In France, it's traditional for the bride's parents to provide a monogrammed linen trousseau. But these fine linens may never be used by the couple. Rather, they'll be put away for their progeny, while those of the bride's mother or grandmother will be unpacked and cherished for a lifetime.
Indeed, fine European bedding can last a lifetime because it generally is made of pure linen. And a lot of what isn't in the hands of heirs is finding its way to antiques shops in the United States. Along with reproductions, old linens are enjoying a renaissance.
Laura Fisher, a New York antiques dealer who specializes in vintage quilts and linens, says some of her best clients are designers for the domestics and home textiles industries who buy old linens to copy.
"The reproductions lack the weight, body and intricacy that late 19th-Century and early 20th-Century linens had, so some consumers are looking for the real thing," she says.
Old sheet sets as well as single pillowcases and table linens are popular as wedding presents, Fisher says. As these linens become rarer, linens of more recent vintage take up the slack. Hand-embroidered pillowcases from 1940s America are showing up in antiques shops. Imports include square pillowcases with lace edging, many of German and Swiss origin.
Prices are not necessarily higher for vintage linens than for high-end copies. For example, Fisher sold a set of old muslin sheets with simple crochet for $145. A linen set with cutwork trim might be about $550. A queen-size set of Ralph Lauren embroidered eyelet-trim white cotton sheets retails for about $215.
The problem with old bed linens is that they predate queen- and king-size beds.
"Some old sheets are outsize, so they can fit a queen-size bed," Fisher says, "but don't try to find old bed linens for a king-size bed."
Along with a gift of fine old linens, you might include "The Book of Fine Linen" (Flammarion, $45). Author Francoise de Bonneville provides a wide-ranging history of the production, use and care of linens for bed, bath and table. Tucked into the text are answers to questions such as: Who invented that infernal contraption, the iron?
According to De Bonneville, smoothing tools date to neolithic times, and Egyptians added the handle sometime around 2000 BC. The shape of the modern iron, which resembles a ship's prow, evolved around the end of the 17th Century, when solid iron bases were introduced. Many methods were tried to keep irons hot until electric irons arrived early in the 20th Century.
While much of America's bedding style and tradition is European, the United States has made significant contributions. The first packaged laundry soap was marketed by the Lever Co. in 1888 under the name Sunlight. A French ad for the product is reproduced in De Bonneville's book. By mid-century, American manufacturers also introduced no-iron sheets and fitted sheets. Along with colored sheets, they are slowly gaining favor in Europe.
Caring for old linens is far more laborious than caring for modern percales in no-iron cotton and blends. Use a mild soap--and a net bag if there is lace or other trim that might tear. Old linens should be ironed damp with a heavy, hot iron.
"In France, they are starting to make heavy, old-fashioned irons again," De Bonneville says. "But many household helpers refuse to use them, so there are special services to iron old linens in the old-fashioned way."