bed skirts, dust ruffles, valances

I've now remembered what I meant to cover and forgot in my last post. That post is already too, too long, so here's another post about bedding.

Years ago, my former colleague Max sent a list of presumably AmE terms that were new to him when he read Jane Smiley's Ten days in the hills. It included the following [emphasis added in the Smiley quotation]:

"She leaned over the side of the bed and reached under the bedskirt. She pulled out a large-ish box wrapped in blue paper."

= BrE "valance"?
My response at the time was that I wouldn't have called it a bedskirt--I'd have called it a (AmE) dust ruffle, which for me was a new fancy thing that I came with my first (AmE) comforter set (see last post). Nowadays, I think I would say bed skirt (though I would make it two words) when referring to one that hangs down straight (maybe with a neat pleat or two), as one finds in hotels. The pink gingham one that I had in my youth had more of a 'ruffle' to it.  But US retailers call them both bed skirts, it seems. The Pioneer Linens site is indecisive about whether to put a space in bedskirt and treats bed skirt and dust ruffle as synonyms:
A bed skirt or dust ruffle slides in between your mattress and box spring, making your bed appear more together and complete.
The Corpus of Contemporary American English indicates that bed()skirt and dust ruffle are equally common, with 30 dust ruffle, 26 bed skirt, and 4 bedskirt.

 Max's suggestion of valance in BrE surprised me, as I only knew this as something that covers a curtain rail. (It has other meanings too, covering altars and such.) Clearly, it's not something I've ever shopped for in the UK. The OED gives us this definition:
2 spec. a. A border of drapery hanging round the canopy of a bed; in later use, a short curtain around the frame of a bedstead, etc., serving to screen the space underneath.
It's hard to tell from the quotes when the 'later use' begins, but at the latest it's mid-19th century.  One can get around the ambiguity of valance by label(l)ing them valance bed sheets, as does, but in the British National Corpus all the instances of bed-related valances are just called valance--the rest of the context serves to let you know which kind.

Two blog posts within 24 hours? Don't get used to it!


  1. I thought valance was AmE for BrE pelmet.

  2. I'm not sure what I'd call one of those in BrE, because I've never needed one; all three of the UK-purchased beds I've had have been of the "divan" style popular here, where the box-spring part sits directly on castors rather than on a separate frame. (I know what a box spring is because I spent several years in the US; it's not a concept I've met in the UK. But perhaps that's a matter for a different post.)

  3. I think what you call a box spring I'd just call a base. Maybe a sprung base if I need to explain what I was after buying in a shop, but in circumstances where I needed to talk about otherwise (directing movers what bed bits went where in a new house maybe, only time I can think of atm) I'd just call it a base, or the base of the bed.

    I'd say (BrE, from Wales) valance on a bed, pelmet on curtains - although not in any house I've lived in.

  4. @Phalbe

    After looking up pelmet, yes, valance has that meaning here in the U.S. And I can see the relationship between that meaning and the bedskirt meaning.

  5. I did not know "pelmet". Its main, or original, sense seems to be a wooden thing that hides a curtain rod.

    The term "dust ruffle" is a familiar one, but now that I think of it there is something bothering me. Is the implication that it screens from view the dust that accumulates under the bed? Out of sight, out of mind? Or that keeps it from drifting out? Either way, it suggests a slovenly attitude toward dust, unworthy of the sort of serious homemaker who bothers with fancy terms like "dust ruffle.

  6. LOL! Empty, I think of a dust ruffle the way my mother thought of those fancy shower curtain sets that has the fancy, useless curtain that you keep tied back with matching tie, with a pretty bow -- just another dust collector. Dust ruffles/valences also don't always fit well around your headboard and footboard.

  7. empty

    We always had pelmets when I was a boy (in England). They obscured what in our house was a curtain rail. Rather than rings around a rod, we had rollers hanging down from a rail with hooks attaching each roller to the curtain. It made no difference whether the pelmet was wooden or of material matching the curtains.

  8. (It has other meanings too, covering alters and such.)

    "Altars", perhaps?

  9. Oops! Thanks, Anonymous. Now changed.

  10. I've always called the 'curtain' around a sprung bed-base a valance and the top-of-curtain fitting a pelmet. I didn't know this was specially BrE but as I am British it's what I've always known these objects as. I don't think I could keep a straight face if I started to refer to it as a 'bed skirt', although if that is what it's called in the US then fair enough.

    One of the beds in my home here does have a sprung base with a valance and I must say I have come to loathe it - it is awkward to put on and take off (as it is under a heavy mattress) and is unfortunately just a dust collector and the difficulty of removing it for cleaning means this does not happen as often as it should. I did not realise this drawback when I bought this bed some years ago. I've been thinking for a while of ditching it completely and replacing it with a frame bed, just as I have in my other bedrooms here and my other house (some are wooden, some are metallic) - much easier to keep clean and just as attractive.

  11. I was asked recently what was the English word for "sommier". I had no idea. Wikipedia suggests "bed base" is the term, and notes "In the United States, box spring bed bases are very common (to the point where 'bed base' and 'box spring' may be used synonymously)".

  12. Valances/ruffles are a feminist issue - who has time to keep them clean, ensure they match the sheets, and so on? Some of the comments suggest that just buying a suitable bed eliminates the need for these fussy time-wasters.

  13. Excellent! I salute you for having two blog posts in just 24 hours.

  14. You can get dust ruffles/bed skirts that attach the ruffle with Velcro. There is a flat sheet that goes between the mattress and the box spring, and then the ruffle attaches around the edges with Velcro so you can remove it for laundering.

  15. Ruffle ruffle ruffle. Suddenly that seems like the most marvelous word and I want you all to share my pleasure.

    Those ugly metal frames seem to call for bed skirts. Also, whatever you've got stored under the bed is concealed. (I don't have one myself, and confess to a distaste for them, but I have to acknowledge their reasons.)

  16. Ah, but you can have sheets with valances built in, or a separate sheet and valance.

  17. I'm not sure the matter of names of the products on Amazon UK is reliable source of information. Many sellers from abroad just make up the names to attract more customers and usually they don't know English very well (like me and no-UK based company I work in :) )

  18. Hazel is right (in BrE). Slightly more detail may be useful. A valance sheet is a standard fitted sheet with an integral valance; it goes on top of the mattress and reaches the floor but doesn't grip the bottom of the mattress. A valance is a flat sheet with integral valance that goes under the mattress directly on top of the bed base. The latter needs washing - and I guess usually gets washed - less often than the former.

    I had this info confirmed just last week, when I was asked to buy one for my mother-in-law. Seems both types are going out of fashion. I found none in Debenhams or M&S among their many items of bedding. I bought one in a specialist independent linen shop, but even they only had a small range, and more valance sheets than pure valances. This could be connected with a rise in 'drawer divans', with storage space at a premium in new-build homes, but probably we've just become less fussy. Maybe soon they will be as hard to find as antimacassars and doilies.

  19. BrE, Scot, mid 60s. When I first moved to England, I occasionally found my self as bewildered as many Americans meeting BrE for the first time. Some of it was to do wth England at that time being a bit more affluent than Scotland (at least in the south): simply many things in shops I had never encountered before. Some of it was simply what my wife invariably calls “a man thing”, particularly when relating to household items. Now, while I remember the mild confusion quite clearly, the only item I remember never having heard of before was a “valanced sheet”.

    UK and USA have slightly different definitions, and spelling apparently! Not sure if that top line will come up as a link or not...!


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)