After years of chic, simple interiors, decadence is afoot, and the most sensuous areas of the home—the bedroom and the dining room—are being indulged. In the past year, Europe has seen a wave of shops selling linens new and old, with something for every taste: silk sheets, rustic quilts, table settings worthy of a princess. But every producer of hand-embroidered fineries tells the same story: few people want to continue this laborious craft, since it can take up to five years and a team of 10 to turn out a single tablecloth. Here, we have uncovered Europe's best stores, some with links to the surviving handful of lacemakers and embroiderers. "Cherish the work for its individuality as much its beauty," says Edith Mézard, the authority on French linens. "The wonderful thing about handworked linens is the little imperfections."
Solgården 58 Karlavägen, Stockholm; 46-8/663-9360. A tribute to King Gustav III, who started the Swedish look we all know—neoclassical and airy, with pale painted wood. Owner Marianne von Kantzow Ridderstad has laid out her shop like a country house, with plain walls, a rough-hewn wooden staircase, and whimsical furniture. Candles and fresh flowers promote a sense of calm, as do the white-on-white linens. "A lot of people come here just to sit," Ridderstad notes proudly, "because they feel so good in the space."
Couverture 310 King's Rd., London; 44-207/795-1200. While the singing toothbrushes and loopy blankets knitted on broom handles instead of needles might catch your attention, owner Emily Dyson's raison d'être is her feminine bedding collection. In up-to-the-minute colors, these creations have superb detailing: here a line of appliquéd rosettes, there a dainty row of hand-tufted cotton dots. Also scattered throughout the store are rare finds—vintage beaded slippers, a 1920's children's tea set—that Dyson picks up in Paris flea markets.
Space 214 Westbourne Grove, London; 44-207/229-6533. When London's rock, fashion, and film royalty want to turn up the heat in the bedroom, they head here. In a setting suitable for a modern Mae West (fuchsia walls, black rubber floor), Emma Oldham sells sultry bedsheets, pillows, and dressing gowns. Kate Moss, Björk, and Patsy Kensit are all devotees of the look. "These colors aren't for wallflowers. The whole thing is 1930's movie-star-inspired," says Oldham, whose sheets come in shades of plum, lilac, and turquoise. Duvets are embroidered with butterflies and stars.
Bottom Drawer Brown Thomas, Grafton St., Dublin; 353-1/605-6696. In a corner of Dublin's posh Brown Thomas department store is Bottom Drawer. The higgledy-piggledy family-run boutique sells the products of a handful of ladies who carry on the tradition of fine Irish lace and handmade linens. Donegal tablecloths, which take as long as six months to sew, are sold with a handwritten note naming the embroiderer. Nuns based in County Cork have been producing Corabbey linens for more than 150 years. "It won't be long before it all dies out," says Lisa Duffin, whose mother started the business 11 years ago. The Duffins also carry McCaw Allan, bed-linen makers by appointment to Her Majesty the Queen, and Fergusons, world-renowned for buttery soft double-damask tablecloths.
Dunsany Home Collection Dunsany Castle, County Meath; 353-46/26202. A 40-minute drive from Dublin, the 800-year-old Dunsany Castle is home to an eccentric source, presided over by the 20th Lady Dunsany, Maria Alice Plunkett. "My mother was a compulsive buyer. She picked up enough linen to fill several palaces," says Lady Dunsany, who is usually trailed by her Jack Russell terrier. "This is so much better than anything made now," she insists, happily throwing a set of French Porthault sheets on the floor to admire the blue carnation detailing. Several hundred family pieces are available at high-ticket prices—a 1920's Italian organza cloth based on a Japanese painting costs $7,840—but Lady Dunsany is also busy copying elements of these designs onto newly produced cloths and sheets.
Reverie 19 Sandycove Rd., Sandycove; 353-1/284-4123. Chocolate-scented candles, hand-carved 18th-century beds, and a ceiling dripping with crystal chandeliers make Reverie, a former candy shop on the outskirts of Dublin, a seductive experience. Laura George and Rebecca Rowe's broad selection of vintage linens comes mostly from markets in Belgium and France (southern Ireland's once-thriving industry is all but defunct). The women also adapt vintage fabrics for the modern home, sewing Swiss seersucker into duvet covers and remodeling linen curtains as cushion covers.
Vis-à-Vis 25 Rue Royale, Paris; 33-1/43-12-55-40. Surrounded by exquisite specialty stores on a tiny courtyard in the heart of Paris, Vis-à-Vis has been deluged with customers since it opened five months ago. Designer Danie Postel-Vinay creates Europe's most poetic sheets, pillowcases, and pajamas, but until the little two-story space came along, her products were available only to select customers. The sheets come in linen, cotton, silk, muslin, and cobweb-fine organdy. They each bear romantic French names, translated as Unbearable Lightness, Angel's Hair, Fairy Trail, Raindrops, and so on.
Blanc d'Ivoire 4 Rue Jacob, Paris; 33-1/46-33-34-29. Designer Monic Fischer specializes in the kind of old-fashioned quilts that make sleeping beauties like Isabelle Adjani and Emmanuelle Béart swoon. Her 25-plus designs are printed on poplin, silk satin, or denim, and composed of intricate florals overlaid with geometric patterns and stripes. A fashion designer by training, Fischer treats her bedding like clothing, doing a new collection every six months. At the moment, linen sheets are all in the softest lavenders, pinks, and baby blues. Chunky blankets and rustic ceramics and glassware fill the rest of the enchanting store.
Edith Mézard Château de l'Ange, Lumières, Provence; 33-4/90-72-36-41. Often the only thing that adorns Edith Mézard's works is an embroidered word to kiss you good night: her favorites are BONHEUR, AMOUR, and SIMPLE, but she'll add a love story or a special message to suit your heart's desire (she once sewed 100 signatures onto a wedding tablecloth). Mézard sells her goods—in a palette inspired by the shades of local stones—at an 18th-century stable where sheets hang like surreal works of art among the stalls.
Reprise 419 Prinsengracht, Amsterdam; 31-20/625-9903. For more than 30 years, Joop Rosenberg trawled Amsterdam's flea markets looking for near-perfect vintage tablecloths and bed linens. Then, last year, he retired from his job as a clothing buyer and set up shop on two floors of an Art Deco building with stained glass windows. Antique tablecloths with matching napkins are neatly tied in silk ribbons and stacked floor-to-ceiling on shelves. For the bedroom, he specializes in pre-World War II white damask duvet covers, and carries more than 2,000 pillowcases. "In this country we are all Protestants, very sober and not allowed to enjoy things, so I went the other way," says Rosenberg. "I love decadence." Nor does he stop at linens: he also stocks Baroque candleholders, magnificent 26-piece dinner services, and 18th-century vases.
Loretta Caponi 4R Piazza Antinori, Florence; 39-055/213-668. Where better to see hand embroidery than at Loretta Caponi's frescoed showrooms, where a team of 15 craftspeople turn out bed linens and towels, silk lingerie and smocked dresses. With its courteous, old-fashioned service and blue-and-gold tracery on the high walls, the whole place evokes another era. Caponi, who started the business 60 years ago, was later joined by daughter Lucia, who believes that the key to Italian linen's popularity is its touch and durability. Kings, queens, and international film and music stars make up the store's very private clientele.
Jesurum Via San Marco, Venice, 39-041/520-6177; and Piazza San Marco, Venice; 39-041/522-9864. Since 1868, Jesurum has turned out lovely hand-loomed linens in the traditional Venetian style, which involves a lavish use of color and elaborate designs. The company's two Venice stores are an architectural treat—one is in the Piazza San Marco; the other, near the Rialto in a 13th-century Gothic palazzo. Clients include the English royal family and Saudi Arabian princes. Jesurum will also repair, restore, and launder your antique linens.
L'Utile e il Dilettevole 46 Via della Spiga, Milan; 39-02/7600-8420. "Useful and delightful" is the translated name of Enrica Saibene's store on Via Spiga, Milan's equivalent of Madison Avenue. For 20 years, Saibene has been scouring the south of France and England for new and antique fabrics to make "patchwork," her sophisticated series of one-of-a-kind table linens. The backdrop is just as chic: furnishings in the 19th-century apartment-style space are rearranged every two weeks for an up-to-the-minute look. A few months ago, a basement level opened to showcase daughter Carla Saibene's high-style clothing designs.
Lavandaria 11-13 Rua Augusto Rosa, Lisbon; 351-1/887-5691. The Portuguese boast that the way to tell whether linen is made locally is if it's perfect. Two years ago, Adelia Almeida opened Lavandaria ("laundry" in English) in the city's old Alfama district. Many of the treasures are from Guimarães, in northern Portugal, where hand weavers still work at home. In its factory, Lavandaria produces modern copies of 18th-century tablecloths and bed linens (yellow and green embroidery of mimosa flowers and birds is typical of that era). The shop is an excellent source for traditional openwork embroidery and those lace tray cloths that your grandma spread out under the perfume bottles on her dressing table.
Lucie Young writes on architecture and design for the New York Times and contributes to In Style, Metropolitan Home, British Vogue, and British Elle.
Stay-at-home shoppers can buy European linens over the Internet. Some of the best sites: Jackie Kennedy and Wallis Simpson adored Paris's exclusive Porthault (www.porthault.fr). It's known for its colorful floral embroideries, which look very Seventies—and are consequently the height of fashion once again.
The minimal designs of Catherine Memmi (www.catherinememmi.fr) are hugely popular in Paris, London, and Japan. Her austere line of linen sheets, dressing gowns, towels, tablecloths, and woolen blankets is available in cool shades—anthracite, gray, white, brown, cream. She also sells furniture, light fixtures, and tabletop accessories.
Run by Englishwoman Thérèse Tollemache, Volga (www.i-i.net/volgalinen) takes designs from Russia—one of the world's biggest and oldest producers of linen—and simplifies them for today. Hand-drawn threadwork is the house specialty.