Almost 300 years without a duvet

By Justin Parkinson
BBC News Magazine

  • Published
Feet duvetImage source, Alamy

Millions of duvets are sold in the UK each year, but they weren't popular until the 1960s - even though an adventurer tried to introduce them nearly 300 years earlier. Why?

Are you reading this in bed? If so, the chances are you're doing so from under a duvet.

The coverings, stuffed with feathers or synthetic fibres, have increased massively in popularity during the past half-century or so. Market researcher GFK has found that 7.6 million duvets were sold in the UK in the year to this August.

"Having a slow start to the day wrapped up in a duvet isn't lazy; it's precious," says Abigail Mann, author of the Snug blog. "Taking the time to appreciate home and the sanctuary it can offer is often a welcome relief for those seeking calm amidst a busy life."

For the young it's hard to fathom a time when making a bed involved tucking in a series of sheets and blankets, the number depending on how cold the room was.

The popularisation of the duvet is attributed to the pioneering work of Terence Conran, founder of the home furnishings store Habitat, but its history in the UK goes back much further.

Paul Rycaut, 1629-1700

Image source, Alamy
  • Educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, he served as a diplomat in the Ottoman Empire, later working in Germany
  • His three-part book The Present State of the Ottoman Empire became a bestseller in several languages
  • Rycaut also wrote an illustrated account of lemmings and their migratory habits
  • He never married, dying in 1700 after suffering a stroke

Diplomat and merchant Paul Rycaut visited Hamburg in 1689, where he slept under stuffed coverings. He sent his friends in England some bags of eiderdown, complete with instructions on how to make their own, stipulating that "the coverlet must be quilted high and in large panes, or otherwise it will not be warme".

He also tried to sell the product, but didn't succeed, perhaps because of a cultural aversion or the fact that the goose or duck down needed to fill the his bed covering was prohibitively expensive.

"We are also a very traditional and conservative (small c) country," says historian Ellen Leslie, "and taking on foreign ways by the mainstream has been rare. The duvet's no exception to that."

The British have long had a passion for the blanket. The Oxford English Dictionary says the word was used a noun as long ago as the 14th Century. William Shakespeare is recognised as the first person to use the verb "blanket" - meaning to "cover with or as with a blanket". In the play King Lear, published in 1608, the character Edgar says: "My face ile grime with filth, Blanket my loynes, else all my haire with knots."

The scale of Rycaut's failure to persuade fellow countrymen of the down-filled bed covering's virtues was still apparent in 1749. In his European travel book The Grand Tour, English author Thomas Nugent seemed perplexed when describing the sleeping habits in the German state of Westphalia.

"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."

The climatic consideration is understandable, if one looks at temperatures in Westphalia today. On average they fall to a low of 0C during January. In London, by contrast, the figure is 5C.

The English of Nugent's time weren't uniquely troubled by middle-European bedclothes. He wrote of a French visitor to Germany thinking a down-filled cover was actually a second mattress, allowing one person to sleep on top of one another in a single bed. The Frenchman reportedly requested a lightweight companion.

Even so, the word duvet is of French origin, meaning "down" - the first feathering of young birds. Its first known mention in English came in 1759, when Samuel Johnson used it in one of The Idler series of essays.

It seems a few duvets got to the UK over the years but they were an expensive niche product. In 1841 the Times featured an advert for the "eiderdown quilt or duvet", stating: "These elegant coverings are adapted for either the bed, the couch, or the carriage."

Image source, Alamy
Image caption,
Schoolgirls make a bed with sheets, 1950s

Harrods was selling them in the 1950s, but it wasn't until the interior design chain Habitat opened in 1964 that duvets hit the mass market.

Founder Sir Terence Conran has revealed his inspiration: "I had been in Sweden in the 1950s and was given a duvet to sleep under. I probably had a girl with me and I thought this was all part of the mood of the time - liberated sex and easy living. It was wonderful that when you came to make your bed, it was just a couple of shakes."

Habitat promoted the duvet as a convenience product, allowing users to make a bed in around 10 minutes. Sold initially as the "continental quilt", it was at first considered avant garde.

A Habitat catalogue photograph perpetuated this image, featuring a naked couple in bed, covered only by a brown and white duvet. This provoked "numerous" complaints, the company says. One advert showed a man making the bed while his wife relaxed - an unusual image for the time. But within a few years duvets were mainstream.

Image source, Habitat

"Even though my mother is Swedish, our house didn't get duvets until the 1970s, like the rest of the population," says Leslie. "What I find inexplicable is that many people used to have nylon sheets. That was wrong.

"The English also had a great attachment to our bedding, going back a few centuries. Once bedding was considered valuable and sheets, pillows, blankets and bolsters would often be bequeathed in someone's will."

Duvets haven't always been cheap either. In 1972 the Times featured a "special" offer for its readers, admitting: "There is no getting away from the fact that our continental quilts, offered today to readers of the Times, are quite expensive." The items, filled with duck and goose down, cost £19.95 for a single and £24.95 for a double - the equivalents of £252 and £315 today.

Today prices start from a few pounds, but can reach several thousand pounds for the most luxurious. John Lewis says two-thirds of buyers opt for synthetic fibre fillings.

Image source, iStock

The warmth duvets offer is measured in "togs". There's a scale of one to 15 - a higher tog number denoting more heat trapped.

Some sleepers regard duvets as inferior to sheets and blankets, which they can add or remove to regulate temperature. In 2013 Mike Taylor wrote to the Daily Telegraph, opining that a "sweaty Englishman will know that the duvet generates an overheated, fetid, jungle-like atmosphere in the marital bed". But an online poll by the newspaper suggested 84% of its readers preferred duvets to blankets.

Abigail Mann thinks she knows why. "There's a real trend growing around the 'lazy Sunday'," she says. "Staying in is the new going out, so a breakfast tray in bed with croissants and coffee balanced on a marshmallow-like duvet is the new goal."

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