Welcome to the world of fine linens.
When customers walk into our store for the first time, they may want us to show them the finest sheets that their money can buy. They already know what it is all about: thread count. Right???
If you have ever wondered what makes fine linens so fine – you are in luck. We are about to guide you through the ins and outs of fine bed sheets. First, some basics:
– Over the course of history and in the middle ages in particular, most household linens and fine linens in particular were traditionally woven from linen (a fiber of the flax plant, Linum Usitatissimum). This accounts for the origin of the word “linens” as it is used above.
– In modern times, cotton has clearly surpassed linen in popularity – especially so in the United States. But cotton is easier, and different than linen more than it is necessarily better.
– Thread count can make the difference between a fine linen and a finer linen, a flimsy sheet and a substantial sheet; but it’s the quality of the thread itself, and of the weaves and finishes employed, that makes almost all of the difference in the world. In fact, all woven fabrics have a thread count – and often, nobody cares about or even keeps track of a sheet’s thread count unless it is woven of cotton. There is not necessarily a good reason for this.
– Not all cotton is equal. Egyptian cotton is widely regarded as the best cotton in the world. But not all Egyptian cotton is equal, and sheets that are marketed as “Egyptian Cotton” do not always contain much Egyptian cotton.
– While silk sheets are not literally as popular as they might seem, luxury bedding lines do extend beyond linen and cotton, and can be woven using a variety of suitable fibers or mixtures thereof. The most popular sheets that we sell are lyocell sheets that are essentially woven of Italian wood pulp.
FINE LINENS START WITH CARE
pictured: Celso De Lemos’ factory in Viseu, Portugal
Makers of fine linens are selective about the fibers that they source. Raw materials purchased are generally strong, comfortable, breathable, natural, sourced from proper climates and suitable for proper manufacture. When possible, fibers sourced are harvested carefully and by hand. Where materials are harvested by hand, defoliants and other chemicals normally used in mechanical harvesting are avoided, and integrity remains wholly intact.
At the factory, it is the expertise applied to the manufacturing process which sees the removal of residual contaminants from the yarn spun, while ensuring intended results. Compared to the masses, makers of fine linens are more likely to employ cutting edge technologies, or otherwise intricate solutions at their factory in order to overcome imperfection. They are also more likely to employ ancient technology. While it is generally not realistic to make everything by hand, makers of fine linens are much more likely to employ close hands-on oversight of the production line, while conducting embroidery detail and more by hand.
pictured: Dea factory in Tuscany
THE LEGEND OF LINEN
|Linen plays a modest yet central role within Bella Notte’s line of vintage-inspired bedding. Bella’s Linen Ensembles precisely showcase the fabric’s natural texture and charm.|
Would you like for your sheets to last a lifetime? How about three thousand years?
Linen has traditionally been considered the creme de la creme of textiles; for ages it was the clear choice of royalty, and its use can be traced back to ancient Egypt. In fact, when the tomb of the Pharaoh Ramses II was discovered in 1881, he was found covered in linen wrappings; and they were in a state of perfect preservation, despite that they were more than 3,000 years old.
Why linen? It is highly absorbent and is a good conductor of heat; it stays cool and fresh to the touch under almost any condition and it boasts a longer staple than cotton. Linen also resists dirt and stains, has no lint at all, and can be dry cleaned, machine washed, or steamed. Linen is also very strong, in fact it’s probably the strongest vegetable fiber known. It is stronger than wool, nylon, and rayon, and almost three times as strong as cotton. In the middle ages it was even used to make shields.
The first touch is slightly misleading. While many fabrics will lose their luster over time, linen breaks in and gets softer with time. It is an acquired taste that ideally needs to be experienced to be appreciated. We occasionally encounter customers who request linen sheets, but often this is because they have already slept on linen sheets (sometimes at a European hotel).
So by now, you are probably asking yourself, why not linen? Simply, it just isn’t as soft and silky as other options, particularly at first touch. And it wrinkles easily. And where quality is a goal, it is challenging to properly grow and harvest the grain. To generate the longest possible fibers, linen must be harvested delicately, and ideally by hand. After harvest, seeds must be removed and fibers loosened from the stalk.
Manufacturers of fine linens traditionally source their linen from niche suppliers in Europe who do this work for them. Still, the linen is costly to source and the end product is not always marketed easily.
|SDH’s Linen Plus features a blend of 60% Linen and 40% Egyptian cotton in a sateen weave. The linen content lends added breathability and strength to what otherwise resembles a fine cotton sateen sheet.|
THE MAGIC – AND MYTH – OF EGYPTIAN COTTON
|With roots from the 1896 Tuscan countryside, Pratesi sheets grew to be an internationally recognized status symbol, covering the beds of the world’s rich and famous by the late 70s. One advantage held by the Pratesi family were their connections. They held the oldest contracts in southern Egypt, allowing them to be ultra-selective regarding the cotton that they purchased.|
Egyptian cotton is widely regarded as the finest cotton in the world. Relative to most cotton, its threads are both finer and longer, and as a result it tends to be extra soft, supple, smooth, strong and absorbent (also, less prone to wrinkling).
How? Well, through the hot, dry desert of the Sahara runs a long-reaching oasis known as the Nile River. These side by side extremes lay the basis for extraordinary weather conditions that are ideal for cultivating the world’s finest cotton – referred to as Giza cotton. It has long been picked by hand to preserve its integrity and commercial value.
All Giza cotton is assigned a number, the smaller the better as smaller numbers generally correspond with longer staples and stronger, finer threads. This allows for better continuity from thread to thread, and it reduces the chances that yarns will break and fabrics will pill. The best varieties of Giza cotton include Giza 45, Giza 70, Giza 87 and Giza 88 cotton; each of these cottons boast staples which are longer than 33 millimeters. These varieties are referred to as Extra Long Staple (ELS) Egyptian cotton and are considered to be indisputably the finest cotton in the world.
The next best variety is Long Staple (LS) Egyptian cotton, covering Giza 86, Giza 89, and Giza 90 cotton. Long Staple Egyptian cotton is generally considered to be the second finest cotton in the world, but it is not definitively better than Pima cotton, grown in the southwestern United States and accounting for about 5% of annual American cotton production.
For perspective, ELS Egyptian cottons can boast staples as high as 50mm, LS cotton is likely to come in at close to 30mm, whereas with short staple cotton, staples can be as short as 10mm.
Makers of fine linens predominantly use ELS Egyptian cotton, Giza 70 cotton in particular, in their higher end sheeting collections. But they typically use LS Egyptian cotton or better in all of their collections (where applicable). When these companies use the phrase “Egyptian Cotton,” it tends to exclusively refer to the use of Long Staple or Extra Long Staple Giza cotton. Detail may not be specified, but that is usually due to practical concerns and it does not typically indicate that anything is being hidden.
However, “Egyptian Cotton” can technically refer to any cotton sourced from anywhere in Egypt, and can also be used simply to refer to any cotton that is considered to be of elevated quality. This is one reason that you will see “Egyptian Cotton sheets” on the shelves of your local discount store. Another reason for that, is because legally (in the United States), a sheet needs to consist only of two percent Egyptian cotton in order to be marketed as an “Egyptian Cotton” sheet (not to mention, false labelling can also go undetected).
|Following two years of research and development, Sferra launched its Giza 45 line in 2008. Giza 45 cotton is grown exclusively in a small region called Kafir S’AD, responsible for only 0.4% of Egypt’s overall cotton production. Traditionally so fine that it could only be properly utilized in the manufacture of mens’ dress shirts, Sferra is the only company known to weave bed linens from Giza 45 cotton – although some have speculated that Pratesi has used Giza 45 cotton for its Paradise collections.|
BEHOLD THE NEW MIRACLE YARN
|Bella Notte’s best selling sheeting collection, Madera Luxe is a an exceptionally soft, lightweight sheet woven of a natural fabric that has been extracted from wood pulp. It is well suited for someone drawn to the idea of a lightweight velvet sateen.|
Lyocell, a new and innovative rayon fabric, was developed in North Carolina and first commercialized in the 1990s under the brand name TENCEL. What sets lyocell apart from other rayons is the manufacturing process. Lyocell is manufactured by directly dissolving wood pulp in order to extract its cellulose. The extraction process is closed loop, and the natural properties of the extracted cellulose can be almost entirely preserved.
Because the natural properties of cellulose are preserved, the resulting fabric maintains a strong similarity to vegetable fabrics such as cotton (which naturally consists of 90% cellulose). And while the fibers are regenerated as opposed to literally natural, the regeneration process allows for the creation of filament fibers. Filament fibers (i.e. silk and polyester fibers) are longer and smoother than staple fibers (i.e. linen and cotton fibers).
In other words, manufactured properly, lyocell basically combines the some of the best characteristics of silk with some of the best characteristics of vegetable fibers such as cotton and linen (it is actually more than a marketing pitch). The fabric tends to be soft and smooth, yet also absorbent and breathable, and easy to care for.
While the wood used to make TENCEL lyocell is traditionally sourced from Eucalyptus trees, lyocell can be made from a variety of woods, including bamboo. However, most “bamboo” sheets on the market consist of viscose rayon. “Viscose from bamboo,” also referred to as “rayon from bamboo,” is similar to lyocell but is manufactured by transforming extracted bamboo fibers into a usable yarn. Because the bamboo fibers are so short (3mm on average), a relatively substantial transformation is required. Compared to the processes used to manufacture lyocell, the process used to create viscose is more likely to compromise the integrity of extracted cellulose, and much, much more likely to result in uncaptured chemical waste (i.e. most ‘bamboo sheets’ are not as eco-friendly as advertised).
|Introduced to the market in 2002, SDH’s Legna sheets quickly became a favorite amongst our customers. The sheets are soft like cotton and as silky as satin – yet are lightweight, breathable, and easy to care for. The wood pulp used to create Legna bedding is harvested from sustainably managed forests in Italy and is wholly biodegradable; the entire line is OekoTex certified.|
|Of the sheets that we sell, Ann Gish’s silk Charmeuse comes closest to pop-culture depictions of expensive satin sheets. The fabric is a soft, lightweight satin charmeuse that feels luscious yet not slippery, and boasts a subtle luster. Woven carefully and entirely of silk, it is softer and more breathable than a synthetic polyester satin sheet. It is even machine washable, too (if instructions are followed).|
Silk is unique in that it is the only naturally occurring filament fiber. While the finest of cotton threads might measure 50mm in length, a fine silk thread can measure up to 1300 meters in length. This is a core reason why it tends to look and feel so silky (for lack of a better word). Of course, there’s more to it than that – for example, the shimmering appearance of fine silk is due to the triangular prism-like structure of the silk fiber.
Silk is also is expensive to procure, and can require delicate care to properly maintain. And while silk is a breathable material it does not necessarily breathe as well as other fabrics used in the manufacture of fine linens. Although, it is more absorbent and more breathable than polyester, and it even tends to be less slippery than polyester. It has a clear place within any fine linens store.
(if it peaks your interest, you can read much more about silk here)
|SDH’s Patina is woven in Italy of both silk and Egyptian cotton. Consisting of 60% silk and 40% Egyptian cotton, the two fabrics are blended in a manner that gives Patina both a unique look and a unique feel.|
PERCALE VS SATEEN VS SATIN
|Barbacci’s entry level Giotto features Egyptian cotton woven in Italy to a 300 thread count sateen that is about as silky as any cotton sheet that we sell. What makes Giotto particularly cool though, is that the fabric is available in your choice of 118 colors, and can be adorned with your choice of embroidery, lace, etcetera.|
Any fabric can be woven in any manner to accomplish desired objectives. The two most popular weaves seen in bedding are the simple percale weave and the simple sateen weave.
Despite the appeal of silky sateen, percale sheets remain popular today at high end hotels. Percale refers to a traditional over under basketweave that maximizes strength and breathability. A sateen weave, by comparison, pushes as many threads as possible to the sheet’s surface – a three or four to one ratio (i.e. over, over, over, under) is usually employed. This results in a relatively dense surface that maximizes smoothness and luster at the expense of strength and breathability.
Now, depending on the fabric, a percale sheet can still feel soft and silky; it just won’t feel as soft and silky as a sateen sheet woven of the same fabric. Likewise, a sateen sheet can be relatively strong and breathable, especially so where it is woven of linen. Also, note that a sateen sheet will generally have a higher thread count than a percale sheet, since it relies on increased density to accomplish it’s desired effect.
Oh, and a sateen weave essentially is a satin weave. However, it is traditionally referred to as a sateen weave where staple fibers (i.e. linen and cotton) are woven, and as a satin weave where filament fibers (i.e. polyester and silk) are woven.
|Weighing in with a thread count of about 400, Celeste has traditionally been Sferra’s best selling sheet. It features a crisp percale weave that emphasizes strength and breathability – but moderate quantities of ELS Egyptian Cotton lend to a softness and a smoothness often associated with sateen weaves. (if this appeals to you, also consider Sferra’s newer Finna and Corto Celeste collections)|
OR, GO BEYOND BASIC
|Sferra’s oft overlooked Tesoro is an Egyptian cotton herringbone percale. Its loose twill weave contributes to an exceptionally soft, inviting hand; the sheets remain crisp and cool despite resembling an unbrushed flannel.|
Now, all woven fabrics feature either a percale weave or a sateen weave – or otherwise some variation or combination thereof. Poplin and oxford are weaves associated mostly with dress shirts, but can sometimes be found on the beds of the rich and famous, too. A twill weave, featuring a pattern of diagonal parallel ribs, allows threads to move more freely, resulting in threads that are softer and more pliable than otherwise. Flannel sheets often feature a twill weave.
Besides sateen and percale, the most common weave you will see referred to is the jacquard weave. A jacquard weave is essentially a freestyle weave. It is called a jacquard weave simply because it is woven using a jacquard loom, invented in 1804 by Joseph Marie Jacquard. The jacquard loom, using replaceable punched cards, allows for the creation of sophisticated (or basic) woven patterns by individually arranging warp (lengthwise) threads. Jacquard weaves are often employed for decorative purposes, but there is no shortage of potential other uses for them.
|A new addition to SDH’s all natural Purists line, Purists Palio features a blend of 60% Egyptian Cotton and 40% linen woven to an intricate, and interesting jacquard. Silky strips of Egyptian cotton sateen essentially overlap an airy percale basketweave, creating a texture that is inviting to both the skin and the eye. The sheets contain absolutely no dye; visual contrast between weaves and fabrics is all that is necessary to accomplish its design.|
THE TRUE MEANING OF THREAD COUNT
|Often imitated today, Sferra’s Milos and Millesimo were the first sheets of their kind when introduced to the market in 2001. By employing finer cotton yarns in a proprietary multi-ply construction, Sferra was first to achieve a thread count above 1,000 – using ELS Egyptian Cotton, no less. Resembling “thick silk,” Milos and Millesimo quickly thrust Sferra into the same conversations as revered brands such as Pratesi and Frette.|
Chances are, you have heard the phrase “thread count” over and over again – but do you know what it really is? Simply, thread count refers to the number of threads per square inch of a given fabric. Note that it tells you absolutely nothing at all about the source of each thread, the length of each thread, the feel of each thread, nor the manner by which each thread is woven (or otherwise attached) together with the other threads. To a large extent, it is a marketing gimmick: for example, cutting threads into smaller threads would destroy a fabric’s quality, but would also drastically increase a sheet’s thread count.
Anyways, it is a gimmick that fine linens manufacturers reluctantly began to latch on to about twenty years ago – because it impressed prospective customers. And this is not really a bad thing: all else equal, a denser thread count has the potential to lend added strength and consistency to a fabric, and it often does result in a softer, silkier sheet. However, quality vs quantity: a better thread is usually better than a higher thread count. And there are points of diminishing returns. Keep in mind that thread counts in the 200-300 range have generally been proven “sufficient” for the most demanding of consumers. And once thread count reaches a thousand, anything more is probably useless, maybe even counter productive. For all the 1,800 thread count sheets you will find on Amazon or eBay, consider that the brands which cater to the rich and famous have never even considered exceeding a thread count of about 1,080 (and used to stick to a max of about 300).
Also, more threads also means more weight and less breathability. Therefore, depending on your preferences, an elevated thread count can actually be more of a negative than a positive. Additionally, multi-ply yarns are typically utilized to achieve high thread counts; if they are not constructed carefully, this will result in yarns that are more likely to unravel, pill or break.
|Featuring double the thread count, Sereno serves as a higher end alternative to Sferra’s best selling Celeste sheet. ELS Egyptian Cotton is woven in Italy to a 800 thread count percale; the result is a sheet that Sferra calls “crisp yet silky,” like a fine mens’ shirt.|
FINE LINENS END WITH CARE
pictured: garment dyeing at Bella Notte’s facility in Northern California.
All of Bella’s products are finished in a process that utilizes community crafts people as well as low-impact, non-toxic dyes. Linens are hand-cut and hand-dyed within a very careful process designed to ensure linens that have exceptionally rich color, yet are also durable, machine washable, and preshrunk.
Once woven, most sheets on the market are finished with chemical processes – and often treated with chemicals – to reduce wrinkles, prevent shrinkage, and/or to soften fabric. Chemicals will wash off after so many washes, and only then may you get to experience the real thing.
Of course, there is more to finishing than wrinkles and shrinkage. For example, a mechanized brushed finish can be employed to raise the surface fibers of a fabric; this makes the fabric soft to the touch (i.e. flannel). Singeing is sort of the opposite of this, and sees that surface fibers and pollutants are burnt off to ensure a smooth surface. Bleaching may be used for similar purposes.
Relative to the masses, makers of fine linens are less likely to use chemicals, and far less likely to use toxic or otherwise harmful chemicals in their finishing processes. But the biggest difference perhaps is that they are less likely to employ any finishing processes at all. Their sheets are luxuriously soft and smooth as is, and will usually be oversized to allow for shrinkage. They embrace the wrinkles of natural fabrics rather than fight them, and favor care instructions over chemical treatment.
pictured: Purists Flannel by SDH.
SDH’s lightweight Flannel sheets are brushed on both sides to create a soft, flannel surface. The fabric will not pill and is completely free of chemical bleaches, dyes, or finishes.
Thinking about some new sheets? Here are some broad recommendations…
– Avoid gimmicks. Deception is rampant in the linens industry. You can avoid a lot of risk by purchasing from a reputable brand. In lieu of that, you can at least avoid gimmicks. Keep in mind, premium fibers cost premium money, and double the thread count means double the fibers, as well as additional manufacturing requirements. If it seems too good to be true – it probably is.
– Touch first, then buy. Read all you want, there is no substitute for feeling. Any sheet may boast intricacies in fabric, weave or finish that may not be readily apparent, or otherwise easy to describe. Besides, your skin will never lie to you.
– Start with pillowcases. Unsure whether you want to pull the trigger on a new set of sheets? Start with a pillowcase or two. Your pillowcase is closest to your face as you sleep, so a good pillowcase can be a treat in and of itself. More generally, pillowcases represent a great way to literally try before you buy (more than pillowcases).
Ultimately, there is no “best sheet” out there – but there is a sheet with your name on it, perhaps. A truly good set of sheets will last you for many years, so you are well served to choose carefully. We have many swatch books on our sales floor which contain many options to choose from; if you are local to us (Scottsdale AZ), you are more than welcome to stop by and peruse. For those remote, you might be able to find a suitable retailer near you. We can also usually arrange to have swatches mailed to you. Just let us know what interests you and we’ll see what we can do for you.