Home & Garden

A fine bed rests on more than sheets and shams

They were barbaric times for the bed.

People slept on sheets made of polyester -- or worse, thick and extra-durable polyester, called Crimplene.

They slept on flat Sealy Posturpedics with corded bedspreads and a single pillow.

Not anymore.

Beds today are the yachts of the homeplace: puffy with down comforters stuffed into duvets, plumped with featherbeds, lushly ornamented with up to four rows of pillows and built around cottons as smooth and sumptuous as marble.

When did sheet thread count become a national obsession?

When the rumor went around -- and she swears it was a rumor -- that Jennifer Lopez refused to lay her famous frame on anything less than 250 thread count?

When the then-married Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey argued on reality TV about her purchase of $1,400 sheets? Her impassioned defense: "I don't sleep good."

When Target started stocking 800 thread-count sheets and Walmart.com -- yes, let's say that again, Walmart.com -- began offering 1,000 thread-count sheets?

But sheet cognoscenti -- and yes, they are out there -- generally scoff at the notion that thread count is the final arbiter of sheet quality.

In fact, says Bruce Bryant of Lexington's Linens Limited, European companies think the emphasis on thread count is an advertising gimmick.

You want a really great set of sheets? Bryant will show them to you, but they'll have to be flown in. They're made by the high-end Sferra company, 1,020 thread count and inset with pricey Burano lace. And they're $14,000 for a queen set.

Because they cost as much as a car, don't be breaking out the Doritos and Red Bull around these sheets.

Think of the sheet set as the foundation garment for a really snazzy bed -- kind of like the paper cone around which you wrap the cotton candy.

Bryant describes the puffy bed as "that whole cocooning kind of look. It's probably been in the last five or six years it's taken off."

Jerry Humphries of Macy's Bridal Registry can make a snazzy-looking puffy bed from the mattress cover up.

Incidentally, the minimum number of pillows to really pull off the puffy bed look is six, according to Humphries: two Euro style, two shams (forms with decorative fabric covers) and two honest-to-goodness sleeping pillows.

The bed ensemble that Humphries used to really make a bed decor sing was the taupish Vivianne linen collection ("as seen on Desperate Housewives," although, given the vigorous treatment accorded it on that show, it probably has not been seen in this unrumpled a shape for that long a time).

The Vivianne collection featured a comforter stuffed inside a duvet that is nicer than most sofas, nine pillows, a knife-pleated dust ruffle, a quilt, sheet and a cotton bed pad.

"It's not as hard as you think," Humphries says soothingly as he peels back cotton layer after cotton layer.

If you're a bedmaking plebian, you might not know how to properly position the duvet. Here's how: Fold the top of the duvet down to the end of the bed, then turn up the bottom quarter so the top edge of the duvet faces the headboard.

To make the bed appear puffier, here are two tricks:

(1) Buy a feather bed. They're back with a vengeance. During the winter months, they give you a warm little nest. Humphries says, however, that most folks will find them a bit smothering during the warmer months.

(2) Stuff a king-size down comforter into a queen-size duvet for extra loft. (If you have trouble with the comforter lumping up in the duvet, Humphries suggests using safety pins to anchor it to the duvet corners.)

And Humphries has advice about buying that down comforter: Go for one that has lots of baffle blocks so there's minimal down shifting. There's nothing worse than a puffy bed that's unevenly puffed.

The gap between the duvet and the headboard? Fill with pillows. And there's some room for economy there. For the Euro-style pillows -- those big hulking squares at the back of the bed -- you can go with pillow forms, which can run as little as $12. You're just looking for something to hold up your pretty fabric.

But for the actual sleeping pillows you'll want to shell out some money for the real down items. Buy the pillow that's right for your sleeping style: face-down, side or back.

And don't forget the decorative throw pillows and neck rolls: layers of color, contrasting prints and extra puff.

Blame the hotels for the puffy bed. The Westin, for example, will sell you its "Heavenly Bed," described as "10 layers of pure comfort atop the most sensuous of mattresses" -- starting at around $3,000 for a queen-size bed with pure cotton 230 thread-count sheets.

"When you think of how much time we spend in the bed, it really does make sense to make it as comforting and inviting as possible," says Bryant. "And it makes a beautiful display."


Does a high thread count mean a better sheet? Not necessarily, says Jerry Humphries, who works for the Lexington Macy's bridal registry and often educates couples on linen purchases and care.

Sure, you want a moderately high thread count, but you really want to pay attention to what those threads are made of, says Humphries.

Three key words for the kind of cotton you want -- long-fibered with fewer bumps in the weave and less of that sandpaper-y feel -- are Pima, Turkish and Egyptian.

Bad fabric, Humphries says, is "like a five-carat diamond with a lump of coal in it."

"If you start out with junk, no matter what kind of ribbon you put on it, it's still junk," Humphries said.

So you'd be better off with a 400 thread-count sheet set made of good fabric than a higher thread-count set made of inferior material.

How high can thread count go? Past 1,000.

But how you figure out the best sheet for you is a low-tech matter indeed: Touch it. Chances are, if it feels right to you, your snootiness about thread count will disappear into its gossamer goodness.