In a market which hardly existed a few years ago, top-notch shops and mail-order bedlinen collections are springing up almost weekly. In the past few weeks, bedlinen specialist Cologne & Cotton opened its fifth shop in London, while Fortnum & Mason has launched its first bedlinen department. Everyone from Marks & Spencer, Next and Debenhams - their Jasper Conran range is well worth a look - to Ralph Lauren and the Conran Shop are plugging new collections. Just count how many bedlinen leaflets fall out of the next interiors magazine you buy.
Among the newcomers is the textile specialist Andrew Martin (0800 3281346, prices start from pounds 29 for a king-size sheet and include free delivery), which moved into the bedlinen market in July with its first bed and bath collection. "Our textiles style is a cool look so our bedlinen collections stick with natural fibres and a neutral palette," explains the head of mail order, Jacquie Willers.
The current bedlinen renaissance is long overdue, according to Jean Delliere of The White House (not to be confused with The White Company, another leader in mail-order bedlinen, 0171-385 7988), whose family left France to open in Bond Street at the beginning of the century. "People buy expensive clothes, but they pay little regard to what they spend six to eight hours a day in," he says. "Fine linens add to the quality of life, as our Continental counterparts know." The White House, which boasts a large and high- quality collection, launched its first own-label collection earlier this year, featuring classic whites with pinstitching, simple hemming and tailored finishes as well as embroidered linens. Materials range from percale cotton to linen and cotton voile in whites, creams and ecrus; prices for a king- size flat sheet, either by mail order (0171-629 3521) or from the new Conduit Street shop in London, are pounds 100 upwards, with top-of-the-range cottons or linens double that. Other exports from France, once the international capital of linen, include the more colourful Descamps, stocked in Liberty.
Meanwhile, the Monogrammed Linen Shop has now doubled the size of its showcase Walton Street shop, selling mostly fine Egyptian cottons - with its own designs commissioned from Italy to keep costs down - and some more embroidered styles from Switzerland. Again, whites and creams are the mainstay, with a king-size set of two sheets and two pillowcases costing around pounds 165.
Strange though it may seem, "bedlinen" rarely means "linen" these days, but the Eastern Trading Alliance is one of the few remaining companies that specialises in linen bedlinen. Co-owner Tim Thomas extols the virtues of good linen, talking about its "air-conditioning effect" - whereby the undistorted flax fibre is hollow so it keeps you warm in winter and cool in summer. Good-quality linen, however, is expensive (pounds 80 for one king- size sheet).
When Cologne & Cotton first opened nine years ago, says the co-owner Vicky Shepherd, you couldn't buy proper cotton sheets, apart from "the odd bit" at department stores. Today, as she opens her fifth shop, she acknowledges that things have changed dramatically. "Our main objective is to be competitively priced for cotton bedlinen," she says. "Our supercombed percale cotton is top of the market but we sell masses of flannelette in blue chambray; and dog-tooth checks. We make a policy of never having anything in a packet so that customers can pull items off the shelf and touch them."
Touch in this market is vitally important. The Americans, including Ralph Lauren, display the thread count (how many threads of cotton per gram) on all packaging, 200 being Lauren's standard thread count, while the best Egyptian cotton range in the top-price-bracket (pounds 1,095 for a king- size bedset of fitted and flat sheet and two pillowcases) White Label reaches as high as 590. But, though a good guide, there are other things to take into consideration - whether the thread is twisted, standard, or double; how tightly it's woven, the type of cotton that is used and so on. "From the consumer point of view it's very difficult," says Delliere. "A whole lot goes into the specification. What's important to the consumer is how it feels to him." And, at the end of the day, the proof of the bedding lies in the sleeping.