Snuggling down under a soft cosy duvet is a welcome experience at the end of a long day, and most of us take it for granted. According to Statista, £233m worth of filled bedding was sold in the UK in 2019. But how did this light and comfortable form of bedclothes become so popular in the UK, and what was life like before its introduction?
These days, duvets are stuffed with synthetic fibres or feathers and are bought in their millions by Brits every year. Younger people will probably not have encountered any other form of bed covering, although members of the older generation may remember sleeping under a heavy arrangement of sheets and blankets in their youth.
A continental beginning
According to the BBC, the duvet was actually introduced to Britain over 300 years ago, but the idea failed to take off. A diplomat named Paul Rycaut, who was born in 1629 and educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, first tried to revolutionise British bedding after a visit to Hamburg, a port city in northern Germany, in 1689.
While in Hamburg, Rycaut slept under stuffed coverings, and presumably found the experience to be more comfortable and conducive to a good night’s sleep than a blanket. Either that, or he thought he had spotted a gap in the market, which is the holy grail of anyone with a nose for entrepreneurship and commerce.
In any case, he was impressed enough to find out how they were made, and send materials and instructions to his friends in England. These advised that: "the coverlet must be quilted high and in large panes, or otherwise it will not be warme". Despite Rycaut’s attention to detail, the continental quilts failed to take off in the UK.
The BBC article speculates that this may have been due to the prohibitive cost of goose or duck down which was needed as filler, or simply because the Brits were too attached to their traditional blankets to change their ways anytime soon. Another reason may have been that they were thought to be too warm for the relatively mild British climate.
This theory is backed up by some evidence from 60 years after Rycaut’s ill-fated attempt to bring duvets to the UK. In 1749, English author Thomas Nugent wrote in his travel book The Grand Tour when staying in Westphalia, Germany:
"There is one thing very particular to them, that they do not cover themselves with bed-clothes, but lay one feather-bed over, and another under," he wrote. "This is comfortable enough in winter, but how can they bear their feather-beds over them in summer, as is generally practised, I cannot conceive."
A sixties revival
Like so many other things, the duvet really took off in the 1960’s. A few duvets (the term comes from the French word meaning ‘down’, as in the first fluffy growth of young birds) appeared now and then, but they remained expensive and out of reach for the majority.
The founder of interior design chain Habitat, Terence Conran, decided to start selling duvets in his stores in 1964, after a trip to Sweden. He realised the convenience of simply shaking a duvet straight each morning, rather than wrestling with uncooperative layers of heavy sheets and blankets. It seemed to chime with the free and easy spirit of the decade.
The new popularity of the duvet also opened up new avenues for textile designers, who were able to let their creativity loose on a perfect blank canvas. Iconic designers such as Lucienne Day and Mary White produced fresh new fabrics, which combined the joyful influence of nature with bold abstract shapes.
During the 1970’s, the duvet became ever more affordable and popular, as different weights were available for summer and winter. Nowadays, the duvet is a firm part of the British lifestyle, whether luxury designer versions filled with the finest eiderdown, or cheaper synthetic types, which are often just as soft, and better for people with allergies.
Many people enjoy expressing their personal style and taste through their choice of bedding design, which can be matched or complemented with other soft furnishings, such as curtains, cushions, and carpeting. Children love bedding which features their favourite book or cartoon characters!
Patterned or plain; stars, stripes, or checks; animals, flowers, birds or trees; chintz or abstract; there really is a duvet cover design for all tastes out there. It seems that Brits are now firmly in love with snuggling up under the duvet, and it is very hard to imagine how this much-loved household favourite can be improved on!
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