Linen is a symbol of taste and luxury and its high maintenance makes it ideal for the caring connoisseur
These days, hardly anybody sleeps in bed linen. Cotton - cheaper, more washable - has taken over to the extent that young people who refer loosely to "bed linen" do not generally know what they are talking about.

But at auction, the market for old linen - sheets, tablecloths, napkins - is picking up again after declining in the Eighties. That was the decade of tasteless, conspicuous consumption. The way to impress friends was to blow the City bonus on an expensive car, a flashy drinks cabinet or a dozen suits.

Nineties people are more interested in the proverbial "quality of life". It is not only the appearance of things that count, but their touchy-feeliness. Just fingering a linen sheet or tablecloth can come as a pleasant surprise after cotton. It is softer, has a closer weave than cotton and is warmer in winter and cooler in summer.

There is plenty of 19th- and early 20th-century linen for sale at Phillips's auction of textiles next Tuesday. It tends to be cheaper and better quality than brand-new linen - and people are buying it as a luxury to use.

Linen is made from flax. Heavier than cotton, it holds more water during washing and therefore needs more care - that means laundering instead of stuffing it into the local service wash. Phillips's textile specialist, Anne Marie Benson, says: "There seems to be a resurgence of people willing to take care of things, instead of saying they can't be bothered. Linen does need attention; it is to cotton as cashmere is to wool. It's a luxury." And so knowing linen is one of the new connoisseurships by which Nineties quality snobs can judge one another.

The few collectors of linen go for highly decorated 16th- to 18th-century tablecloths, gems of the trousseau - the wardrobe of linen that brides used to bring into their marriage. The trousseau has an appealing history. It reveals observances and rituals reminiscent of those surrounding wine and cigars - many to do with the need to display wealth before guests.

Good linen was not only a status symbol, but had intrinsic qualities that mean little today; its whiteness in dim and dirty days carried iconic connotations of purity - and the scent and feel of sheets newly hand-washed then bleached on lawns in the open air is an experience that can never be recaptured.

Moreover, a trousseau, stored in an elaborate, carved wooden armoire (cupboard) and folded so as to exaggerate its size, remained the bride's possession even in the event of widowhood or re-marriage.

From the 16th to the early 20th century in this country, and especially in Europe, girls would begin collecting their trousseaus from an early age - as early as the first Communion in France, and even from birth in Turkey, where adult underwear for wedding-day was given to newborn girls and stored in a chest beside the cot.

In rural France, the towering armoire containing the bride's linen still takes pride of place in the nuptial bedroom - and wives still remember to stack from the bottom, not the top, to ensure strict rotation. Within living memory in Brittany, before a wedding, the armoire and trousseau would be carried to the groom's house in a gaily decked cart drawn by two festooned oxen. The bride's mother would fill the armoire with linen, then the father of the bride would theatrically throw open its doors, to the appreciative gasps of guests, and make a speech. Then the priest would bless both armoire and marriage bed, and the two families would have dinner.

If you feel like getting into linen, the best place to start is the dining table cloth. These days, you may be thought eccentric if you put a white linen tablecloth on a polished mahogany tabletop, instead of placemats. But stand your ground. The Victorians always covered the tabletop with a white linen tablecloth; that is why the tops of Victorian tables carry so little decorative inlay.

There is a "good linen table cloth" in Phillips sale with cutwork daisies and a floral crochet border, lotted together with two other plain ones, a tea cloth with bobbin-lace edges, six linen tea napkins, 12 of cotton and three "various" tablecloths - estimated at pounds 150-pounds 200.

Some of the finest linen has elaborate damask - flatwoven - designs: spot damask by the shiny bits that appear matt on the other side. A 1920s dinner cloth of unbleached linen damask with chequer pattern, eight unused Irish linen damask table napkins with scrolling foliage design, two tray cloths and two hand towels, are estimated at pounds 70-pounds 100.

Modern linen fanciers can perform a service for mankind by abandoning the tradition of the rigid starched napkin. They feel like sandpaper on the lips and encourage guests to hanker after cotton. And you will, of course, observe the etiquette of using table linen with a coloured monogram only at lunch, not dinner - that would never do.

To impress your house guests, put linen top sheets on their beds. Top sheets? They are almost forgotten. The top sheet is the one with decorative embroidery on the cuff - that's the end that is turned down over the blankets, next to the pillow. In the sale, a top sheet finely embroidered with a pavilion by a lake, two swans and exotic flowers and foliage - together with a pair of matching pillowcases with finely hemstitched borders - is estimated at pounds 400-pounds 500. Less expensive, at an estimated pounds 180-pounds 220, is a pair of linen top sheets, matching pillowcases, five baby pillowcases and a lace boudoir cushion.

In the big shops, expect to pay pounds 345 for a pair of Irish linen standard double sheets. A price tag of pounds 570 for a pair of standard double-size is not unusual. At auction, for an equivalent pair of secondhand ones in perfect condition, you might pay pounds 150-pounds 200 - a touchy-feely price.

Textiles, Phillips, 101 New Bond Street, London W1, 29 September, 11am (0171-629 6602)