It was the 1950s, or thereabouts. Sir Terence Conran was in Sweden. With a girl. And Our Tel found himself lying under a strange cover that was a bit like an eiderdown but with no sheets or blankets between him and it.
He inquired casually what it was and was informed that it was a Slumberdown quilt. A few years later he would be the first person to sell duvets in the UK in his new shop on the King’s Road.
Habitat opened on 11 May 1964. It was selling a lifestyle, only we didn’t call it that back then, and the shop stocked new and interesting homewares – the chicken brick, the wok and, of course, the duvet. When the catalogue was launched in 1966, it became a coffee table book in its own right and the store expanded rapidly throughout the UK.
Sir Terence recalls: “People do credit me with bringing the duvet to Britain. 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.”
You have to admit that it was rather sweet that after his liberated sex, he even bothered to think about making the bed.
Anyway, the continental quilt, as it was more usually known until the mid 70s was not an instant best seller. James Greig, assistant producer of If Walls Could Talk: an intimate history of the home, says: “When they [duvets] first came out people were very reluctant to give up their sheets and blankets, which might have been wedding presents. But the duvet was really pioneered by the housewives who loved the idea that it was so quick to make the bed. Habitat even had an advertising slogan; ‘the ten second bed’.
“I think they had a few in some stores to see how they went and the advertising tended to include a series of pictures so people could see how they worked.”
James has been unable to pinpoint the very first appearance of the duvet, but says it was used mainly in Scandinavia and the colder alpine countries. In 1749, a traveller in Westphalia noted: “There is one thing very peculiar to them, that they do not cover themselves with bed-cloaths (sic), but lay one feather-bed over, and another under.”
To start with Habitat sold more single duvets than doubles as they were initially regarded as something that was better for children, but gradually they became accepted by everyone and these days it’s hard to find anyone who sleeps under blankets any more.
Although some years ago on a visit to the US, I stayed in a hotel with duvets on the beds where there was a note on the pillow explaining that there was no need for alarm; this was a continental quilt, popular in Europe. The instructions, for instructions they were, suggested simply climbing underneath as if it were a set of sheets and blankets and a comfortable night’s sleep would surely follow.
First published in The Independent