Close your eyes.” Carolina Donadio, the petite blond manager of Léron, one of the finest bedding boutiques in the country, is assessing my taste. “I want you to tell me which fabric you prefer.” Her blue eyes watch me intently, weighing my reaction. She brushes two generous swatches of Egyptian cotton sateen on my cheek, one 600-thread-count, the other 300. Both are delicious. Blind, I choose the 600. “Good,” she says warmly. “There’s no sense in spending more money for a higher quality fabric unless you really notice a difference.”
Donadio opens an ornate wooden armoire and slides her hand through a neat stack of dozens of different embroidered-sheet panels. A handwritten label below says BUTTERFLIES AND FRUIT. Surrounding it are stacks of other themes: flowers, ladybugs, bees, birds, animals, tropical fish, geometric patterns.
“Are those all butterflies?” I ask, impressed at the sheer volume of options.
“Oh, this? This is nothing.” She waves her hand dismissively at the armoire. “I have five thousand designs downstairs. These are just a few of my current favorites.”
A century ago, sewing an elegant trousseau was a matter of grave importance that took years of patient dedication. Today there’s something wonderfully comforting in knowing that there are still stores like Léron that take fine bedding extremely seriously. That passion is also matched by companies that produce pillows and mattresses—the oh-so-important supporting cast when putting together the perfect bed. Here are some guidelines to finding the best there is:
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.
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.
For sheer panache there’s nothing like appliqué, where cutout designs are sewn on a plain background fabric. It lends itself to colors and designs, such as large flowers or botanical scenes. The Italians have a particular affinity for appliqué; experts identify work done in Italy by stitches that are so small they’re almost invisible and by graceful, inspired styling, such as an asymmetrical hem. Léron, E. Braun, D. Porthault, and Pratesi all make appliqué.
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. This is lovely on voile. British designer Gayle Warwick’s new Ombre sheets combine a shadow stitch in a soft gray-blue, a pale bronze, or a deep ruby with a topstitch in the same color sewn on a sheer muslinlike material called mousseline ($880 for a king set).
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. Pratesi is the ring leader, with hand-guided machine embroidery that you can customize in different colors. Their signature styles are the Chain border and Three Lines (both are $1,420 for a king set). Another favorite is Frette’s 200-count Egyptian-cotton hotel percale with double piping ($450 for a king set).
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).
If you want to put the final touch on your bedroom but can’t find the perfect match, Léron, Gayle Warwick, or E. Braun will custom-embroider sheets for you. Bring in a swatch of fabric or wallpaper and they’ll work with you or your decorator to create a design that harmonizes perfectly. “Maybe you want something as simple as a few hand-embroidered dots to further embellish a lace border,” says Liz Barbatelli, co-owner of E. Braun. “Or perhaps you want to pick up a floral motif from your curtains. We’re very flexible.” If you don’t live in the New York area but want to place a sizable order, Léron or E. Braun will fly out to work with you in person. The whole process takes three to six months for Léron or E. Braun, two to six months for Gayle Warwick; prices start at $600 for a set of sheets from Léron, $1,200 for a set from Gayle Warwick, and $2,000 for a set from E. Braun.
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, 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.
Down pillows are supremely comfortable, resilient, and adaptable, constantly conforming to your head and neck as you change positions in the night, keeping your spine in proper alignment.
HIGH FILL POWER
The easiest way to determine the quality of a pillow is by the “fill power,” which measures the quality of the down. Look for a fill power of at least 600, which means an ounce of flattened down will expand to fill 600 cubic inches. A higher fill power is an asset no matter what your sleeping preferences. If you’re a side or back sleeper, it will ensure a firmer, more supportive pillow. But if you’re a stomach sleeper who likes a softer feel, the down will loft up nicely instead of mashing down and getting flat. The Company Store offers a 600-650 fill Hungarian goose-down pillow called the Ultimate ($229 for a king). For a truly decadent 800-fill Siberian goose-down pillow, try Scandia Down’s new Ophelia ($690 for a king) or Cloud Nine’s Dynasty ($315 for a king).
WHOLE DOWN CLUSTERS
Every goose-down pillow is a mix of tiny flat feathers, which act as filler, and highly prized down clusters, which are three-dimensional fluff balls that provide airiness and loft. In the United States, down is required to contain at least 75 percent whole clusters. Some high-end companies, such as Scandia and Cloud Nine, however, offer cluster counts that are closer to 85 or 90 percent. Either way, the percentage will be marked on the pillow’s sewn-in tag.
A COLD GOOSE
Most of the down in American pillows originates in China. The best down, however, comes from geese that are raised in a cold climate, especially Hungary, Poland, or Siberia. “The best way to visualize the difference in quality,” says David Pipkorn, general manager of Scandia, “is to think of Siberian down as coming from a big, fat Christmas goose and Chinese down as coming from a Peking duck.”
QUALITY TICKING AND WELL-STITCHED SEAMS
A high-thread-count case with finely tailored seams will keep your pillow from fraying and prevent down from escaping. Scandia down pillows have handsewn piping with two rows of stitching ($85- $550). Cloud Nine custom-fills each pillow from density to ticking, offering up to a 760 thread count ($70-$400).
“People love down because it provides that wonderful sinking feeling,” says Danielle Ebert of Pacific Coast Feather, a marketing director. “But some people need more support.” Their patented 550-fill Slumber Core pillow has two internal chambers of down that are sewn firmly in place, surrounded by more down to cradle your head and neck ($70 for a standard).
Of course, what good are gorgeous sheets and fabulous pillows if you don’t have a top-of-the-line mattress? Very few manufacturers still make mattresses entirely by hand, but it is worth your time to seek them out, as the difference in quality is unmistakable. Shifman, a small 100-year-old family-owned company in New Jersey, is one of them. “Few people are crazy enough to spend the time and money to make a mattress the way we do,” explains owner Michael Hammer. “Most manufacturers can make a mattress in forty minutes. It takes us eight to twelve hours.” Other purveyors of top-tier, handmade mattresses include DUX, Hästens, Verlo, and Vi-Spring. Thomasville also makes some of its mattresses by hand.
When shopping for a mattress, don’t be misled by price; a lot of seemingly high-end companies cut corners on quality.
Most mattresses today are made of polyurethane foam. Although they may feel enticingly lofty and very plush in the store, over time the foam will dry out and start to flake like an old seat cushion, which is why they need to be replaced every eight to ten years. Natural materials are superior and last much longer. DUX, Hästens, and Vi-Spring blend fibers such as cotton, wool, cashmere, mohair, flax, and horsehair. Shifman insists that only cotton felt will do. “It draws moisture and heat away from your body,” says Hammer. “And it is much more durable than foam.” Premium mattresses, which can last 20 or 30 years, are often upholstered on the surface with more luxurious materials. Shifman’s Belize mattresses combine cashmere, cotton, wool, and angora (exclusively sold at Bloomingdale’s; $6,000 for a king set); Thomasville’s British Gentry pillow-tops use a cashmere blend ($5,200 for a king set).
The easiest, most common way to bind a mattress together is to quilt the outside layers of upholstery by machine, then wrap them around the inner springs like a casing. Problem is, since there is nothing holding the insides firmly in place, the mattress may start to shift and compress in certain areas, eventually causing sagging. A better choice is a mattress with tufted inner layers, such as one from Thomasville. Best of all is hand-tufting, where a 14-inch-long needle is threaded through each layer of the mattress from top to bottom, locking everything in place at each of the many surface dimples. All Hästens, Vi-Spring, and Shifman mattresses are hand-tufted. “It’s much more laborious,” says Hammer, “but it greatly reduces bunching.” For superlative coddling, Vi-Spring’s Magnificence has top-of-the-line everything: five rows of hand side-stitching (to keep the edges firm), 3,900 individually pocketed coils, and silk-cashmere surface upholstery ($10,000-$20,000 for a king set).
HAND-TIED BOX SPRINGS
The purpose of the box spring is to serve as a kind of shock absorber. The best ones have hourglass coils with enough strength to be supportive but enough give to conform to your body contours and distribute weight evenly. Unfortunately, as a cost-cutting measure, the box spring is being slowly phased out of the bedding industry in favor of what’s known as a “foundation,” which uses an austere grid of bent steel in place of the traditional coils or springs. Stay away! Experts compare this to putting your mattress directly on the floor. Both Shifman and Thomasville make their box springs just like fine living-room furniture, tacking upholstery coils to a Canadian spruce frame, then tying them eight different ways by hand. “When coils are hand-tied to each other, they work in harmony,” explains Thomasville spokesman Ryan Tessau. “They respond to your every move.”
The best advice is to think of buying a perfect bed not as an indulgence, but as a crucial investment in your own well-being. “We believe the home is the most significant place in your life,” says Di Bari. “And as Mrs. Pratesi liked to say, you spend a third of your life in bed. That’s when you grow, when important things happen to your body.” Important things like simply getting a great night’s sleep. In our overtaxed lives, it’s not too much to ask.