Bedcovering Basics

Bed coverings can encompass everything from comforters and duvets to blankets and bedspreads. Here are some basics about the construction and types of the most common bed coverings today.

Placed as the top layer of bedding, comforters offer warmth with style. Many people have a wardrobe of comforter covers that allow them to change the look of the bed as often as they choose.

Comforter and duvet are both common terms for lush bedcoverings filled with down, feathers, cotton, wool, silk, or hypoallergenic synthetics.

Washable comforters, often sold in complete bed sets that include sheets and bed skirts, do not have removable covers.

Duvets are made to be encased in a removable duvet cover -- a giant pillowcase -- to protect the duvet and keep it clean.

Down Fill: Unless you are allergic to down, consider a quality down-filled comforter. With proper care, a down comforter will last 8 to 10 years. Goose down is best because the large clusters have better (fluffing) than duck down. Although white and gray goose down give the same service, gray may show through a light-colored duvet.

To eliminate blankets, a bedspread, and perhaps even the top sheet from your bed-making routine, choose a duvet covered with a washable duvet cover. The cover acts as the top sheet (it should be laundered at least weekly), thus allowing you to make the bed by giving the entire duvet a good shake and smoothing.

Cleaning Tips: Down comforters used daily should be dry-cleaned at least annually. Duvet covers should be laundered weekly if used in place of a top sheet; or, several times a year at the very least.

Synthetic comforters generally can be machine washed following manufacturer's directions. If you own another type of natural-filled comforter, such as wool or cotton, check the label or launder at a professional laundry that has larger-capacity machines and experience in cleaning bedding.

When looking for a down comforter, check the amount of fill -- the number of cubic inches per ounce of down. The higher the fill number, the warmer the comforter and the better the quality. Standard fill is 500 to 550; high quality is 600 to 700. Above 700 is unusually high and very expensive.

Finding the right weight: Comforters are also manufactured in weights by season and region. The lightest weight (sometimes referred to as summer or "southern" weight) is about 26 ounces for a queen size; a winter or "mountain" weight queen size is heavier, at around 54 ounces.

Shell construction: Even though duvets are encased in duvet covers, the actual duvet includes a fabric shell, also known as ticking. It should be lightweight and made of down-proof fabric.

Stitching on duvets is important since down needs room to loft, or puff up. Most comforters are stitched with baffles, channels, or other stitching lines to keep the down evenly distributed throughout the comforter. Without it the down can shift and bunch up, making it less effective for warmth. All comforters, regardless of stitching patterns, should be shaken each morning to fluff and even out the filling.

Bedspreads: Classic bedspreads cover the entire bed, including the mattress, box springs, and pillows. The top of the bedspread may be folded back to expose the pillows, or laid over the sleeping pillows. Decorating pillow shams are typically not used with a bedspread, but decorative pillows may be added.

Quilts: Although sometimes used as coverlets, quilts can also be used as blankets or as extra bedding folded at the foot of the bed. Durable machine-made quilts, appropriate for everyday use, are widely available.

Older quilts should not be exposed to direct sunlight and should be refolded frequently, using new folds, to avoid permanently creasing the fabric. Very fragile or antique quilts are better left off beds that are used daily.

Handmade and heirloom quilts deserve careful treatment. Special washing solutions are sold at quilt supply shops. Quilts can also be professionally dry-cleaned by a laundry that specializes in fine linens.

  • Blankets are sized to drop over the sides and bottom end of the mattress, extending slightly beyond the mattress depth. With mattresses getting deeper, you'll need to check a blanket's measurements to make sure it is large enough to tuck in around your particular mattress.
  • Here are several blanket types and their characteristics:
  • Cotton (honeycomb, herringbone, or waffle weave) is a good choice for a light blanket that's placed between the top sheet and the comforter.
  • Quilted cotton and matelasse fabrics are often used in bed coverlets that combine the dressiness of a bedspread with the practicality of a top blanket. This cotton fabric bedding usually can be laundered in cool water; some shrinkage is possible.
  • Cotton fleece provides medium warmth and is machine-washable.
  • Wool is quite warm and is either dry-cleanable or cold-water washable. The fabric is extremely durable as well.
  • Wool-silk blends provide warmth without weight. These silky soft blankets are usually dry-cleaned.
  • Acrylics, as warm or warmer than wool, are machine-washable.
  • Blankets covers are versatile and can serve as lightweight blankets on their own, or can be used on top of a heavier blanket.
  • See the following page for more on electric blankets.

No longer bulky and limited in heating options, electric blankets offer instant warmth that suits many individuals.

Some include single or dual heating controls, others are made with thinner wires with wireless controls, and some include heating zones, allowing feet to be warmer than shoulders, for example.

Electric blankets come in a range of sizes, from twin to king, as well as smaller personal throws that can be used to keep one's knees and feet warm while sitting in a chair. Most experts do not recommend electric blankets for children under the age of 15.

With careful attention, electric blankets can be machine washed (see our tips at the bottom of the page). Gentle laundering extends the life of the blanket while keeping it fresh.

Safety Tips for Electric Blankets: In recent years, concerns have arisen about the safety of electric blankets; however, they are now generally considered safe, as long as they are used according to manufacturer's instructions. Proper maintenance of electric blankets reduces hazards of electric shock or fires caused by worn wiring. Watch for worn or frayed fabric; signs of scorching; worn, damaged, or missing wiring, tapes, or cords; or loose connections. If any damage appears, discard the blanket.

See tips below for washing electric blankets.

Follow these steps to gently wash electric blankets:

  1. Disconnect electrical cord.
  2. Check the care label for specific instructions. If there are none, proceed with these steps.
  3. Pretreat soiled areas.
  4. Fill washer with warm water to high water level.
  5. Add liquid laundry detergent; agitate briefly to mix.
  6. Stop washer.
  7. Load blanket evenly; soak for 15 minutes -- do not agitate.
  8. Set dial for 2 minutes of gentle agitation; start washer.
  9. Put three or four clean, dry bath towels into dryer; preheat for 10 minutes on high.
  10. Load the blanket into dryer with warm towels.
  11. Set drying cycle for 20 minutes; start dryer.
  12. Check after 10 minutes. Continue only if blanket is still wet, not simply damp.
  13. Remove slightly damp blanket (over drying damages wiring and causes shrinkage).
  14. Hang blanket over two lines, or lay flat, until dry.


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