New Zealand sheets through the decades: a memoir
One of our keenest customers is Jo Joiner, a copywriter. She offered to pen a personal piece about her sheet obsession, from the 1970s until now.
My mother was something of a sheet connoisseur, even to the point of actually ironing her sheets before they were folded with Martha Stewart precision and filed in a bed linen cupboard that never had anything out of place. Her sheets were all white, always 100% cotton and pleasantly soft, after years and years of laundering. Most of them were wedding gifts received sometime in the late 1940s.
I didn’t inherit my mum’s tidiness (you ought to see my linen cupboard!), but I definitely received the gene for sheet appreciation. In my six decades on this planet, I’ve discovered than slipping into clean, smooth and slightly-satiny sheets is up there with nine-course degustations and driving your first Italian car. If there’s rain on the roof as well, even better.
I purchased my first two sets of double sheets at Smith & Brown in Tauranga, 1978. One set light blue, the other orange (a sign of the times). They were 100% cotton, but definitely at the low end of the quality scale. My starting salary as a copywriter was something like $12,000 a year and I had these sheets on layby for six months before I could call them my own.
These sheets saw me through a tour of New Zealand, via Radio New Zealand commercial stations. They died by traumatic foot-perforation – the act of leaping into bed and sticking your foot right through a worn-thin sheet.
Polyester cotton and patterns were highlights of the textile landscape in the 1980s. In the majority of cases, sheeting ticked both these boxes. Sprigs of flowers, wild paisleys and geometric patterns ran riot across New Zealand’s bed linen.
While poly/cotton was almost indestructible, i.e. never likely to succumb to foot-perforation, it was unpleasant to sleep in. The mix of the two fibres was inclined to ‘pill’, which meant tiny balls of irritation all over the sheet’s surface – the same effect you get with cheap knitwear. And on hot summer nights, poly-cotton developed a whole new level of unpleasantness. The poly always won over the cotton, to trap moisture in rather than let it out. To quote Bruce Springsteen: Oh oh oh, I'm on fire.
The 90s were a blur of small children and endless laundry. For them, cotton flannelette in winter delivered all the comfort of sleeping on a giant teddy’s tummy. They loved the soft, warm fluffiness, which could be further enhanced with a hot water bottle.
The parental bed was sans flannelette. Instead, I was experimenting with going top-sheet free and using duvet covers. While they simplified bed-making, the concept of a swathe of feathers encased in a cotton bag doesn’t allow for body temperature differences in the marital bed. While husband enjoyed being cosy and warm, I was usually simmering with the glow of pregnancy hormones and an over-active metabolic system. Duvet experiment over, we switched back to a top sheet and blankets.
It was during the 2000s that I first heard the words ‘thread count’. Suddenly there was a race to find the highest-possible thread count sheets, because sheets became a kind of status symbol. I can remember writing a headline for Porsche, probably about 2005, that said ‘You are what you drive’. Well, for sheets it was ‘you are what you sleep in’.
During this time online sales sites like NZ Sale opened the global linen cupboard to bombard everyone with offers of 1000 thread counts and hotel-quality linen at silly prices. Some of these babies were so thick, you could have used them as camping groundsheets. And they were noisy. Rolling over at night resulted in a cacophony of sound that was loud enough to wake one’s sleeping partner. It was a crunchy, raspy kind of noise. Like sleeping in a bed of potato crisps.
Empty-nester status generally leads to a massive clean-out in the sheet department, as you furnish departing children with bed linen for flatting. It’s a brilliant way to get rid of all the sheets and pillowcases you’ve been avoiding, because they really aren’t nice to sleep in.
I’d pruned my cotton bed linen collection down to just a couple of sets for each bed in the house when Rob George of the Great Sleep company came looking for a copywriter. Then my sheet education really began.
I learned about the myth of high thread count; how anything over 400 is generally regarded as a low-quality product in the sheeting manufacturing world. I also learned that ‘hotel quality’ invariably meant some form of polyester/cotton, rather than 100% cotton, because hotel beds have to be crease free and sheets are washed daily.
Best of all, I discovered the charms of Tencel cotton, a sheeting fabric that has only recently emerged from textile manufacturers. How do I describe these sheets? Words I usually reserve for dessert keep popping up. They’re delicious, creamy and cool. They feel satiny, but without the sweat-factor of satin. They’re as natural as a farmers’ market, made with wood fibre and cotton. And they have a drapey kind of weight that is somehow soothing and soporific.
Now, thanks to Tencel cotton sheets, I’m so good at sleeping, I can do it with my eyes closed.