m equally enthusiastic about. That article is coming next week, so be sure to check back. (If you want, you can use the information on your right to add my RSS feed to your Google or other homepage.) Remember – Lily Beth spends hours writing articles on pillow arrangement so that you don’t have to spend hours researching it.

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  1. […] sipped iced tea and got a manicure and pedicure each. And, much like the bath towels, he confessed to me afterwards: “I was wrong – that was absolutely […]

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