Home & Design October 21, 2010

Well Dressed Bed

The bedroom is our own private space where we spend one-third of our lives, renewing our spirits and re-energizing for the new day. It is a sanctuary that seduces us with the promise of comfort, rest, and dreams.

For most, our bed stands at the focal point of this space. Whether it’s an elaborate four-poster swathed in flowered sheets and embroidered pillows stacked sky high, or a simple futon on the floor dressed in white cotton, a bed’s functional wardrobe is a direct reflection of the one who sleeps in it.

“A bed should be approachable and inviting. I like it a little rumpled because there’s something enticing about that,” says local interior designer Susan Hall.

The bed has been an important piece of furniture and a prized status symbol from ancient times through the early eighteenth century. In ancient Egypt, commoners slept on palm tree branches while King Tutankhamen slumbered in a bed of ebony and gold. King Louis XIV was known to spend an inordinate amount of time in bed, and often held court in his royal bedroom. He reportedly owned more than 400 beds.

In western Europe, from the 1400s until the 1700s, a remarkable feature of the bed was its size–the bigger the better. On average, beds were eight feet by seven feet. The Great Bed of Ware, which is on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, was originally 18 feet wide by 12 feet long. The wealthy luxuriated in their capacious sleeping spaces, while a large bed allowed less privileged families to stay warm by curling up together.

Can you imagine a comfortable night’s sleep on a velvet-covered sack stuffed with pea shucks or straw? Until the early nineteenth century mattresses were often filled with reeds, hay, or feathers. Then cotton became the filler of choice, and in 1865 the coil-spring mattress was invented.

The bed continues to offer more than just rest in our modern lives. It is where we begin and end our day, and spend many perfect moments in between. It is a place where we share stories with our children, secrets with our lovers, and solitude with ourselves.
“I love to take a latté back to bed on the weekend to write in my journal or to finish up some work,” says Susan Hall. However you might spend your time in bed, comfort is the key.

“It is a place where you want to feel really, really comfortable,” agrees Fran Gray, who has spent 19 years as a buyer and manager of The Picket Fence, a store that specializes in the well-dressed bed. While most of us understand the difference between a mattress cover and a duvet, Gray knows all the secrets in between, and then some. She recommends all-natural fibers, and prefers simplicity.

“A fitted sheet and duvet cover and you’re finished. That’s the European way,” Gray says. “If you want your bed to be really attractive, you must add pretty things.” Pretty things being extra sheets, pillows and other accessories.

Although polyester reduces wrinkles–an important consideration for some–cotton is the most popular fabric for sheets, and can range from trendy jersey-knit sheets that are loosely woven and feel like an old T-shirt, to luxurious 310-thread-count Egyptian cotton.

A sheet’s thread count refers to the number of cotton threads that are interlaced per square inch of the sheet, and ranges from an affordable 200-count to a satinlike 500-count. A thread count of 300 or higher, together with a high grade of cotton–such as Egyptian cotton, which is more finely spun–assures quality, says Gray.

Linen sheets from Italy are pure indulgence and the ultimate in four-star comfort, although some people feel more pampered between satin sheets. Linen sheets are spun from flax, and will easily last twenty years.

With its napped surface, flannel offers heavenly warmth and a cozy softness in wintertime that can’t be matched. While some say that pure cotton flannel from England–brushed on both sides–is the best, domestic mills also make sheets that will not pill (pills are small balls of cotton that appear after several washings on lesser quality flannel). If you like to stay warm but keep your face cool while asleep, mix and match flannel sheets with cotton pillowcases.

Gray and Hall both say they love to hang out their sheets to dry. “The wind beats the wrinkles out of the sheets and they come back smelling fresh–it’s just great,” Gray says.

Increasingly popular is the duvet, a down or feather comforter covered with an envelope of fabric that snaps or buttons closed. Duvets can be filled with a combination of down and feathers– although the more down, the higher the quality. Down is the light, fluffy undercoating of waterfowl, consisting of clusters of filaments growing from central quill points; feathers, the principal covering of birds, are flat and two dimensional. Because down is lighter than feathers and three dimensional, it has more loft, or fill power. Fill power measures the cubic inches occupied by one ounce of down.

Pillows create character and suggest style. Ranging in size from a few square inches to a few square feet, pillows can be round, oval, rectangular, or even star-shaped. European pillows, plump and 26 inches square, are great support for reading in bed. Try pillows with fringe or flange; patterns from solid orange to stripes to sequins; and fabrics from silk to velvet to leather.

Pillows can be made of feathers, down, foam, or various other fibers, and offer soft, medium, or firm support. As a rule of thumb, two double-size pillows (20 inches by 26 inches each) fit across a double bed; two queen-size pillows (26 inches by 30 inches each) fit across a queen-size bed; and two king-size pillows (26 inches by 36 inches each) fit across a king-size bed.

Bedding fashion changes often, although mixing it up is always trendy–whether it’s matching antique linens with new linens or combining eight different patterns. “I may layer several different colors to create a dust skirt, or combine various patterns on the duvet cover and pillows,” says Hall, who encourages those with less experience to mix and match at will.

Hall sees the tailored look of the thirties and forties–with several solid shades of one color used to create all-over patterns–coming back into style as well. She also acknowledges that white and beige remain popular choices for bedding colors.

“White doesn’t have to be ho-hum,” Gray says, gesturing to a bed dressed in white cotton sheets, a textured white duvet cover, and white European pillows covered in hundreds of half-inch white pompoms.

A recent issue of the Garnet Hill catalog–devoted almost exclusively to bedding–features white cotton sheets that give new meaning to the idea of reading in bed. An excerpt from their copywriter’s journal of a trip to Polynesia is translated into French and boldly printed in a large typeface on 200-thread-count white cotton percale.

Hall says she prefers white sheets to anything else. “Monogrammed white sheets are the height of luxury. White is also practical because it doesn’t fade, and can be whitened or bleached.”

In the Wood River Valley warm colors such as coral and red are popular, especially in winter. “I think those colors give the illusion of warmth, which people like because we have so much cold here,” Gray says.

The well-dressed bed’s wardrobe includes countless styles. The rustic look is inspired by nature, with patterns such as simple flowers on a background of natural colors. French country combines Provençal patterns and their yellows, blues, pinks, and greens with a floral print or a bold stripe. Clean lines and solid color define contemporary style, whether it’s a bold, solid orange or several neutral tones.

A bed is an intimate portrait of the person who sleeps in it. Whether you dress your bed to the nines in 500-thread-count monogrammed lovelies or you prefer the cozy comfort of flannel sheets and a family quilt, your bed stands as a testament to your personal style and sense of comfort. H

Amy Spindler is a freelance writer living in Ketchum. She grew up in Portland, Oregon, and studied journalism at the University of Oregon. Ketchum is about as far east as she’ll ever move.




This article appears in the Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.