Personal Finance: Soft on the skin and good in bed

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)

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive / Digital Marketing Executive

    £26000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A luxury beauty house with a nu...

    Recruitment Genius: Housekeepers - Immediate Start

    £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This company are currently recruiting new exp...

    Recruitment Genius: Head Concierge

    £25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This award winning Property Man...

    Recruitment Genius: Content, SEO and PPC Executive

    £20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has ari...

    Day In a Page

    On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

    On your feet!

    Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
    With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

    The big NHS question

    Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
    Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Big knickers are back
    Thurston Moore interview

    Thurston Moore interview

    On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
    In full bloom

    In full bloom

    Floral print womenswear
    From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

    From leading man to Elephant Man

    Bradley Cooper is terrific
    In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

    In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

    Dame Colette Bowe - interview
    When do the creative juices dry up?

    When do the creative juices dry up?

    David Lodge thinks he knows
    The 'Cher moment' happening across fashion just now

    Fashion's Cher moment

    Ageing beauty will always be more classy than all that booty
    Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

    Health fears over school cancer jab

    Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
    Fifa President Sepp Blatter warns his opponents: 'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

    'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

    Fifa president Sepp Blatter issues defiant warning to opponents
    Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report

    Weather warning

    Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report
    LSD: Speaking to volunteer users of the drug as trials get underway to see if it cures depression and addiction

    High hopes for LSD

    Meet the volunteer users helping to see if it cures depression and addiction
    German soldier who died fighting for UK in Battle of Waterloo should be removed from museum display and given dignified funeral, say historians

    Saving Private Brandt

    A Belgian museum's display of the skeleton of a soldier killed at Waterloo prompts calls for him to be given a dignified funeral