How to Decide Between a Quilt, Duvet, Coverlet or Bedspread

A bed’s outermost layer commands a lot of attention thanks to its size and dominance in a bedroom’s decor, so it’s important to choose your style and material wisely. Before even delving into the various patterns, colors and textures available, you should consider if you want a single- or multilayered bedscape. Your choice will depend on how you use your bed and how the bedscape will interact with other elements of the design.

Since there are so many different ways to dress a bed, it helps to begin with a simple division: bedding with a single layer and bedding with multiple layers. We’ll explore some of the most common base layers and then show how you can combine them.

The Single-Layer Bedscape

Quilts. One of the most traditional — and richest in history — bed coverings is the quilt. Before fabric was loomed in long sheets, frugal home sewers pieced together scraps of worn clothing and kitchen textiles into two sides of a blanket that sandwiched a warmth layer. Today we use batting for this layer, though in centuries past it could have been any insulating agent, from horsehair to grass.

Quilting is also a term for the designs created by threads as they bind together the two fabric layers and the internal layer of any bed covering. This means that quilting is not limited to quilts: Duvets can be quilted, as can comforters.

Coverlets. Coverlets differ from quilts only slightly and sometimes not at all. Whereas quilts contain a middle layer for warmth, coverlets may not, and when they don’t, they go unquilted, devoid of the thread lines that occur when three layers of textiles are sewn together. The purely ornamental choice can be as simple as two sheets of fabric stitched together, usually consisting of a decorative face fabric and a plain reverse fabric.

Coverlets can be made loose, throw-style, semi-fitted or fitted.

As you might imagine, a fitted coverlet is the most tailored, tightest-fitting coverlet option and is intended to be primarily decorative. The side flaps are sewn together so that the coverlet fits over the mattress like a cap. It’s not designed for easy bed making or for tossing and turning under, but it sure does look pretty in a little-used guest room. Just make sure to stock comforters or quilts in varying levels of warmth to keep your guests comfortable.

Bedspreads. A close relation to the coverlet, a bedspread is constructed similarly but is designed to meet the floor (whereas coverlets typically fall a couple of inches below the mattress). This style adds a soft, ethereal romance to a bedroom and works especially well in a period home.

Dressmaker details like gathers and even box pleats characterize bedspreads, but it’s possible to spec a strictly tailored style too.

Duvet covers. A duvet is a cotton, polyester, blended or down feather blanket that can be used alone but really ought to be protected by what’s known as a duvet cover. The cover is little more than a washable bag for the duvet insert; it’s composed of two fabric sides that are joined together by a hidden zipper, ties or buttons.

If you seek the freedom to reverse your duvet cover, because you want to even the wear on both sides or switch up your look seasonally, make sure your chosen closing method (zipper or otherwise) is placed at the head or foot of the bed instead of in the middle, as is relatively common with tie and button closures. Also, request that interior loops be added so you can secure the corners of the cover to your insert to prevent its shifting around and bunching up at the bottom.

Placing the duvet at the foot of the bed is a popular stylistic choice for those who feel that all that pattern is too much of a good thing. On the other hand, those who opt for dual, coordinating fabrics for the face and reverse sides are rewarded with the opportunity to showcase both simultaneously if they flip the top of their duvet down.

It’s not always necessary to cover your duvet. Extending your bedding down to the box spring (or bed frame, in the case of platform beds) is generally ideal because it ensures that no limbs will be suddenly exposed when a partner rolls over with the blanket. But with a warm layer underneath, a smaller duvet can serve as an extra comfort to the sleeper who requires a little more warmth, while the cooler of the two can easily push it aside.

Comforters. A comforter looks much like a duvet, except that it’s decorative and all parts are integral. Its fill is more lofty than that of a quilt and comes in a wide range of densities and fiber contents, which generally determine the price. Comforters can be smooth, quilted or even shirred. Quilting and shirring help ensure that the fill stays evenly distributed.

Matelasse. Though it may look quilted, matelasse is actually a special type of fabric made in the French tradition with a jacquard loom that gives a tufted look. Matelasse fabrics can be made into comforters, duvet covers, coverlets and quilts, but the term simply refers to a cotton fabric with a raised design.

The Multilayered Bedscape

Duvet or comforter over matelasse. Layering a duvet over another, thinner bed covering works best when the duvet is folded at the end of the bed so that the matelasse, quilt or coverlet is visible. For people who love pattern and texture, the combination of the textured, tone-on-tone matelasse with virtually anything else can’t be beat. For an added layer, fold the flat sheet down over the top of the matelasse. It’s not the simplest way to make a bed and it will take some extra effort in the morning, but for a stately hotel-inspired guest room, there’s nothing better.

Quilt over matelasse. I like the idea of layering a heavier quilt over a matelasse because it gives the sleeper two levels of warmth to choose from.

Throw blanket over comforter. Kids aren’t afraid to go wild with color and pattern; reward that joie de vivre with as many layers as you can get away with.

Bed runner. Virtually any type of bed covering can be further decked out with a bed runner, also known as a bed scarf — a thin, flat band of fabric that may or may not be reversible, and trimmed as elaborately or as simply as one prefers. Runners are less of an investment and are one of the easiest home sewing projects to do. What they add to a room’s style far exceeds the time, money and effort spent sewing.