What You Need To Know About Buying Sheets . . . And why you need to know it.

You hear it all the time when someone is buying a sheet; ‘What’s the thread count?’   The question is asked as if thread count is the most important criteria when buying a sheet, and we, the manufacturers, are guilty of creating this belief.

In actuality, the single most important question a consumer should ask; ‘Is this sheet going a help me sleep more comfortably?’

“Consumers are faced with high prices, unfamiliar brands, poor-wearing fabrics, and marketing that wrongly places a premium on the highest thread count.”  (Consumer Reports, August 2005)  The following information will hopefully allow you to make a better-informed decision when buying your next set of sheets.

As stated in the August 2005 Consumer Reports issue, “Thread count is the new marketing mantra for sheets.  The higher the better, you’ll hear.  But some sheet makers are boosting thread count simply by counting wrong.”  The sheet manufacturer industry has become as bad as the stereotypical used car salesman when it comes to describing their sheets’ thread counts. Be wary, says Consumer Reports, of high thread count sheets coupled with low prices.

When buying a sheet it’s about comfort.  Let me repeat, ‘It’s About Comfort.’ 

Did you know that Europeans do not sleep on high-count sheets; even though they were early proponents of high thread count sheets in the US market place.  Europeans typically sleep on sheets well under 200-thread count.  A big favorite, because of the fabric comfort, is a 120 count plain woven fabric that is made with extra long staple cotton that has been combed and ring spun and finished to feel soft and smooth.  This sheeting fabric is very durable and is indeed remarkably comfortable.

Yet, here in America, we’re told the higher the thread count of the sheet, the better it must be.  Thread count is a number given to all woven fabrics, regardless of the type of fiber or fibers used.   This number is the result of adding the number of warp ends per inch (threads in the length of the fabric) plus the filling picks per inch (threads in the width of the fabric) without regard to the number of plies making up the threads.  That is a percale sheet with a construction of 108 warp ends per inch and 92 filling picks per inch is a 200 count sheet.  If the threads used are two ply yarns, the thread count would still be 200, not 400 as some manufacturers try to claim.  All woven fabrics have a thread count and by US regulations from the Federal Trade Commission require that the thread count for products sold in the USA be reported according to the above definition.

Consumer Reports states many manufacturers are simply not reporting the thread count accurately.  Good Housekeeping (Dec. 2002) tested 9 popular high-count sheets (each from a different manufacturer) and found the same problem in 6 of the 9 sheets.  Brands with well established reputations for quality product accurately reported thread count.   Both publications report, based on their product testing, a consumer just cannot rely on a manufacturer’s statement of thread count as being a sound indicator of the sheet’s overall quality and the count number certainly provides little or no indication of how comfortable the sheet will be or how long it could be expected to last.

Thread count is certainly an indicator of potential sheet quality, but the number by itself is nearly meaningless.  Without knowing (1) the construction of the fabric, (2) the yarn size of the threads, (3) the type of fiber used to make the threads and how the yarn was processed, and (4) how the fabric was finished, thread count at best tells one the number of threads in a square inch and, at worst, gives one the belief that the sheet is far better than it is if one believes that the higher the thread count the better the sheet.

The fact is thread count by itself tells one little about the overall quality of the fabric.  A much more reliable indicator of fabric quality is your own judgment combined with a little knowledge about the fabric: 

  • Check the feel of the fabric.  Does it feel soft? Crisp? Stiff? Slippery/oily?  Does the feel of the fabric meet what you want for a sheet? 
  • Try blowing through the fabric.  If you cannot blow through it, you immediately know that the fabric will be hot, like sleeping wrapped in saran wrap.  If you can blow through the fabric fairly easily, you know that the fabric will breathe well allowing you not to get hot while you sleep.
  • Look at the sewing, particularly the wide hem at the top of the flat sheet and the cuff of the pillowcases.  You want to see fairly small stitches, at least 8-9 stitches per inch.  If the hems are finished with decorative stitching, make sure that the stitching is clean and neat.  Make sure the fitted sheet has elastic all around, not just at the corner, and the elastic has good torque (elastic strength) to hold the fitted sheet firmly on the mattress.  Make sure the sheets are of a size that will fit on your mattress.  The flat sheet should be wide enough to tuck in given your mattress thickness and the pocket depth of the fitted sheet should be within two inches of height of your mattress.  (A 16-inch pocket will easily fit an 18” mattress.)
  • Note the weave of the fabric (typically stated on the package).  Sateen sheets generally will be softer but wrinkle more easily.  Percale sheets (plain woven sheets with a thread count not less than 180) will generally feel crisper and cooler, like a freshly laundered dress shirt, and will wrinkle a little less easily.  Oxford (two by one weave) and Twill weave (3 by 1) sheets will feel and perform somewhere between percale and sateen sheets.
  • Finally, ask what is the reliability of the manufacturer. Do they stand behind their products if they do not perform as stated or are not of the quality stated?

Consumer Reports recommends “picking a sheet between 200 and 400 thread count that meets your other criteria” for feel, color, design, etc.  “Never mind thread count.  Thread count between 200 and 400 are fine. Within that range, a higher number sheet may provide a softer feel” and a lower number will be cooler.  “With counts over 400, the main difference is price.”  In general, higher count sheets will be hotter because they will not breathe as well as a lower count sheet.  If you, generally, are cold at night, then a higher count sheet would be a good choice for you.  If you are generally hot or sweaty at night, then choose a low count sheet that has the feel that is right for you.  If you are cold at night and your partner is hot at night, look for a sheet that is comparatively thick (which will help keep you warm), breathes well, and absorbs moisture well (which will keep your spouse comfortable.)  Home Source’s 100% bamboo sheets well satisfy this dual need.

The obsession with thread count for sheets is not new.  Back in the 1920’s, Wamsutta introduced a true percale sheet.  Percale, by definition, is a plain woven sheeting fabric with a thread count not less than 180 threads per square inch.  Wamsutta’s competition almost immediately starting marketing their plain woven sheets as being percale sheets even though the thread counts of those sheets were less than 180 threads per inch or muslin sheets.  Wamsutta responded by making a point of the thread count of their sheet and eventually the industry had to get the FTC to issue a formal definition of “percale” so only plain woven sheets with at least 180 threads per inch could be marketed to consumers as percale.  Since that period, the marketing of sheets has typically pointed out the thread count of the given sheet and presented sheets with higher counts as being better quality than the traditional industry standards of 180 and 200 count percale sheets.

Care of sheets and towels:

Follow the manufacturer’s instructions.  Generally, sheets and towels should be machined washed in warm water with a cold-water rinse.  Use about one quarter to one third the amount of soap that the soap manufacturer suggests.  Excess soap will be retained by the fabric, making it feel scratchy and stiff.  Tumble dry at a low temperature setting.  High temperatures will cook the cotton making it brittle.  Be sure to remove your sheet immediately at the end of the drying cycle and hand smooth as you fold it.  Most sheets will not need ironing if you are good about removing the sheet immediately at the end of the drying cycle and smoothing it as it is folded.  If you cannot remove the sheets from the drier at the end of the cycle, tumble dry with a damp washcloth for a few minutes and then fold and smooth. Never use fabric softeners, either liquid or sheets, when laundering home textile products, particularly towels.  Fabric softeners weaken the fibers and cause the fabric to NOT absorb moisture as effectively as it otherwise would.  Never use chlorine bleach.  Chlorine bleach will reduce the life of cotton and similar fibers and may cause yellowing over time.  If bleaching is required use non-chlorine, safe for colors bleaches.  Typically, easy care, all cotton sheets have been treated with resins to help keep the cotton fiber straight.  These resins will weaken the cotton fiber and shortens the life of the product, but help keep the appearance of the fabric nice.  Nanotechnology offers a way to keep the fabric appearance looking good and, also, making the fabric completely stain-resistant without weakening the fabric.  It is a good idea to occasionally wash your towels in plain water without any detergent to remove excess soap from the terry.

Additional information for the technical person:

Manufacturer can make a given thread count fabric in many ways.  Some of those ways will result in a good, long-lasting sheet and some of those ways will result in a product that will not hold up well even with normal use.  The top main components to the cost of manufacturing sheeting fabric in its raw state (greige goods) is the weight of the fiber needed to make the fabric and the amount of time it takes to weave the fabric; the more of either one of these components, the higher the price.  Conversely, the less weight of the fiber used to weave the fabric and/or the faster the fabric can be woven the cost will be proportionally less. 

Here is what sellers of sheets do not normally tell you that makes telling you the thread count of the fabric very misleading:

  • The construction of the fabric; that is the number of warp ends per inch and the number of filling picks per inch.  The closer these two numbers are in value the stronger the fabric will be.  A 300-count fabric of, say, 158x142 will be very strong and durable.  A 300-count fabric with a construction of 200x100 will be prone to tearing easily.
  • What yarn sizes are used to make the fabric?  Plied yarns are stronger than singles yarns and normally higher quality fiber have to be used to make plied yarns than a singles yarn.  A sixty single yarn (60/1) is the same size yarn a yarn made with 2 plies of 120 threads (60/2).  But the fabric made with 60/2’s will feel softer and be a little stronger than the fabric made in the same construction of 60/1’s yarns.
  • What chemicals were used to finish the fabric?  Manufacturers have many options to effect the feel and appearance of the fabric and hide quality issues from using poor weave constructions.  Some of these finishing methods are simple and safe; others create a temporary and artificial effect.
  • How the fabric was woven.  Weaving speed is the other major component of fabric cost.  The faster a mill can weave the fabric, the lower they can sell the fabric.  Let’s say a mill has looms that weave fabric at 300 filling picks per minute.  A 300-count fabric with a construction of 150x150 means that it takes one minute to weave 2 inches of fabric.  If the mill changes the construction to 200x100 for this 300-count fabric, it can weave 3 inches of fabric in one minute, a 150% increase in production.  Both fabrics can be correctly reported as being 300-count, but the latter construction would cost significantly less.  To make matters more complicated, mills can also change how many filling yarns are brought across the width of the fabric per pick insertion.  If the mill sent two threads across instead of one on a loom running at 300 picks per minute, then they could weave 4 inches of fabric with a 150x150 construction (stated 150x75+75) and 6 inches of fabric of fabric with a 200x100 (200x50+50), a substantial increase in output and thus they would be able to offer this fabric at a lower price.  The main problem with “double-pick” fabrics is that they tend to appear ‘streaky’ when dyed in a dark color.  Overall fabric strength is also slightly less.

Most sheets are made with cotton.  Cotton is grown in many countries and varies in quality based on climate, soil condition, and farming methods. 

Cotton requires hot whether, lots of water and rich soil to grow.  Cotton is highly susceptible to bug infestation and other diseases and therefore has to be farmed with a great deal of effort and cost.

First, you should know that the longer the cotton fiber and the finer the cotton fiber the better the quality of the cotton.  Many believe that Egyptian cotton is the best cotton.  It is a very good cotton with wonderful strength characteristics.  The problem is how the Egyptian government grades the cotton.  The government samples only a small number of plants from a single part of a given farmer’s field.  All the cotton from that field is graded based on that sampling even though the rest of the field may contain inferior quality cotton.  Egyptian farmers know that the closer to the Nile, generally, the better the cotton.  So the farmers bring the government inspectors to the best plants in their field in order to maximize the price of the cotton that they will get from the entire field.  The Egyptian government sets the price of the various grades of cotton grown in the country based on a variety of factors.  The problem, though, is the buyer doesn’t know if the bulk of the cotton that they receive for a certain grade is going to be the quality that they think that they are buying.  They could buy 1.25 inch length Egyptian cotton (the quality used for most high-end home textile products) and find that much of the cotton that they receive is less than 1.25 inch in length.

Other high quality cottons are grown in the USA, India, China, Peru and many other countries.  Sea Island cotton, Annur Cotton, Emperor’s Cotton, and Pima Cotton are all very high quality cottons.  They grading of these cottons are generally stricter and more accurate.

Most cotton has a fiber length of 7/8th of an inch to 1 & 1/8 inch, but it can be as little as ½ inch and as long as 2 inches in length.  Cotton less than 7/8th of an inch is generally unspinnable and is used to make non-woven fabric or high quality paper.  Fiber lengths of more than 1.25 inches are rare and used for only the highest quality fabrics.  Most sheets are made with inch and an eighth cotton and most towels are made from one inch to one and an eighth fiber.

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