To create a beautiful bedroom, start with the linens.
Simpler looks have replaced the over-upholstered bed of recent years, with its layers of quilts, throws, shams, and neck rolls.
"People are tired of unmaking the bed just so they can get in the bed," says designer Lowell Wade of Interior Motives in Alexandria.
These days, a typical bed set includes a dust ruffle, a comforter or duvet, and a few pillow shams. Wade likes a washable cotton matelassé spread–a flat, single-color coverlet (she likes the ones by Lands' End). A bed with good legs can go without the ruffle.
You can buy ready-made or have it all custom done through designers or fabric stores. Custom allows you to upholster a headboard in the same fabric or to get matching window treatments or a shower curtain for the master bath. Stores usually do not do custom sheets, and some don't do canopies. Custom linens usually take eight to ten weeks.
A custom bedspread costs about $600, depending on fabric, stitching, whether you make it reversible, and whether the corners bell out or are fitted (which costs more). Bedspreads come either outline-stitched, a more expensive option in which stitching follows the design–edging each flower, for instance–or frame-stitched in a set pattern, such as diamonds or fleur-de-lis. Outlining brings out the design and looks more custom.
G Street and other fabric stores offer upholstered headboards; queen-size runs about $450. Some customers order slipcovers so they can change the look seasonally.
Bedding, essentially the upholstery for the largest piece of furniture in the room, should be chosen with care. "If you pick a quarter-inch check on a large bed, you'll be seeing a lot of a little pattern, which can be dizzying," says Jan Jessup, director of corporate affairs for Calico Corners, a fabric and design chain.
But a large pattern can dominate a room. A light organza throw can help break up the space of a big bed, says Cathy Lowery, director of the design department at G Street Fabrics in Rockville.
Try not to choose fabric from tiny swatches, says Jessup. Borrow a bolt of fabric you can take home and roll out on the bed.
There's now enormous selection in ready-made linens, and some are more expensive than custom.
The Archipelago line, favored by designers, includes 600-thread-count sheets. A queen flat in cotton sateen with a border costs $394; alpaca coverlets are $957 in queen. Other exclusive favorites are Frette and D. Porthault, while the of-the-moment line is Anichini, sheets handcrafted in Vermont that adorn the beds of Kelly Osbourne and Cher.
Even down-to-earth organic cottons and soothing flannels have gone upscale. When I went through a bout of skin sensitivity 20 years ago, I got a gift of sheets from then-tiny Garnet Hill, a company that uses only natural fibers. It has since grown and now carries items such as embroidered silk spreads and 310-thread-count sheets.
A homegrown line of linens is Salamander Touch, designed by Sheila Johnson, cofounder, along with former husband Robert, of BET. Johnson, a soon-to-be inn and conference-center proprietor, says she couldn't find linens that were sufficiently serene for her Middleburg inn and for her own use, so she designed some. The line is for sale at Tiny Jewel Box in DC, with a queen flat sheet running about $300.
"You want tranquility," she says. "You don't want a loud color palette; you don't want pictures on the sheets staring at you."
One design, Winter Trees, is based on her photographs and drawings of the bare trees around her farm after an ice storm. She worked with a factory in Florence to get the precise cool feel she was seeking in a 300-count cotton sateen.
"There's a misconception that the higher the thread count, the better the sheet," Johnson says. "A higher-thread-count fabric, when it's washed, sometimes tightens up and gives a scratchy feel. You want the sheets to breathe."
That depends on the sheet, others say. Siobhan Dunn, who handles luxury linens at Hollis & Knight in Georgetown, says Archipelago sheets become softer with wear. But high thread counts require special care–and ironing. They can be dry-cleaned.
Duvet covers and pillows do benefit from a higher thread count; a tighter weave keeps down or feathers from leaking.
The longer the fiber in cotton, the softer and finer the fabric. Egyptian, Sea Island, and Pima are the longest used in bed linens. The type of weave also makes a difference, with sateen and percale the smoothest and most durable.
In pillows and comforters, down is the most luxurious filling. Feathers provide firmer support. The two are often blended. "Down-feather" means more down than feather, "feather-down" vice versa.