Regency Bed Linens

Last fall, I wrote about mattresses in the Regency, so it seems about time that I got around to writing about the sheets which covered those mattresses. Just as mattresses of the Regency period do not resemble the mattresses which most of us use today, neither did the sheets between which people slept on those mattresses. Therefore, authors of stories set during the Regency might like to know the details of the bed linens which were in use during that period.

Bed linens through the Regency era . . .

Mattresses probably pre-date bed linens by at least several centuries, for humans were making soft cushions on which to sleep from pre-historic times. However, those early mattresses were made of piles of grasses or leaves, perhaps covered by animal skins. There is no doubt that soon after mankind learned to cultivate plants from which they could weave textiles, they began making textile coverings for their beds. It is generally believed that the first bed sheets were made in Ancient Egypt, where the early Egyptians were among the first to cultivate flax, which they processed and wove into linen cloth. The use of woven linen for bed sheets gradually spread throughout the Mediterranean, to both Ancient Greece and Roman. There is evidence that the Romans introduced the cultivation of flax and the making of linen cloth to the British Isles during their occupation of Britain, in order to supply linen to their troops. However, the large-scale production of linen seems to have been abandoned when the Romans departed and was only revived in the Middle Ages.

Though the processing of flax into thread and the weaving of that thread into cloth was extremely labor-intensive, by the Middle Ages, the use of woven linen bed sheets was fairly common in Britain and across Europe, certainly among those who could afford such personal comforts in their homes. In fact, until the last few decades of the seventeenth century, the bed and its accoutrements, including mattresses, pillows and sheets, was the single most important piece of furniture in nearly every home and most people aspired to have at least one. In the early nineteenth century, a new variety of flax was developed, which was easier to process into thread. By that time, the Industrial Revolution had resulted in the introduction of mechanization into many aspects of the textile weaving process. Therefore, linen bed sheets had became much more affordable, for everyone except those of the very lowest classes. From that time, nearly everyone in Britain and in Continental Europe had linen sheets on their beds. With the exception of the very poorest households, by the beginning of the Regency, most families had more than one set of sheets for each of the beds in their homes. In most upper and middle-class households, even the servants had sheets on their beds.

Until well into the second half of the nineteenth century, bedsteads, mattresses, bolsters and pillows were all custom-made. Therefore, all bed linens had to be custom-made as well. From the mid-eighteenth century right through the Regency, the widest linen looms for even weave fabrics typically ranged from between thirty to thirty-five inches wide. Consequently, sheets for all but the narrowest beds had to be seamed in order to create the widths needed to span the bed on which they would be used. As with most sheets today, the sides of Regency sheets did not have to be hemmed, since the selvedge edges were cleanly finished and therefore would not unravel. The selvedge edges also made it possible to use very narrow seems to join the sections of any sheet. However, both the top and bottom ends of each sheet would have to be hemmed, to prevent the woven linen from unraveling. Fitted sheets which we know today also did not exist during the Regency. When a Regency bed was made, two flat sheets would be used, one to cover the mattress and another over that, before any blankets or other bed coverings were added.

Other bed linens needed for Regency beds included pillow cases, and, in many cases, also covers for bolsters, since it was very common at that time to sleep on both a bolster and one or more pillows. Like mattresses, pillows and bolsters were all custom-made, so their linen coverings also had to be custom-made. Just as there was no ready-made clothing during the Regency, there was also no ready-made bed linen during that time. In most households, it was usual for the ladies of the house, and/or at least some of the female servants to be involved in the making of the bed linens used by the family. It was convenient to have more than one set of bed linens for each bed stored in the household linen cupboard. That made it possible to make up beds with fresh linens before the soiled ones had to be laundered. In many households, a new set of bed linens would be made for at least one of the beds in the house each year. Thus, the family would gradually build up a store of multiple linens for all of the beds in the house with a reasonable investment in time and labor.

In the better households, there might be more than one grade of bed linens. For example, in an affluent home, the family might sleep on sheets made of the finest woven linen, while the servants would only have sheets made of a less expensive and coarser grade of linen. It was also the practice in some households to use the older, worn and mended sheets on the beds of the servants while the newer sheets were used on the beds of the family members. Typically, sheets wore thin near the center first, so it was very common to cut up old, worn sheets to make pillow cases or bolster covers from the outer areas, in order to get the most out of the linen cloth. When bed linens became so worn they could no longer be used on beds, they were often used as cloths for dusting and other cleaning work. And, when those cleaning rags became so worn they could not even be used for that purpose, they were usually put out for the ragman to collect on his rounds. He could sell all the linen rags he collected, by the pound, typically to be used to make paper.

To ensure that bed linens were worn evenly, and would be useful for the longest period, most house-keepers instituted some kind of linen rotation. They made sure that all of the bed linens would be used in turn, and that sheets would be alternated as bottom or top sheets, to prevent wear in only a limited area of any of the sheets. The housemaids were expected to follow this rotation plan when they made up the beds in the house. Failure to do so might well bring the wrath of the housekeeper down upon them. Linen rotation was also necessary in order to ensure that bed linens would not be unduly worn by laundering, which was not a gentle process during the Regency. However, it must be noted that linen becomes increasingly softer and more lustrous each time it is laundered. Therefore, it is entirely possible that at least some people who valued their creature comforts preferred to sleep on soft sheets that had been laundered several times, rather than on brand new linen sheets.

In aristocratic households, it was usual to embroider the family coat of arms or crest on the bed linens. This was done at the very least on the bed linens for the master of the house and his lady, though in some households, it was also done on the bed linens for all family members. Some very affluent households without a family crest or coat of arms might choose to embroider other designs on at least some of the their bed linens, if only on those of the lady of the house and perhaps her daughters. These embroidery patterns might be worked only in white thread, or in colored threads, depending upon the preferences of the family. Through the Regency, nearly all bed linens were made of bleached linen, so most of them were white. Though linen could be dyed, the cost of doing so for the amount of cloth needed for a set of bed linens would be almost prohibitive. In addition, by that time, with the rise of personal hygiene, most people preferred white sheets, since it was then quite easy to see if the sheets were clean. Consequently, there were few, if any, colored bed linens during the Regency.

By the early nineteenth century, cotton was becoming popular for the making of garments. However, it was still much too expensive to be purchased in the quantities needed by most households to make bed linens. Even when cotton sheets and pillow cases were introduced in the 1830s, they were often still referred to as "bed linens" since such items had been made of linen for centuries. There are records of at least a few sets of sheets and pillow cases made of silk in Europe, but they are rare, and seem to have been made only for some members of the royalty and the aristocracy. However, there are no records of satin sheets anywhere until the twentieth century, so it is highly unlikely that satin sheets were ever put on any bed during the Regency.

Dear Regency Authors, now that you know more about the bed linens which were available during the Regency, you will better understand their place in a household during our favorite period. The next time you write a bedroom scene, you will have a much better understanding of the linens which were on the bed. Certainly you will know that satin sheets in the Regency are historically inaccurate. But there are any number of other ways in which bed linens might feature in a Regency romance. Perhaps the kind and spunky governess stands up for the young house maid who has forgotten to follow the linen rotation and is scolded by the housekeeper. Will the hero back her up? Mayhap the heroine is an embroideress from Mrs. Wright’s School who has been hired to embroider the family crest on all of the family bed linens by the social-climbing mother of a young man who has been recently ennobled. Will the hero be exasperated by his mother’s behavior, but be unable to ignore the lovely young needlewoman? Or might a crotchety elderly relative pitch a fit when his bed is made up with new sheets, since he has made it clear he only wants to sleep on soft, well-laundered linen sheets. How will the heroine, his well-meaning new daughter-in-law, manage this contretemps? Are there other ways in which bed linens might cover a plot point in a Regency romance?

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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19 Responses to Regency Bed Linens

  1. I was brought up to rotate linen to preserve it longer; and I just remember one sheet my great aunt had inherited which was seamed in the middle with two selvedge edges, not because it was sides-to-middlesed [the stage before turning sheets into pillow cases and something I refuse to do nowadays] because I helped to unpick it to make pillow cases as it was too worn to sides-to-middle as it had already been done once. I suppose it was an antique and not keeping it as an heirloom was heresy, but it was a sheet … Linen was expensive, and as a family we all have expensive tastes and prefer linen to cotton. I confess to settling for a polycotton duvet cover these days, though, and just sighing for linen sheets.
    I have to differ on there being no ready made in clothing because there most certainly were. I have come across mention of shops selling ready mades in Old Bailey records, and there were disputes between seamstresses who took piece-work and those who made one size fits all ready mades. Shops selling ready made clothing usually also dealt in second hand clothing, and it was all cheap work wear, not the sort of clothing any heroine would be buying, catering to the factory lasses and unmarried workmen who had no time or relatives to sew for them.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      During the course of my research I learned that linen sheets are becoming popular again, as they are considered healthier than synthetics, but I could not find any specific list of their benefits. Though it seems they are quite expensive, so only the affluent can afford them. My grandmother also made us rotate the bed linens. We had to put the freshly laundered bed linens on the bottom of the pile in the linen closet when we put them away. We did not make pillow cases from worn-out sheets, but we did use them for dust cloths.

      Thank you for the information on ready-made clothing. I knew that upscale clothing was not ready-made, but have wondered about those who could not afford bespoke garments. I knew there was quite a trade in used clothing, since many servants valued any gifts of clothing they received from their employers because they could sell the garments for extra money.

      Regards,

      Kat

      • the specific weave of ticking is to make the item downproof and feather proof [which it mostly is] and when sewn would be sewn with thread, not sewing cotton, and the seam would then be rubbed with beeswax [a job I dislike, it hurts the fingers]. In a properly run household, the ticks would be ‘shot’ yearly, and new feathers put in, or at least, the feathers beaten out of the lumps they tend to congregate into and a few more added to make up for any lumps [usually those suffering from being soaked by body fluids of one kind or another] that had to be thrown away. Shooting ticks is about the worst housekeeping job in the world, even with a cloth over the face you are coughing for a couple of weeks, from the tiny bits of feathers that escape and wriggle tenaciously into every crevice of your mouth and nose and coat your clothing with white fluff that’s almost impossible to remove. The ticking is then washed, and guess what, you get to re-wax all the seams as well as the final seam when you sew it up again. Kat, I think I must be a living anachronism to remember all this stuff from my childhood.
        As for linen sheets, they feel so cool in summer and less chilly in winter than cotton. I have no idea of any scientific basis for that, only personal experience. I keep my one and only set of linen sheets for heatwaves. When it’s cold, there are electric blankets and hot water bottles, a great advance on hot bricks and warming pans. However, if I may wander into the realms of William Kitchiner’s advice to travellers, another advantage of linen is that it shows more readily if it is damp – he advises having a warming pan prepared, and to run it between the sheets and then open them. If they steam, the sheets are damp. And if there is any damp in a bed, linen WILL attract it which is why linen garments and sheets are such a so and so to get dry. [my linen shirt took 3 days in June, which was not a salubrious month as opposed to the normal one day on the line for cotton clothes.]
        You’re quite right to insist on no ready mades at the upper range, I have read one story in which the heroine goes and chooses a gown off the peg, but it is the same story in which she is also eating chocolates her beau buys her, and looking at her wristwatch. I wish now I hadn’t thrown it in the bin, it’s such a good bad example.

        • Kathryn Kane says:

          Thank you so much for sharing your experiences! Knowledge of these once-common household chores is being lost as modern conveniences make them obsolete. It is very nice to have them captured for posterity by someone who has actually carried them out.

          The story against which you rail is of the same ilk as the ones which most irritate me. I would have thrown it in the bin, too! If an author wants to set their story in an historical period from the past, I expect them to do their research. As far as I am concerned, an author who writes a story which amounts to a modern-day tale with the characters running around in costume is cheating me of both my time and my money!

          Regards,

          Kat

          • couldn’t have put it better.
            Maybe I ought to go through comments on your pages and put together a book of useful reminiscences. [I’ve done it the other way though; because of my research on Regency and earlier beds, I’ve roped a bedstead which had lost its spring base, and it was more comfortable than the original]
            I’ve also beaten carpets. And because the carpet beater had given up the ghost, and you couldn’t replace them, we used tennis racquets. Nowadays I just rely on the hoover to find most of the muck out, with a good sprinkling of old tea leaves and lemon juice to draw out dirt if there has been a particularly horrid disaster [cat puke usually] and whack mats out of the window against the brickwork. There is an art to beating carpets though, you want to be upwind on a lightly breezy day and wallop them so that it goes through, not back in your face. I’d forgotten… it’s a back breaking job, and if I ever get ported back in time, I shall be wanting a solar powered vacuum cleaner as well as a washing machine. I think I can cope with everything else. Though a Bramah closet would be nice.

            • Kathryn Kane says:

              The idea of a book about how household chores from earlier times were done seems like a very good idea. There is at least one book out about the history of housework, of which I am aware, but it focuses mainly on America in the nineteenth century. The more information available, the better, IMHO.

              I think the real trick to going back in time is to land as a person with servants. Otherwise, life in earlier times was very hard, especially for women. A water closet would be nice, but personally, my first wish would be for a regular supply of feminine hygiene products. Pads of folded rags just don’t appeal to me!

              =^..^=

              • I THINK I’m past needing them, so with pure selfishness, I wave an airy hand … but I have to say with my youthful vicissitudes in that department, when modern feminine hygiene products were working hard to cope, I have to say I do agree. Though a washing machine goes a long way to helping out the results of that department.
                I may have to get the long-suffering husband to take photos of me doing some of the jobs, and take on writing a guide to housework Jane Austen style. I think I’d have made quite a good housekeeper actually but probably a rather slovenly maid, as I do not dust on the tops of doors. Life’s too short.

  2. Summer says:

    Alas, the preoccupation with sheets in my WIP is largely medical (if you have a fever or infection and sweat into the sheets, your body will reabsorb it *nodnod*) and so my poor heroine making a is stuck helping with her brother’s extra laundry. And the poor hero having assigned the extra laundry is not getting into anyone else’s sheets any time soon. Everybody suffers.

    That said, it also mentions the creation of custom pillows, hemp-filled and otherwise, again for medical reasons, so now I know they were probably sheet edges.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Only the poorest people did their own laundry during the Regency. On large estates, there was often an outbuilding just for the laundry, with a flock of laundresses who labored there regularly. In most cities, laundry was sent out to a laundress, most of whom did not charge very much. The most popular had premises outside the city limits. Beau Brummell is reported to have sent all his laundry to a laundress in the country. He claimed that is why his linens were so white, they were washed and dried away from the smog of London.

      Unless the family of your heroine is very poor, they would send their laundry out, regardless of whether they lived in the city or the country. It would have been considered a normal household expense by most families. Bed linens would have been washed in very hot water, with strong soap, so any germs in them would have been killed in the process, even though no one in the Regency understood the concept of germs.

      I am sorry if the information was not clear. Pillows and mattresses were usually custom-made, but they were not made of the even weave linen from which sheets and pillow cases were made. That cloth would not have been sturdy enough for the purpose. Pillows, bolsters and mattresses were made of linen, but using a much heavier, stronger cloth, woven in a twill weave, known as ticking. The better ticking was usually woven with an alternating pattern of blue and white stripes, though some less expensive ticking was woven with natural, unbleached linen with no pattern. I hope that helps to clarify.

      Regards,

      Kat

  3. elfahearn says:

    What a fascinating article! When I was growing up we always used cotton sheets, and then horrible polyester blends. Now I have to search far and wide to find the same sort of soft, smooth cotton sheets. A few of my friends had “hope chests” in preparation for marriage. These chests usually contained at least one set of white cotton sheets embroidered with flowers or other designs on the wide hem of the top sheet and pillow cases.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      We had cotton sheets when I was a kid, too. All were white, and they were all hung out on the line to dry after washing. They smelled wonderful when they were put on the beds. Then the dread polyester invaded, at about the same time as the dryer. A double loss! But now, cotton sheets are much more widely available and I have banished polyester from my linen closet!!!

      From my research, I learned that many young women in America made and embroidered bed linens for their hope chests, from at least the end of the eighteenth century. However, I could find no evidence that young women in Britain did the same. My great-grandmother, who came from Germany as a very young girl, crocheted lace edgings and insertions for her cotton sheets and pillow cases, as well as embroidering designs on them. My grandmother kept a few of them and we thought they were just beautiful. So much better than anything then available in the stores.

      Regards,

      Kat

      • We called it a bottom drawer not a hope chest, and as bedlinen was readily available when I was growing up it was the patchwork quilt which went into it along with nighties. In my grandparents’ time, one made 13 nighties, 12 to last you for your marriage, and the 13th, very ornate, as your shroud. My grandmother embroidered pillow cases but not sheets, just hemmed them. My great aunt knitted lace to go on bedlinen and nightgowns, but gave what she had of her bottom drawer to her sister when her young man was killed on the Somme. And the piece of lace she was knitting was never finished. I found it in the drawer of the sewing machine.

        • Kathryn Kane says:

          Then “hope chest” must be an American concept. My great-grandfather, a master carpenter, made my grandmother’s hope chest, of cedar. Hope chests were also sold here in the US until at least the 1950s, for those who did not have a carpenter in the family. My aunts all filled their hope chests with household linens, not only sheets and pillow cases, but also dish towels and dish cloths, embroidered table cloths and matching napkins, as well as doilies and embroidered dresser scarves and such. Some even included bath towel sets with crocheted edgings. It is rather sad the tradition has died out, some of those things were truly lovely.

          The story of your aunt’s unfinished lace is very poignant! I can understand why she could never bring herself to finish it. It is nice that you still have it. Maybe you can find a way to preserve it, with a note about its history, as a family heirloom.

          Regards,

          Kat

          • maybe it could go into the book if I get around to writing it.. it’s not Regency, but I might blog about it anyway. I sing ‘Roses of Picardy’ from time to time because it was ‘their’ song…. and I don’t even know his name … every ephemeral scrap carries a story ….

  4. elfahearn says:

    By the way, gals, I’ve found a truly wonderful writer–K.J. Charles, who lives in England. Her novels are gay Victorian/Regencies, but she’s such a fantastic writer I have to recommend her work even to people who aren’t normally into that genre.

  5. Pingback: Some Pudding Cloth Lore | The Regency Redingote

  6. I enjoy your blog posts so much! Thank You!

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