Luxury sheets are hot.

Rather than choosing bed linens based on whether they're on sale or because they don't clash with the bedroom color scheme, discerning shoppers are imagining how it will feel to relax nestled under high-end bedding at the end of a long, hectic day.

They're scrutinizing labels for clues to quality, checking thread counts and getting familiar with names of revered bedding makers such as Yves DeLorme, Sferra Brothers, Pratesi and Frette.

"Some people shop for brands, others for the feel of the product or the overall aesthetic," says Jane Berk, public relations director of ABC Home at ABC Carpet and Home in New York City.

"The older brands have a long history of quality and attention to detail. They have produced some of the finest sheets on the market, and have brand recognition," she continues.

The increased demand for luxury bedding stems from a dichotomy of current trends: staying home and going away.

"In these uncertain times, we're putting more time and money into the home," says Jeffrey Whitney, the store manager at Nancy Koltes at Home, a purveyor of elegant linens in Manhattan's Nolita district. "People are staying closer to home and have the inherent need to feel really, really comfortable. They're not traveling as much but are more in tune with the self and with the home as an extension of the self."

On the other hand: "People are looking for beds to reflect their travels," Berk points out. "Five-star hotels are all about luxury bedding. People have been to five-star hotels around the world and want to create the same experience in their homes."

Ritz-Carlton hotels feature Frette sheets in guest rooms and Pratesi in executive suites. The W hotel chain received so many queries about its bedding that it now offers its sheets for sale online.

Fine linens are so prominent in the public consciousness that even Macy's carries a private-label Hotel Collection, which includes pieces with thread counts of up to 600 per square inch.

Down for the Thread Count

Some shoppers think of high-quality sheets as a numbers game, rejecting thread counts below 250 per square inch and extolling the merits of those soaring to more than 1,000.

But thread count is not the only factor that determines quality and comfort: The fineness, softness and durability of the threads are important to consider.

"Thread count is just a number," says Gail Secular, president of Archipelago, a Manhattan shop specializing in luxury linens and designer bedding. "Choose a sheet by 'hand' -- if you like the way it feels. What's best for you is your personal preference."

Archipelago carries a thread-count range of 220 ($325 for a queen-size set of a fitted sheet, a flat sheet and two pillowcases) to 400 ($830 for a queen-size set).

Those in the know look for sheets made from Egyptian cotton, as its longer fibers produce softer, finer threads.

Unless the label says 100% Egyptian cotton, the bedding is probably made from a blend of cottons, including lesser-quality fibers. Combed cotton is another indicator of quality, as combing produces stronger, finer threads.

And beware of thread-count inflation -- multiple plies of cotton can be twisted into a single strand, and some manufacturers count each ply as a thread. For example, 250 four-ply threads might be represented as 1,000 threads per inch.

Secular points out that the denser weave of a high-thread-count sheet will make it hotter to sleep in. People who have to sleep with the windows open year-round are likely to be happier with a lower thread count than those who are always cold at night.

Finally, percale sheets typically have a lower thread count and a matte finish and are cooler for sleepers; sateen fabrics usually have a tighter weave and a shiny appearance and are warmer.

Blanket Appeal

A taste for fine sheets isn't gender-specific.

"You'd be surprised at how many men are more into it than women," Secular reveals.

Although the Nancy Koltes store stocks a men's collection, featuring colors including gray and smoky blue, its biggest seller across the board is its Foglia line, decorated with vines, flowers and leaves. Whitney says that the Foglia pattern is "on the traditional side but can be made more contemporary. All types of customers buy them."

Sheets at Koltes range from $188 to $2,400 for a four-piece set. "If you want to be productive, don't get in these sheets," Whitney cautions. "You'll never want to leave them."

Some ABC shoppers even ask for organic bedding, Berk notes.

"When you're sleeping in a bed, your nose is on the sheets, so purity is important. They're not just looking for plain organic sheets -- they're getting organic sheets with a lot of style: pure, chemical-free sheets with a wide variety of aesthetic influences from around the world."

Even infants can enjoy the pleasures of sheets as tender as their skin.

The Q Collection, which specializes in high-end and custom furniture, fabrics and accessories, is introducing a line of organic bedding for babies (available spring 2007).

A Q representative describes the line as "very high-quality, completely green and nontoxic."

Care and Feeding

The eight buyers lucky enough to secure a set of $15,000 Burano Lace sheets -- produced to commemorate Sferra's 115th anniversary -- most likely already have a professional at the ready to hand wash and iron them.

The rest of us should proceed gently with our fine bedding.

Choose a gentle detergent such as Woolite, Ivory Snow, Planet, LeBranc Linen Wash or SDH Fine Fabric Wash, and use less than the package recommends -- a half measure may be plenty.

Never use chlorine bleach on these fine-quality products.

Set the washer on the gentle cycle, and be sure there's plenty of room for the sheets to tumble freely.

Fabrics can rub against each other in an overloaded machine, causing abrasion that breaks down the fibers, causes pilling or both.

Use warm wash water and a cold rinse, and splurge on an extra rinse cycle.

The Sferra Web site recommends line-drying sheets outdoors to avoid the wear and tear of a dryer and to leverage the natural bleaching effects of the sun.

If the old-fashioned method isn't an option, shake out the sheets before drying them on a low setting.

Overdrying and high temperatures cause shrinking and wrinkles and may even shorten the life of the sheets.

Store fine bed linens in a well-ventilated space.

Don't use plastic storage bags or boxes, which can cause yellowing; the fabric needs to "breathe."

Fern Sateen from Nancy Koltes
Photo: Nancy Koltes at Home

Consider purchasing several sets of bedding and rotating them so that they'll last longer.

Reputable dealers should stand behind their products and permit returns or exchanges in case of pilling, shrinkage or other quality issues.

However, with proper washing and drying, luxury sheets may last long enough to become family heirlooms -- if you can bear to bequeath them.

Enjoy the Good Life? Email us with what you'd like to see in future articles.

Elzy Kolb is a freelance writer living in White Plains, N.Y. In addition to writing the monthly JazzWomen! column in Hot House magazine, her articles on the arts, travel, interior design and other topics have appeared in the New York Times, Interior Design magazine and The Stamford Advocate.

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