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by Francesca Di Meglio
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Three Cheers for Italian Linens
Luxurious Italian sheets, towels, and tablecloths have lured the rich and famous - and maybe you, too. Get tips on how to buy Made in Italy linens for your home
Made of what seems to be pure white cotton twill, my Italian bath towels are not soft and fluffy. No one would ever use them to actually dry anything. They are far too beautiful, too stately, too elegant for actual work.
A gift from my aunt who lives in France but purchased them in Ischia, the white lace trim with intricate scroll designs across the bottom of the towels – three each of bath and hand towels - comes to a point at the center and looks almost like a regal crown. White-on-white embroidered flowers just above the trim accentuate the crown. Until September, when I start to renovate my apartment, these marvels of craftsmanship will be tucked away under tissue paper in a slim box with fleur-de-lis embellishments, the only container befitting such linens.
But when I'm feeling blue, I open the box to look at my pretty towels. They put a smile on my face - and have opened my eyes to the world of Italian linens, a world I'd like to share with you.
Nuns in Italy used to embroider designs on linens by hand using a technique that required cutting and pulling the finest of threads to create intricate patterns like flowers or a family crest. The fastidious work was slow, and a set of matching linens would take months to complete. (Perhaps, your nonna added trim by hand to her own linens for her trousseau.) Few people know this kind of workmanship today because almost all embroidery is now done on machines.
At an American resort in Georgia, VIP guests will find two runners and 36 cocktail napkins embroidered by hand the way the nuns did it 200 years ago. The set, made of an unusually soft linen that hotels rarely use in the United States, has embroidered edges that include detailed rosettes on the corners and a criss-cross border. It took Casa Del Bianco, an American-based business with owners who come from family-run organizations that have been making linens for generations in Italy, four months to complete.
The company has people on hand to do this kind of detailed work - and anything else their clients fancy. “We really would like to leave as a legacy the fact that we put the consumer at the center of our universe,” said Fabrizio Biasiolo, vice president of Casa Del Bianco, in an interview with me for another publication six months ago. “It's a Copernican revolution. We are one of the satellites that turns around the client and tries to give her what she wants.”
The company's New York-based shop is tiny but filled with wonderful stacks of sheets, towels, and pillowcases that will have you swooning - or wanting to take a nap. If you don't find what you're looking for, Biasiolo and his team will custom-make whatever your heart desires.
One of the forefathers to companies like Casa Del Bianco is Frette, which has been making fine Italian linens since 1860. Better known to Americans, the latest Frette products include everything from complete bed sets to lingerie. A rich, silky brown comforter with scroll designs in ivory is one of the highlights of the classic collection. For those who want more of a country look, a pale blue quilt-like comforter is the product of choice. You'll dream about snuggling up with the one you love in the robes and slippers that come straight out of your favorite spa.
Still, all of these linens come at a cost. Keep in mind that the clientele of these companies tends to be five-star hotels and the rich and famous. You have to be willing to splurge and educate yourself on the products and Italian consumerism. The prices are better on Made in Italy linens, for example, if you travel to Italy (especially during the periods of the year when there are sales, such as early July). Going for products that are already available - as opposed to custom made - will also keep the price down. Talk to the locals and ask where they get their Italian linens; there's a world beyond the Casa Del Bianco- and Frette-type shops that cater more to the general public.
Shopping for sheets in Italy - or anywhere - can be tricky if you don't know about the thread count myth. What makes fine Italian sheets special is that the high thread count is complimented by a lightweight fabric. Biasiolo, who advises clients, explains that sheets should be no more than 110 grams per square meter. “The more thread you put in those 110 grams, the better the product is,” he told me. “If you put more thread but you go higher with the weight, you're actually going to sleep with a tablecloth, which is what happens in many cases, and it's not comfortable.”
Even though Biasiolo seeks Egyptian cotton for sheets, he does not want them to actually be made in Egypt, even if it would be more economical. Sheets must be finished - or bleached - in Italy, or they will not feel as delicate, he says. “What is it?” he asks. "The air, the water, the experience - it's a combination of everything."
Italians, simply, do it better. That's why I'll probably be buying some tablecloths in Italy when I make my next trip. And I can assure you that my Italian towels will be making many appearances in my new bathroom come September!
For more information on Di Meglio's work, please visit www.francescadimeglio.com.
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