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All About Linens

How Linens Can Personalize Your Home

What do you think of when you hear the word linen? Crisp white sheets blowing in the wind? The scent of summer and understated elegance? Linens can make a world of difference in your home, changing a guest room from "ho hum" to stylishly hospitable and lending your home an elegant grace.

Marilyn Matthews from Little Rock, Ark., grew up in a home that loved linens and made having a wide assortment available for all occasions a priority.

"Textiles have always been revered in my family," Matthews says. "My mother handmade my first baby quilt, which I still have, along with quilts made by my grandmothers and various aunts. I grew up with crocheted pillow cases and sheets lovingly done by these same aunts and grandmothers."

As a young adult, Matthews frequented flea markets and estate sales and found herself drawn to lovely embroidered, crocheted, cutwork or tatted pieces. She believes one of the reasons she enjoys linens is because of the love she has always associated with them, but on a broader level, Matthews believes linens are the refinements of a house well appointed.

Sensory Appeal
"Fine linens, especially one-of-a-kind linens, are the personalization of home decor that cannot be purchased in the mainstream," Matthews says. "It adds the level of softness and comfort, even luxury, that makes visitors feel that their comfort and senses are of utmost importance."

Chris Madden, celebrity decorator and author of 16 books, including Haven: Finding the Keys to Your Personal Decorating Style (Clarkson Potter, 2004), believes that linens are an important part to creating a home that is a warm and welcoming sanctuary, a place apart from the rest of the world.

"I believe in turning home into haven, creating a beautiful, comfortable, personable and welcoming environment in every room of the house," Madden says. "We do this by making each room appeal to each of the five senses. Rooms should smell good, be texturally rich, visually interesting, stimulating or, conversely, calming and serene. There should be audible pleasures – music, a fountain, the whirr of a fan – and they should feel good to the touch. That's where fine linens come in."

Madden loves linens because she feels they help make up the ultimate comfort zone, your bed. She believes that beds should be as plush and luxurious as you can afford, comprised of texturally interesting linens: smooth sheets, textured quilts or blankets and soft down.

Madden collaborated with JCPenney to launch a collection called "Turning Home into Haven," which features a complete line of home furnishings, including furniture, window treatments, rugs, lamps, decorative accessories and, you guessed it, linens for both the bed and bath.

"I have collected antique linens for over 20 years, from flea markets in Italy and Paris shopping with my sister, to the Manchester Antique Fair in the summer," Madden says. "I love the softness of oft-washed linens and embroidery, the purity of an all-white bed. I wanted to get that feel, that sense of softness (combined with easy care) in my JCPenney sheet collection."

Choosing the Right Bed Linens
Madden believes that you not only can feel the difference between quality and poor-quality linens but see it in the drape and fold of the fabric, in the hem of the cloth and in the texture. Poor linens may not breathe and may be uncomfortable when you sleep or feel rough on the skin.

"A shopper should always be on the lookout for the highest thread count they can afford," Madden says.

When shopping for linens, take the sheets or pillow cases out of the package and test with your hand to determine if the feel is right for them.

"Some people like to sleep on silk linens; others can't stand the 'slip' of silk and prefer cotton," Madden says. "Then there's a men's shirting cotton such as a fine chambray, or a smooth Egyptian cotton that is, frankly, what I prefer."

Madden advises people not to be afraid to mix and match linens for a very personal look. Mix patterns and colors, stripes and florals and different colored solids. Also mix textures when making a bed. Use a quilt with a down comforter, a wool blanket with fine sheets, and don't forget to indulge yourself with pillows.

Talking Table Linens
Klaudia Keller, owner of Choice Linens and Chair Covers in Seattle, Wash., rents out table and chair linens for upscale parties, and her taste is impeccable. Though she loves rare antique linens, in her business, practicality is key. She believes that quality table linens can be sumptuous and practical in the same package.

"Darker colors are better for spills and will hide a multitude of sins, but the white linens with a faggoted hem are what our mother's mother used and will be with us through generations," Keller says. "Those tablecloths that won't wash are not practical, and using a cloth just once seems such a shame. We have had numerous clients request Dupioni silk. The colors in Dupioni are gorgeous and the look fabulous, but [Dupioni] can only be used once as the laundering takes all of the life out of the cloth."

Keller says that shopping for table linens isn't always easy these days, because table sizes aren't as consistent as they used to be. Keep the use of the table cloth in mind as you shop. Are you looking for cloths for family use? Then perhaps you will want to find a cloth blended with a bit of polyester for easy stain removal. Remember to keep the china and silver in mind if you are looking to dress up a table for a holiday party.

Linens in the Laundry
When laundering, follow manufacturer's directions or use the gentle cycle if not sure. Heat can affect some linens, so hang dry if no specific directions are present. Keller says shrinkage seems to be a factor, especially with round table cloths, and they deal with that continuously.

"We usually err to abundant flow with poofs at the guests' feet," Keller says.

As far as sheets go, Madden suggests washing them in mild detergent and warm water, depending on the color. "Never use bleach," she says. "Tumble dry on low, and iron if you have the time and inclination. I prefer sleeping on ironed sheets that have been sprayed with lavender water. If you don't have the time to iron, try hanging linens on a line outdoors; the scent is fabulous, and they dry 'crisp' that softens when you sleep on them."

Proper care of your linens will leave them gracing you with their presence for years to come.

"Linens can be the ultimate accessory to change the look and feel of the room without changing the paint color, wallpaper, curtains and rugs," Madden says. "Linens are the fashion accessory that allows you to change your room with the seasons, with your mood or for the occasion."

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