The first time I went to Europe, I wound up partly unmaking my hotel bed as I was getting into it. I was exhausted, jetlagged, and wanted desperately to slip between the sheets and get some sleep. But there were no sheets to slip between: when I pulled back the duvet, I saw only a sheet covering the mattress. I flipped the comforter back down, checking to make sure I hadn’t inadvertently pulled the top sheet back with it. I hadn’t. Maybe the sheet was just really tightly tucked around the mattress and I had mistaken it for the bottom sheet? I started pulling the sheet off the mattress and discovered that no, there was just one sheet there. Too tired to puzzle through it any further, I re-tucked the sheet under the corner of the mattress and slipped under the duvet, no top sheet present.
In the morning, I considered asking about this peculiar bedding arrangement at the front desk, but decided to first Google it. And I saved myself some embarrassment by doing so, because it turns out that in many European countries, top sheets as we know them just aren’t a thing. Instead, duvet covers coordinated to the fitted sheet and laundered as often as the rest of the linens are all that you have to sleep under.
And this style of bed-making is catching on in the states. Sheet sellers like Parachute and Wright allow you to add a flat sheet to your order, but their default is to send bedding sets without, and in the years since my first trip abroad I’ve stayed in more than a few American hotels that had eschewed a top sheet in favor of a crisply-covered duvet.
So what’s the deal with top sheets? Do you really need them?
Writers and commentators seem torn on this. In 2016, when GQ published articles arguing both for and against top sheets—the former calling the decision not to use one “disgusting”—I watched my Twitter feed erupt into a top sheet debate. (This might also be a sign that I should cull my Twitter follows a bit.) And the topic resurfaces on Twitter frequently enough that typing “flat sheet” into the search bar showed me debates on the topic happening as recently as the writing of this very paragraph.
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As many opinions as there are on flat sheets, there doesn’t seem to be a right answer in terms of whether they’re actually necessary. It’s really a matter of preference. Without a top sheet, you have to wash your duvet as often as you wash your fitted sheet and pillowcases. So if you really hate having to get your duvet back into the duvet cover (guilty as charged), you probably don’t want to wash it that often, making the flat sheet a more attractive choice in your bed-making. Flat sheets are also great if you and your partner tend to sleep at different temperatures: you can keep a light covering over your body while they snuggle under the blanket. (This might also be an argument for Scandinavian-style, split-comforter bed-making, but we’ll leave that debate for another day.) And, not to be too gross about it, but flat sheets can provide an extra layer of protection between your body and your comforter, to protect it from, shall we just say, bodily fluids—and to protect you from a fun trip to the dry cleaner.
If, on the other hand, you think making your bed is a chore or you always wind up tangled in your top sheet rather than resting comfortably beneath it—and you’re willing to commit to laundering your duvet cover (and sometimes your duvet, too) more regularly, you might find that you enjoy sleeping like the Europeans do.
So are top sheets really necessary? That’s your call. As for me, I’m not ready to go transoceanic with my bedding choices just yet.