Sheet, Mattress Are Strange Bedfellows

Times Staff Writer

Question: I have run into something that I think people buying a new mattress should know. I recently bought a new king-size mattress as a replacement for a foam rubber mattress that I've had for about 20 years and which was crumbling. Since I had gone this far, I also bought a couple of sets of fitted sheets at the same time.

I almost broke a wrist trying to fit the too-small sheets on the new mattress, although they were clearly labeled "king" sheets. My first reaction was that I had ended up with some sort of maverick mattress, because there was no way in the world that the sheets were going to fit.

When I complained to the store where I had bought the mattress, I was assured that no, the mattress was all right. It was simply because today's mattress manufacturers are making them a lot thicker than they used to, and that the sheet manufacturers haven't got the message yet. This seems awfully odd to me--so much so that I'm inclined to doubt it. The man at the store where I bought the mattress also said this was a good reason to be very careful when buying sheets that are on sale because the stores are trying to unload the old, smaller fitted sheets. Is this true, or is the whole thing a product of somebody's imagination?--J.C.

Answer: Funny things happen in the world of home furnishings, and as strange as it may seem to thee and me that there might be little or no communication between the manufacturers of two household items so intimately bound together, that's largely the way it is.

Spokesmen for both of the industries involved admit with some rue that mattress manufacturers tend to go blithely their way and the sheet manufacturers--tra-la-la-la-la--go their way.

"I sometimes have the feeling," New York-based Donald H. Roberts, executive director of the National Bath, Bedding and Linen Assn., complains, "that we're the last to know when the mattress makers change their sizes. Here are all of these mills grinding out thousands and thousands of sheets that--as it turns out--are impossible to put on the new mattresses. They're not thick enough. And it's the poor consumer who gets hurt."

And Nancy Butler, vice president of communications for the National Assn. of Bedding Manufacturers in Arlington, Va., concedes that her people had, indeed, been slowly increasing the thickness of mattresses "for about two or three years," without apparently tipping the sheet manufacturers off to what was afoot.

"But," she adds defensively, "the sheet makers have never had any standards, anyway: You can buy supposedly identical sheets for identical-size beds from three or four different manufacturers, and no two of them will be the same thickness."

Confined to Thickness

Happily, the confusion is pretty well confined to mattress thickness--width and length, according to Linda Piper, assistant buyer in the Broadway's sheet department, have long been standardized. With (wouldn't you know?) one exception:

"We sometimes get people moving out here from the East or Midwest with a king-size bed, and they buy a fitted sheet for it that doesn't fit at all."

That's because the Eastern King is 78 inches wide and 80 inches long, and the California King is 72 inches wide and 84 inches long. (Californians have slimmer hips and greater height?)

The others, fortunately, are the same size regardless of point of purchase: The Queen (60 by 80 inches), the Double (54 by 75 inches), the Twin (39 by 75 inches) and the Extra Long Twin for gangly teen-agers (39 by 80 inches).

The thickness problem that you've experienced has frustrated retailers for some time, according to Gary Hyman, the Broadway's divisional vice president for home furnishings.

"The mattress makers have been steadily thickening them--making them more plush, quilting them and adding things like the 'pillow top'--and obviously not telling the sheet manufacturers about it," he adds.

"And the sheet makers have had it down to a science--knowing exactly, to the square inch--what this size mattress and that size mattress requires."

"The problem," the mattress manufacturers' Butler says, "is pretty well confined to your better sheets and mattresses. Most of your promotional, sales models have remained at about the seven-inch-thick level. But your better mattresses have crept up to eight, nine and even 10 inches in thickness, and this 'pillow top' model needs a 12-inch fitted sheet."

The fact that the mattress and sheet makers have finally started talking to each other can be credited to NBC-TV's consumer reporter, Betty Furness, who devoted a segment of her show to the problem last August. Says Butler: "There was quite a reaction to it, and, frankly, we hadn't been aware of it until then."

Now, the sheet makers--at least the major ones, such as J. P. Stevens, Fieldcrest, West Point Pepperell and Cannon--are moving to the thicker, fitted sheets, although, Butler adds, "there's an inventory problem in the stores as the new ones move out."

So, how does a hapless consumer protect against buying too-skinny fitted sheets for a king-size mattress, and how valid is the warning you were given about buying sheets being offered on special sale (because the stores are trying to dump their old ones)?

Depends on who you ask.

The Broadway's Hyman and the National Bath, Bed and Linen Assn.'s Roberts feel the beware-of-special-sales warning is a bit overblown.

"Sheets are on sale most of the time anyway," Roberts says, "so I don't think you'd find many stores using it specifically for this purpose, because there are a lot more of the old, thinner mattresses out there than there are the new ones."

And, while Hyman echoes this sentiment--especially as it applies to quality sheets--he also concedes that buying fitted sheets that, sure enough, will slip easily onto a modern king-size mattress "is really tough. You've got to know specifically the dimensions of your own mattress. Fortunately, all sheet packages are clearly labeled as to their dimensions, so, if you're in doubt, just pick the sheet that's the thickest."

Representing the mattress manufacturers, however, the National Assn. of Bedding Manufacturers' Butler feels that the beware-of-special-sales warning "may have some validity to it at least for a while, although it might not apply to better-quality sheets."

One can conslude that all of this might not have come about if, three years ago, a lone mattress manufacturer had picked up the phone and called his sheet-manufacturing golf companion down the street:

"Say, incidentally, Charlie, you might want to take a look at our new 'Cushy-Bounce' model coming off the line this week--it's a nine-incher."

Q: It seems to me that Los Angeles County ought to get its act together. We had bought and lived in our new house almost a year and a half when I suddenly realized that we had never received a property tax bill.

I called the county treasurer's office, and they sent me a "Substitute Secured Property Tax Bill" all right, but they also slapped me with delinquency charges on both the first and second installments totaling $310 as well as $10 in costs.

I know that I'm responsible for my taxes and am willing to pay them, but I resent being slapped for late charges on a bill I never received. How am I supposed to know what and when to pay this if no one ever tells me?--M.P

A: Richard B. Dixon, who wears two hats--both as county treasurer and county tax collector, but who prefers to be known as the "county treasurer" for obvious reasons--sympathizes with you, but (here we go) "unfortunately, under California law, there are very few bases for excusing penalties and, as unfair as it sounds, not receiving a tax bill isn't one of them."

Both Installments

The county mails out roughly 2.2 million tax statements every Oct. 15 with both semiannual installments lumped together (and which are due on Dec. 10 and April 10). You can pay both of them at the same time, of course, but the first one, at least, has to be paid by Dec. 10 to avoid the penalty.

"We try to get the word out that if you haven't received your bill by the first week in November, you should notify us," Dixon adds.

"That's the curse of junk mail, of course, which is what a lot of people mistake the tax bill for--we all ignore it and/or throw it away without reading it. We try to generate as much media attention as we can get around the time we send them out and then again when they're coming due. But it doesn't always work."

And, with the largely automated envelope-stuffing of 2.2 million tax bills, "we know that a few of them are going to fall through a crack.

"And we're sorry."

One bright spot: the penalty is tax deductible.

Don G. Campbell cannot answer mail personally but will respond in this column to consumer questions of general interest. Write to Consumer VIEWS, You section, The Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.

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