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?