Friday, January 27, 2006

Luxury Linens for the Masses

By: Kelli B. Grant

More and more consumers are saying "yes," as luxury bedding becomes a staple rather than a splurge in many households.

Over the past five years, consumers' obsession with bedding has shown no bounds. After taking a roll in high-end sheets (usually at hotels), they've decided this is something they need in their everyday lives, says Pam Danziger, president of Unity Marketing, which researches luxury consumer marketing.

Manufacturers have stepped up to the plate, offering high quality bedding at lower prices, says Dana Poor, a home-trend forecaster for Cotton Incorporated, a trade group. Martha Stewart started the trend with her bedding collection at Kmart, offering several price points with different thread counts. Suddenly, even the cost-conscious started to wonder if it was worth it to pay a little more for a slice of the good life.

Today, high-end bedding is the second-most commonly purchased luxury item, preceded only by electronics, according to Unity Marketing's 2005 Luxury Consumption Index. According to the firm, the average consumer spent a whopping $3,000 on luxury bedding during 2005. Of those consumers, 65% bought sheet and pillow sets, 40% bought comforters, bedspreads and throws, and 30% bought pillows and pillow accents.

Between the Sheets

If you're looking for truly luxurious sheets, expect to spend at least $500. Sheet sets from Frette, an Italian company that caters to aristocrats, luxury hotels and even the Vatican (it's rumored that they make the Pope's robes) regularly go for more than $1,000. And Poor warns that many of your local department store's heavily advertised specials say 1,000-thread-count sheets for $40 won't qualify as luxury. "There's no way anyone can produce a product for that cost that is quality," she says.

So how does one find sheets fit enough for society's most refined tastes? Here's what to look for:

Thread count
This popular buzzword is a measure of how many threads (horizontal and vertical) are in one square inch of the fabric. According to a 2005 survey by Cotton Incorporated, 34% of consumers cited thread count as the most important element influencing the sheets they bought.

Experts disagree on the lowest number acceptable as luxury, but generally the limit is 300. Thread count is "an ever-moving target," says Marcia Weiss, a visiting assistant professor at Philadelphia University's School of Engineering and Textiles, who notes that companies continue to debut higher counts. Nevertheless, the higher the thread count, the better the sheet.

But don't make this the sole factor you look for, says Poor. "Thread count is not necessarily a depiction of the quality of that product," she says. Even 1,000-thread-count sheets won't help if the quality of the fibers is inferior. Cramming in too many threads to boost thread count is a common trick, as is using bulky double-ply threads instead of single ply. The result: sheets that are lumpy, bumpy and rough. And clearly there's nothing luxurious about that.

Look for sheets that are 100% cotton, linen or silk. Polyester blends are not considered luxury, nor is flannel or jersey bedding. The best materials are Egyptian, Pima or Supima cotton, says Weiss. They're known to have long, fine fibers, which result in a softer, more luxurious feel.

You can also go the extra mile and check the staple or length of the fibers. This affects how strong and smooth the finished sheet will be. Check the package description for "long staple" or "extra long staple."

Fiber Spinning technique
Fibers may be combed or carded into thread, though combed is preferred, says Weiss. This information is often included on the package.

The two most popular weaves, or finishes, are sateen and percale. Sateens are woven so that more of the thread is exposed on the surface-face of the cloth, which gives it a softer feel. The soft drape hugs your skin. Percale, on the other hand, is a close weave that tends to be crisper and less apt to drape. (For a more detailed explanation of these terms, click here.)

Luxury bedding includes attention to details, says Weiss. This may include added touches like pleats or embroidery. "Check for loose threads and things not well-constructed," she advises. "You need to be the detective."

Your Own Luxury Linens
Look at labels all you want. Ultimately, what set you buy (and thus, how much you spend) will depend on these two personal preferences:

The term "hand" pretty much combines all of the attributes above. It indicates texture, fineness and durability, as well as how the sheet will drape. In short, it's a term for the feel of the sheet, and is the best indicator for how happy you'll be with this bedding wrapped around you, says Poor.

To get the best sense of hand, take the sheets out of the package while you're in the store. (Ignore angry looks from the sales clerks.) "You need to feel sheets before you buy them," says Poor. If you're doing your shopping online, try to find bedding you like in stores first, she recommends. Then bargain shop.

Sad but true: You can tell a high-quality sheet by its wrinkles the higher the thread count, the more it wrinkles, says Poor. Bedding with high thread counts can also be more difficult to care for there are often special washing instructions to keep the thin threads from breaking. So if you don't have time to iron your sheets (or someone to iron them for you), factor that into the bedding you select. In other words, if you're happy with the feel of 600-thread-count sheets, maybe you don't need to spend the extra money for the 800s.