If I had to name the most shameful memory of my youth it would be the unchanged, fitted, poly-cotton sheets in chocolate brown. It is the sheet part of student life that makes me wish tuition fees could be quadrupled and campuses closed. I cannot watch the cult student film Withnail and I without flinching. I have never forgiven Tracey Emin for her unmade bed.
As they leave their twenties, most women become less interested in what is going on under the sheets and more in the sheets themselves. My first purchase of white Egyptian cotton sheets held the promise of a clean and virtuous life — in sleeping if not in waking.
I remember the day I discovered linen in the way that others recall the date that Kennedy was shot. This was the material of the gods. There is a thesis to be done — if it has not been written already — on the role of linen in literature. It appears in Homer’s Odyssey and in Blake. My favourite poem about good sheets concerns the hanging of a man in ‘The Ballad of William Boat’ by Raymond Calvert:
In a mean abode on the Shankill Road,
Lived a man called William Boat;
He had a wife, the curse of his life,
who continually got his goat.
So one day at dawn with her nightdress on, he cut her bloody throat.
But the strangest turn to the whole concern, is only just beginnin’
He went to Hell but his wife got well
And she’s still alive and sinnin’
For the razor blade was German made
But the sheet was Irish linen.
The two principles of buying sheets are high thread counts and the right fit. Unlike buying wine, which can be quirky and unpredictable, the safe indicators on sheets are a 400-plus thread count and a thumping great price tag. An exhaustive internet consumer test concluded earnestly: ‘A low price seems to be an indicator of a quality problem.’
Strangely, we fuss about getting the right bra or shoe size but are indifferent to the size of sheets. I have heard people confronted with the question: Queen? King? Emperor? answer indifferently, ‘What’s the difference?’
Well the difference is whether you want an uncreased, tautness beneath you, which even Florence Nightingale would sign off, or a great flapping shroud. In order to get this right, you must measure your mattress.
The third principle is that sheets can be any colour so long as they are white. This is the genius realisation behind The White Company. Which are the sheets left over in the sales? Coloured ones. You can have as much idiosyncrasy as you like in the stitching but you should not stray further than ivory on the colour.
What the White Company also realised — as have the other successful home furnishing brands — is that you are selling more than a thread count — it is a way of life. In the White Company’s brochure it talks of its sheets: ‘sitting equally well in a contemporary loft or a country cottage’. No mention of a two up semi.
Similarly, sheets are linked to place names. There is the Montreal collection, the Aspen, the Manhattan and the Milano. There is no place called Hull in The White Company. My personal recommendation is the Montreal King/Superking cotton flat sheet for £85. Ralph Lauren offers you the Venice Beach Loft sheet, the Pacific Heights or the Villa America.
A last word on colour. Rules are meant to be broken. The obsession with hemp has led to a fashion for the natural colour of linen, unbleached. Rough and dirty is good.
I turn to England’s own Martha Stewart, Olga Polizzi, owner of the Tresanton hotel, for the highest wisdom on sheets. In a baffling show of sophistication she claims to favour cotton over linen.
‘I prefer cotton to linen sheets but a very high count per cale. There is one great English manufacturer left — Peter Reed — who I love. The Volga Linen Company produces wonderful linen. Terri Tollemache, who runs it, travels thousands of miles across Russia to find the best sources of traditional Russian linen.’
A final word on washing: do not do it yourself. Launder only. Watch the starch count. Other than that, your local will be fine. Good sheets do not ‘pull’ into knotty fibres anymore and they last up to 10 years, the best ones a generation. Lie back and think of Montreal.
Sarah Sands’s latest novel The Villa is published by Macmillan in June.