Is the decline in blankets linked to the fall in Britain's standing in the world? Can the ubiquity of the duvet be challenged? Harry Wallop investigates.
There have been a great many revolutions in our consumption habits over the last generation: frothy coffee replacing tea, holidaying abroad rather than staying in a British boarding house, the humble old peanut being toppled by the sophisticated olive.
But few upheavals have been so successful or have been welcomed so widely than the shift in our sheets, the bedlam in our bedding. Especially at this toe-freezing time of year. Duvets are ubiquitous in British bedrooms. And the old-fashioned woollen blanket is found in few homes except in the bottom of the dog basket.
A fightback, however, is being waged.
This week, the letters page of the Daily Telegraph has been rustling with the sound of blankets indignantly being shaken by a small band of hard-core wool enthusiasts, who have decided enough is enough.
A Mr Mike Taylor has emerged as the leader of this anti-down brigade, with his eloquent tirade against the duvet, which he called “an invention of the misguided Continentals and should be sent back where it belongs along with the ridiculous metric system, chilled lager, and Brussels pate”.
He claimed that a "sweaty Englishman will know that the duvet generates an overheated, fetid, jungle-like atmosphere in the marital bed."
Mr Taylor has struck a nerve. Others have hailed the neatness of a bed made with blankets and the breathability of woollen bedclothes. Britain is a better place with a hospital corner.
Sue Prichard a textiles curator at the Victoria & Albert Museum says as a “cashmere bedsocks, hot water bottle and woollen blanket” kind of woman she is heartened by the retaliation.
“Blankets acquire a patina of age, the older they get, becoming more and more comfortable.
“Traditionally the bed and bedding were the most important and expensive furniture in a person’s home. This is why blankets and sheets were handed down through the generations.”
We do not yet know whether duvets will be passed on from mother to daughter, because they have not been around long enough in this country.
Sir Terence Conran takes credit for introducing the duvet to Britain when his Habitat store started to stock them in the very early 1970s, along with other pioneering household products such as the garlic presses, woks, Japanese-style paper lampshades, flat-pack furniture and Le Creuset casserole dishes.
This is not strictly true. Duvets, or continental quilts as they were usually called then, had been available for some time to the more avant-garde consumer.
Maggie Alderson, a novelist, remembers her mother in the mid-1960s ordering one from Norway after the family’s German au-pair found “our British blankets completely hilarious. She couldn’t believe we slept under these filthy, heavy things.”
So, Peggy, her mother, sent off for six after reading an article about “dunnas” in a Sunday newspaper. In the small Staffordshire town they lived in, this made the family quite a novelty. “But my mother always was the first to try out anything: yogurt-making in the airing cupboard or Biba dresses.
“We thought they were just wonderful. So comfortable and warm.”
A Scottish hospital had started experimenting with doonas as far back as 1957, importing them from the continent. The matron told a design magazine at the time: “The patients like these very much indeed. There is no pressure on a painful limb, there is complete freedom of movement.”
She then hit upon its key benefits of these newfangled fabric: “From the nursing staff angle, the advantages are tremendous. Bedmaking time is reduced by roughly 60 to 70 per cent.”
Sir Terence must take credit for popularising the nascent duvet, however. And by the time Ikea first entered Britain in 1987, offering Swedish “democratic” design, the tide had completely turned. This was the year that John Lewis started to sell more duvets than blankets.
Now (Other OTC: NWPN - news) , Debenhams (Other OTC: DBHSY - news) sell seven duvets for every blanket and Argos, the country’s biggest furniture retailer, does not even sell woollen blankets. Fleecy little throws from man-made fibre, yes, but not a proper, woven piece of Britain. It stocks over 100 different duvets.
For many, even most, this is the inevitable march of progress. Sir Terence told me that “everyone” in Britain now sleeps under a duvet. When I broke the news to him that my parents, along with a small but significant number of Telegraph readers cling to the old ways, he looked baffled.
“Does your mother like changing her bed?” he asked. He has a point. There is no doubt that it is quicker and easier to make-up a be-duveted bed than a blanketed bed.
The duvet’s rise is inextricably linked to the rise in working women and the need for time-saving household products. Alex Goddard, a curator at the Geffrye Museum which chronicles Britain’s changing interiors, says: “When it comes to our homes, things have moved towards comfort and convenience. And the duvet fits both of that it takes just 10 seconds to make.”
But for all those resolute blanketeers, there is a possible compromise a duvet stuffed with English wool. Pauline Beijen, who runs Devon Duvets, insists that this garment, which looks and operates like a duvet but is filled with the wool from Devon sheep, leads to “a regulated body temperature and more restful night’s sleep. Also, it doesn’t collect dust mites.”
Britain’s wealth was founded on wool. The great churches of Norfolk and manor houses of Somerset would not have been built without sheep. The Lord Chancellor does not lounge on a feather-filled beanbag in the upper house. No, he sits on the woolsack.
Duvets may well be comfortable, warm and easy. They well be inevitable. But let at least some of them be woolly.
Consumed: How Shopping Fed the Class System by Harry Wallop (Collins, £16.99) is available from Telegraph Books (0844 871 1515) at £14.99 + £1.35p&p.