Personal Finance: Soft on the skin and good in bed - Life and Style - The Independent

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)

Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape
music
News
Paper trail: the wedding photograph found in the rubble after 9/11 – it took Elizabeth Keefe 13 years to find the people in it
newsWho are the people in this photo? It took Elizabeth Stringer Keefe 13 years to find out
Voices
Yes supporters gather outside the Usher Hall, which is hosting a Night for Scotland in Edinburgh
voicesBen Judah: Is there a third option for England and Scotland that keeps everyone happy?
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)
filmMatt Damon in talks to return
News
peopleThe report and photo dedicated to the actress’s decolletage has, unsurprisingly, provoked anger
Arts and Entertainment
Evil eye: Douglas Adams in 'mad genius' pose
booksNew biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Life and Style
tech... and together they're worth at least £100 million
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
filmsDaniel Craig is believed to be donning skies as 007 for the first time
Arts and Entertainment
Fringe show: 'Cilla', with Sheridan Smith in the title role and Aneurin Barnard as her future husband Bobby Willis
tvEllen E Jones on ITV's 'Cilla'
Life and Style
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
tech(but you can't escape: Bono is always on your iPhone)
Sport
Tim Wiese
sport
Life and Style
Kim Kardashian drawn backlash over her sexy swimsuit selfie, called 'disgusting' and 'nasty'
fashionCritics say magazine only pays attention to fashion trends among rich, white women
Arts and Entertainment
TVShows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Arts and Entertainment
Hit the roof: hot-tub cinema east London
architectureFrom pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
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

    Programme Test Manager

    £400 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client are currently seekin...

    IT Network Manager - Shepherd's Bush, London

    £28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Network Manager - Shepherd's Bush...

    Secondary supply teachers needed in Peterborough

    £21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Secondary supply teac...

    Modern Foreign Languages Teacher

    £100 - £110 per day: Randstad Education Group: Full time German Supply Teacher...

    Day In a Page

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week