THREAD COUNT UNWOUND
Have you fallen for this? I have. You buy 500-thread-count sheets that cost a small ransom, sure that they’ll give you a regal night’s sleep. One wash later the top sheet barely stretches across the bed, while the bottom sheet is so loose it becomes a wrinkled mess. And both feel so wimpy you might as well be sleeping under a Kleenex.
“People make far too much of thread count [threads per square inch],” declares David Forster, the third-generation owner of Léron. “They think it’s a shorthand to determine the quality of a sheet. What’s more important is the quality of the fiber and the fabric. If it’s not fine Egyptian cotton, I don’t care what the count is, it’s not going to feel great. It’s where the cotton is grown, how it’s woven, and how thick each fiber is that matters.”
Most prized is the cotton grown around the Nile basin, which produces the longest, strongest, thinnest thread in the world. Pratesi, a century-old Italian company that made its name selling linens to European royalty, insists on the “first spinning” (like the first press of extra-virgin olive oil) of a special cotton grown in southern Egypt that produces an unusually soft thread four to six inches long.
“When the cotton is spooled, a lot of short, half-inch bits of thread break off,” explains Nino di Bari, president of Pratesi. “Most companies just buy these leftovers and respool them, but the quality is second-rate.” (When spun, short threads create more joints in the yarn, which results in a fabric that is less smooth.) In addition, many manufacturers will artificially inflate their thread-count numbers by counting a double-twisted thread as two. So what’s a customer to do? Stick to brands like Pratesi that are fussy about their cotton’s pedigree, and pay close attention to the fabric’s weight and how it feels in your hand. Remember, thread count does make a noticeable difference, but only if you’re comparing cottons and weaves that are of the same level of quality.
Remember that in Europe thread is count only once and in one direction. 300 thread count means 300 across and 300 up and down. But in America the two directions are added together. So 300 thread count sheets might mean 150 across and 150 down.
THE MATERIAL AND WEAVE
The crucial first step in buying sheets is deciding which material and weave best suit your tastes.
Derived from the French word for “veil,” voile is semi-sheer with a delicate, gauzelike quality. Made of tightly twisted yarns, it’s so diaphanous it seems to float on top of you. Its translucency beautifully highlights embroidery, lace, or organdy appliqué. The Italian linens company Dea makes an exquisite sateen-edged voile called Poggio, embroidered with dots ($1,050 for a king set).
Made of cotton in a satin weave, sateen feels creamy and has a sumptuous, polished sheen. Anichini, a Vermont-based company that specializes in rich, jeweled colors and baroque jacquards, offers Raso a gorgeous heavyweight sateen ($1,405 for a king set). Particularly sensuous are Léron’s 600-thread-count Egyptian-cotton sheets ($1,375 for a king set) in white sateen with a magnificent lustrous finish.
If you prefer something tailored and crisp, you might choose percale, a closely woven cotton. A higher-maintenance option is linen. Although they must be ironed, they are the top choice of many connoisseurs, including the heads of Pratesi and Léron, both of whom use linen in their own homes. “In summer it’s cool to the touch and very breathable,” says Di Bari, “and in winter it has texture and warmth. It’s the strongest, most beautiful fabric, but it’s an acquired taste.” For a truly modern take, Flou’s Sidney sheets (half cotton, half linen) come in riveting iridescent hues such as golden-orange, garnet, sky-blue, and teal ($950 for a king set, including duvet cover).
THE FINER POINTS OF EMBROIDERY
Once you’ve chosen your fabric, you’ll need to decide what kind of needlework you want. In many cases, certain countries are known for their superior technique. An ancient French textile art, point de Beauvais is an extremely intricate and exacting embroidery method that looks like very fine petit point. A crochet hook is used to create tiny chain stitches that fit closely inside each other. Designs often employ many tones of the same color to create very gradual shading called degradé. There is only one workroom in France that still does museum-quality Beauvais, and they work exclusively for Léron and the French government, who want to preserve the technique. “I have a devoted group of clients who buy every single design as it comes out,” says Donadio. “But this is a collector’s item. You don’t buy it just because it’s pretty. It’s an art.” ($3,000-$5,000 for a sheet; $1,200-$2,000 for a pillowcase.)
Cutwork, which dates to the 15th century, was a source of revenue for monasteries and convents. The embroiderer uses a buttonhole stitch to outline a design, then cuts away the surrounding fabric, delineating flower petals, say, or graceful scalloping. Today the finest cutwork is done on Madeira, where the technique has been passed down for generations. Although the island used to support dozens of workshops, only a handful remain. E. Braun of New York offers handmade Madeira cutwork.
If you prefer more subtle shading and color, shadow embroidery is sewn on an underlayer, so the design is muted through the second layer of fabric. We carry a wonderful line George Henry.
Ideal for contemporary houses, machine embroidery has a tight precision that yields clean lines and sharp geometric patterns. There’s something ineffably crisp and smart about it that hand embroidery can’t replicate. Anichini’s Hotel line does this affordably. And Dea has a wonderful six line version called Milano.
Some designers combine several different techniques in one piece. That’s the case with Gayle Warwick, whose linens are all hand embroidered in Vietnam using only organic American Pima cotton, which is similar in quality to Egyptian cotton. “People tend to use the same stitch over and over again,” says Warwick. “But that can create a static, flat look. The vocabulary of stitches in Vietnam is so wide that you can really bring a lot of texture and life to each piece. You can make a flower look like it’s blowing in the wind.” Her new fabric Francesca is hand embroidered in point de lancé, a flat, painterly stitch that blends easily. Chains of small French knots, or point de noeuds, add more texture, and borders are hemstitched ($960 for a king set).
San Francisco designer Jane Leider also relies on Vietnamese women to hand embroider her Haute Home line on linen or Italian cotton sateen. Patterns include bees, polka dots, ferns, and sunflowers with centers comprised of 100 French knots. One of her most striking new patterns is Versailles, an abstract design embroidered on 300-thread-count Egyptian cotton sateen with white stitches outlined in light-blue, green, or tan ($500 for a king set).
For custom linens with a more modern and masculine sensibility, interior designers such as Rose Tarlow, Victoria Hagen, Thierry Despont, and Celeste Cooper turn to Muse, which specializes in an impeccably elegant neutral palate. Designed by Manuel de Santaren and available only through the trade (and at GoreDean as well), the sheets combine high-thread-count Egyptian cotton with crisp hand-guided machine embroidery and hand embroidery. “Traditional embroidery is beautiful,” says De Santaren. “But my partner, Brent Marmo, and I wanted to create something that would be more appropriate to homes with clean, spare lines.” De Santaren often draws ideas from the world of contemporary art, including his own collection of pieces by Bryce Marden, Cy Twombly, and Ellsworth Kelly. A four-square color-block coverlet, for instance, was inspired by a Richard Long piece he saw at the Tate Modern. His Untitled embroidery has a neat border of perfect squiggles that looks like something Kandinsky might have drawn ($2,000 for a king set on 600-thread-count sateen). All of his 100 or so designs can be customized; or, if you prefer, he can dream up something from scratch. Bespoke sheets take eight to 12 weeks and start at $1,400 for a king set.
There are also organic and bamboo sheets available through Homesource that are green, economically easy on the buyer, beautiful and made in America. They are also organic and made of bamboo version from Homesource as well.
thanks to Departures Magazine for much of this article.