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Gladys Gifford: Replacing sheets raises many questions

I blame the new washer.

Three months ago, the venerable washer broke – leaked water all over the basement just when I had loaded it with heavy laundry. After a couple weeks of visiting the nearby laundromat, we welcomed a new washer, an efficient style with energy-saving features. I adjusted to the new machine, noticing that the spin cycle was so much faster – clothes were nearly dry right out of the washer!

But they were also twisted and tangled, as if this new washer had squeezed the life out of them in an effort to wring them dry. So the other day, as I spread out the newly washed sheets to be folded, I spotted a hole – and then another one. The old sheet had simply given up the ghost after such a drubbing.

This was a sign: time for me to buy new sheets.

Growing up, we never had store-bought sheets. My mother was a product of the Depression and a graduate of Cornell University’s home economics department. So she made our sheets out of muslin she ordered from a Montgomery Ward catalog.

These sheets were stern stuff, made to last forever, especially since my mother was careful to make doubled hems that could withstand the rigors of washing machines and line drying. She used a Singer sewing machine that had a special attachment to turn the hem twice – a real handy gizmo and timesaver.

When I searched for the fabric alone, online, I found some available, but the prices are sky-high compared to the retail cost of finished sheets. Chalk up another score for cheap goods.

As a young adult, I departed quickly from my mother’s sheets. I was entranced with the ritual of buying sheets at the department store, and in love with those packaged sets – you know, the fitted bottom sheet, the top sheet with its elegant top hem, the matching pillowcases. But before long, I began to notice that they did not last very long. And what do you do with old bedsheets? The rag man has long disappeared from city streets. Does anybody recycle used fabric?

Now the question is how to buy new sheets. The buzz is all about thread count. Is 200 better than 700 or even 1,000? Higher numbers are supposed to mean a softer feel, except when the salesman is counting the number of plies in an individual thread … yike. And do I want percale or sateen? Flannel or knit? Regular or organic?

Then there is the question of origin.

The sheets I bought at a department store a few years ago declared: “Elegance 100% Egyptian Cotton Design and Collection Made in Spain.” Whatever happened to “Made in USA”? Yes, I know about the shuttered textile mills in New England. I visited such a place with my husband several years ago – now turned into a historical park. We also visited textile mills in Mexico, where the working conditions are lousy. Do we want to sleep between sheets manufactured by slave labor?

Meanwhile, my old sheets continue to wear out. Time to buy new.

And – a new catalog just arrived, with a sale on sheets!