Luxe LinensYou've just returned from a business trip overseas, or perhaps it was a luxury cruise on the Mediterranean, and there's one thing you can't get out of your mind: those sheets! What were those fabulous sheets on the bed? If the hotel was a Ritz- Carlton or a Four Seasons, the sheets were likely Frette, the venerable Italian company known for its premium linen. If you were aboard a Regent Seven Seas cruise, the sheets likely were Anichini, another Italian purveyor of luxury linens. But thankfully, you don't have to travel afar to cocoon yourself in such serene, supreme luxury.

Although most high-end sheets come from overseas, there are specialty shops and boutiques all over the country (and the Web) that specialize in them. All it takes is a bit of research, some knowledge of the lingo and perhaps more than a bit of discretionary income, and you'll be sleeping like kings and queens in no time. We'll uncover the first two elements, but the rest is up to you.


Although some purists will sleep only on silk, linen or even cashmere, the majority of luxury bedding is made from 100 percent Egyptian cotton. And while the world's finest cotton is grown in the rich soil around the Nile, Egyptian cotton doesn't necessarily have to come from Egypt. Of more importance than its origin is the length of the individual fibers, or staples. Generally, the longer the staple, the better the feel, or "hand," as they say in the industry. Cotton that complies with the Egyptian standards of quality results in the softest, most lustrous sheets you can buy. In fact, just one sweep of your hand across these comfy confections will tell you these aren't the sheets your mother stocked up on at the department store white sales. That's not to say that you can't get a set of quality sheets at department stores like Macy's or Bed, Bath & Beyond, but for true luxury sheets, you need to go to a specialty store. Among local purveyors: Yves Delorme (Burlingame, Los Altos and Menlo Park); Cover Story (Los Altos); The Maids' Quarters (Los Gatos); or Frette, Scheuer Linens, Sue Fisher King, and Haute Home Linens (all in San Francisco).

That said, the first thing you need to do when shopping for high-end sheets is put to rest any notions about thread counts. Contrary to popular belief, a higher thread count does not necessarily mean higher quality. "In the true luxury market, thread count has never meant much of anything," says Jennifer Marks, editor-in-chief of industry publication Home Textiles Today. "What makes a fine sheet is the quality of the cotton, the craftsmanship of the weaving and the manner of the finishing process," she says.

In fact, most of the high-end European linens sold in the specialty shops traditionally have been in the 200-threadcount range. "We sell everything from a 200-thread-count sheet with a print to a 500-thread-count jacquard, but the quality of the cotton is what makes the sheet beautiful, not so much the thread count," says Christina Hedstrom, regional manager of Yves Delorme.

This may seem like a contradiction if you've shopped for linens lately at some of the larger department-store chains, where it seems the higher the thread counts, the higher the price. "Thread count as we've come to know it is basically a marketing ploy that came into play once sheets began to be sourced offshore," says Marks. "The fact that over the past few years we've seen 400-, 500- and 600- count sheets turning up in Wal-Mart, Target, J.C. Penney, etc., tells you all you need to know."

Matt Maddox, a sales representative at Cover Story, says that many sheet vendors are leaning in the direction of not even putting the thread count on the package anymore. He says that the critical words to look for are "100 percent Egyptian cotton" rather than thread count. "At department stores, it's not going to be 100 percent Egyptian cotton most of the time," he says. "Bedding companies can say it's Egyptian cotton, but it could be as little as 3 percent, which is ridiculous but true."

So how much does it cost to outfit your bed in the very best? For a typical queen-size ensemble - a top sheet, fitted sheet and two standard cases - expect to pay around $600 to $800 (pieces sold separately; most highend sheets do not come in sets). Of course, that price can vary, depending on pattern, embellishments on the hemstitch, finish, etc. Italian company Sferra recently upped the ante with its Giza 45 line, made from the finest cotton grown along the Nile. At $115 for a pillow sham, and about $650 for a queen top sheet, it's clear this is topof- the-line sheeting.

(By the way, the world's most expensive sheets are the Charlotte Thomas Bespoke line, made from the finest merino wool backed with a 1,000-thread-count Egyptian cotton sheet and threaded with 22-karat gold. Each sheet is handmade to order and are available only through a select few merchants worldwide. Cost? $2,400 for one pillowcase. You'll need to contact the company directly in England directly to find out the rest.)

If premium European sheets aren't in the budget this year, there are other options. "There are some very nice linens coming out of India or China," says Marks. "You're highly unlikely to find them at your local boutique, but you'll find them at better department stores," she says. "At the end of the day, it's just like your mom told you: You get what you pay for," says Marks, adding that you can spend a lot less on a set of "luxury designer" sheets - such as Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Donna Karan and Tommy Hilfiger - but they're going to start pilling in a year or so. On the contrary, with proper care, a set of premium sheets should easily last 15 to 20 years, say both Maddox and Hedstrom.

Although most customers purchase only one set of sheets at a time, Hedstrom recommends at least two, if not three, sets per bed: "As we like to say, one on the bed, one in the wash and one on the closet shelf," she says. That approach adds up to about $1,800 per bed, a worthy investment when you think that most people spend one-third of their lives between the sheets. "There's something to be said about investing in something that's not just beautiful, but
high quality," says Hedstrom, who bought her first Delorme duvet when she started working with the company in 1997, and still uses it today. "Like designer clothes, they're always going to look good and be classic." And also like designer clothes, certain colors and patterns go in and out of style with the seasons. Hedstrom says that while white and ecru are always popular, her stores definitely sell a lot more of the lighter colors and florals in the springtime and darker, richer colors in the fall.

A burgeoning trend is the use of organic cottons and "green" fabrics such as bamboo and other wood fibers, although only a few of the luxury manufacturers currently offer lines using these materials. Perhaps at the forefront of this trend is SDH, a Cordelia-based textile company that produces all-natural, chemical-free, dye-free fabrics for both grown-up beds and baby cribs, including an Italian line called Legna made from wood pulp harvested from managed forests. But the main reason to go "green" when it comes to sheets is purely "conscience" rather than personal comfort, says Marks.

"There is no inherent difference in performance, although bamboo advocates would argue that bamboo gets softer with more washings," she says. "That is true, but most bamboo is mixed with cotton and other fibers, which tend to break down with more washings." But whether you go "green" or stick with the eternally popular creams and whites, there is one potential problem with luxury sheets: You might never want to leave your bed.

Luxe LinensCheat Sheet

Don't know percale from your pima? Here's a list of definitions to help you find your dream sheets:

Combed cotton: Cotton that has been blended and cleaned, with short staples and dirt removed, resulting in a stronger, finer, smoother fabric.

Hand: The "feel" of a fabric.

Egyptian cotton: The best-quality, longest-staple cotton available, and though grown in Egypt along the Nile River, also can come from a variety of other countries.

Percale: A type of weave, similar to a tight basket weave, that results in sheets with a crisp touch.

Pima: A generic term for the type of cotton grown in the United States, Australia and Peru.

Sateen: A type of weave that reflects light and results in sheets with a glossy, satiny feel.

Supima: A licensed trademarked name (and abbreviation for "superior Pima") used to promote textile products made from 100 percent American-grown Pima cotton.

Thread count: A measure of how many threads are woven into one square inch of fabric.
- Wendy Neri