High-thread-count cotton, preferably ironed to crisp perfection, was once considered the epitome of luxury for bedlinen. Now, as the mood for home decoration is becoming more relaxed around the edges, it seems that the most covetable fabric for sleeping on is linen. Fuss-free elegance is key to its contemporary appeal: who could fail to love a fabric that looks best when unironed and gently rumpled?
Linen is also naturally breathable, insulating skin in winter and cooling it in summer. ‘Something that often gets overlooked is linen’s heavier weight,’ says Jessica Mason, founder of bedlinen brand Piglet. ‘Weighted bedding is growing in popularity, as it’s believed to help reduce anxiety and insomnia. I find that linen eases me into a relaxing sleep.’
While linen bedding might be a new experience for some after years of cotton, it is in fact one of the oldest fabrics in the world. Fragments of woven linen have been found in prehistoric caves, still intact after millennia. Because the flax plants that make linen are labour-intensive to grow and process – the fibres tend to break during weaving, so great skill is required at the loom – the material was regarded asa luxury in the ancient world. ‘It was known as “woven moonlight” due to its sensual, light-reflective quality,’ says textile designer Bernie de Le Cuona.
When not left in its natural oatmeal colour, linen was traditionally bleached white, which meant it was associated with purity. Angels in The Book of Revelation are described as being clad in white linen, while Greek philosopher Plutarch writes that the material is ‘plain and cleanly’ next to the skin, because it is derived from plants – unlike wool, which comes from farm animals. ‘In medieval Europe, it was believed that linen guarded against witchcraft,’ says Inga Lukauskiene, founder of LinenMe. The link between linen, whiteness and cleanliness has continued uninterrupted to this day.
Over the centuries, it has been used for every imaginable purpose, from making books and banknotes to artists’ canvases. It was for this reason that the Romans named it Linum Usitatissimum, which translates as ‘most useful linen’.A weaver in 18th-century Flanders or 19th-century Belfast – both famed for their fine linen industries – would have been familiar with several different weights of the fabric, now largely forgotten; these include cambric, a delicate cloth used for handkerchiefs, and damask napery, a woven jacquard.
Such textiles were often handed down through families, a practice that has added a romantic sheen to linen’s story. ‘My love of linen began when my grandmother left me her exquisite sheets, embroidered with her initials, which she had owned since her marriage,’ says antique dealer Appley Hoare, who sells vintage linen bedding from her shop in Tetbury, Gloucestershire. ‘They’re now over a century old, but I’m still using them.’ Hoare points to the Provençal tradition of dying old bedlinen soft blue or deep indigo to update and put your own stamp on it.
Modern linens, meanwhile, will become the heirlooms of the future. ‘Over time, they soften, hang better and grow more relaxed,’ says Souad Larusi, founder of the eponymous textile brand. ‘They become like beloved friends.’
For the full house tour see ELLE Decoration November 2018
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