The Complete Guide on How to Buy Bed Sheets

updated Jun 16, 2023
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Getting a good night’s sleep is one of life’s simplest pleasures, but for some, it’s nothing short of a luxury. We preach the importance of creating a relaxing atmosphere in the bedroom by banishing electronics and investing in a mattress that can set a solid foundation for R&R, but beyond that, there is an additional factor that can impact slumber: bed sheets. The right ones can double as a cloud, transforming your bed into the ultimate oasis. A not-so-great set can result in an agonizingly sweaty snooze or truly uncomfortable night. They can break apart after one too many washes, start pilling a month in, or feel rough — and no one wants any of that. The key is to invest in brands and fabrics that can, at the very least, withstand a few cycles in the washer and dryer. Having a solid grasp of how and what bedding is made of won’t hurt, either. 

While there is no magic formula for the “best” set of sheets, Snowe co-founder and co-CEO Rachel Cohen says that it comes down to materials and craftsmanship. “Think of it as the perfect meal. The ingredients are just as important as the cooking, and the same goes for bedding.” After that, it’s about the artistry, such as the spinning, weaving, and finishing of the actual yarns and fabric. We set out to uncover what separates the good bed sheets from the bad by sourcing from industry leaders who know it best.

What to Consider Before Buying Bed Sheets

Our experts agree that where and how sheets are produced can have a significant impact on quality. Understanding the material makeup of bedding is just the start of figuring out what’s right for you. Beyond that, consider industry certifications (if they’re important to you), how much you’re willing to invest, and thread count.  

1. The Material of the Sheets

Most of us can tell the difference between crisp cotton sheets, cozy flannels, and textured linens. But what actually sets one apart from the other?

  • Cotton: There are various types of cotton bedding, typically distinguished by their staple size (or length of cotton fibers), which determines quality. According to Boll & Branch co-founder and CEO Missy Tannen, “Long-staple cotton produces a stronger, smoother yarn, which gives you a softer sheet with less pilling and more durability.” Within that there are Pima and Supima cotton, which can feature extra long-staples, and Egyptian cotton, which is handpicked (putting less stress on the fibers) to yield extra-fine yarn. The weaving method dictates whether sheets are crisp or ultra-soft and is defined by:
    • Percale: Percale cotton turns into a lightweight, matte finish that feels almost crinkly. It’s characterized by a standard “one-over-one-under” weave. 
    • Sateen: Sateen cotton is delicate and more luxurious in texture than percale. Its “three-over-one-under” weave makes it slightly heavier but adds shine. 
    • Jersey: Jersey cotton is ultra-soft and stretchy, thanks to its small and tight single-knit composition. 
  • Linen: This versatile fabric keeps cool in the summer and warm in the winter, maintaining a breathable composition. Derived from a flax plant, the material fibers are thicker than cotton, with a subtly textured, soft finish. According to Katie Elks, Brooklinen’s director of design and product development, linen fibers have moisture-wicking properties that make them cooler than cotton.
  • Flannel: A cold-weather favorite, flannel sheets can be crafted from wool, cotton, or synthetic materials. Flannel comes in either a plain or twill weave and can be “napped” or raised, which is a brushing technique that gives it a slightly textured and velvet-like feel.
  • Plant-based:
    • Lyocell: Similar to rayon, lyocell is a cellulose fiber derived from crushed wood pulp and is considered semi-synthetic. It can be made from bamboo or eucalyptus and is extremely smooth.  
    • Modal: Like lyocell, modal is crafted from the wood pulp of beech, birch, or oak trees, and can be compared to viscose. 
    • Tencel: Tencel is a brand name for lyocell and modal.
  • Synthetic: On the synthetic front you’ll find microfiber, typically sourced from polyester or other comparable materials. Comprised of extremely fine fibers (thinner than silk), microfiber is affordable and warm, though not very breathable. 

2. Thread Count

The thread count of sheets is measured by the number of vertical (warp) and horizontal (weft) threads in one square inch of fabric. Despite the heavily marketed idea of the luxuriousness of “high” thread count sheets, higher doesn’t equal better. “Generally, a higher thread count equates to a softer sheet, however, it should be in a range of normalcy from 200 to 600,” says Boll & Branch’s Tannen. “If the thread count is lower than 180, you’d be able to lift up the sheets to the light and see holes.” Alternatively, you might find sheets with a 1,000+ thread count — which manufacturers achieve by twisting low-quality threads around each other or using multi-ply fabrics — that feel more coarse or rough. 

“If you have poor-quality raw materials and manufacturing, a high thread count won’t save you,” says Snowe’s Cohen. “Conversely, if you have amazing materials, then a low thread count doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not a superior product.” Linen sheets rarely boast thread counts because their fibers are substantially larger, which means a lower thread count per square inch. Various materials will have their own optimal counts based on how the fabric is woven: Percale’s optimal range is 200 to 500, while sateen’s is 300 to 600. “High-quality cotton threads cannot effectively get much higher than that. If you do see it, it’s likely poor-quality threads jammed together.” Bear in mind that the weave structure will change the thread count, says Elks. “A crisp percale will always have a lower thread count than a buttery sateen weave.”

3. Certifications

Certifications are responsible for creating standards for quality and craft. By choosing OEKO-TEX- or GOTS-certified products, you can be sure you are getting a tested, certified item that is clean, safe, and sustainable.

  • GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) certifies that a product is organic, free of harmful chemicals, and includes certain sustainability and pollution standards, as well as fair worker protections and practices. 
  • OEKO-TEX measures and certifies human and ecological safety in textile manufacturing. 

Just because a product is labeled “organic,” it’s not necessarily sustainable or chemical free. Ultra-white sheets may be bleached while colored bedding may not be organic because of the dyes used.

Credit: Africa Studio/Shutterstock

4. Bed Sheet Cleaning & Care

Maintaining the integrity of your sheets means giving them TLC, such as regular washes and frequent swaps. Oscillating between two or more sets increases their longevity and can be refreshing, especially if you’re trying out different materials. While pros recommend washing sheets at least once every two weeks, if you tend to be sweaty at night or use a lot of oils and creams, weekly washing is better. Bacteria and viruses can survive in your sheets, so clean them after a bout of the flu or a cold. 

Pillowcases should be switched more frequently to counter oils from your face and hair, at least every week,” notes Cohen. “As for top-of-bed bedding (duvet covers, pillow shams), washing once a month is enough if you are using a flat sheet, more frequently if not.” Use cold or lukewarm water to prevent shrinkage and maintain coloring, and remove sheets from the dryer when just barely damp to prevent wrinkles and damage. 

If your sheets need heavy-duty stain removal or debugging after a cold, wash them in a warm (for polyesters) or hot (for cotton) cycle. This will rid the materials of bacteria and allergens plus kill dust mites. (Pro tip: Use this clever hack of baking soda and vinegar to instantly soften sheets.)

Experts suggest swapping in a new set of sheets every couple of years, depending on how frequently you wash or use them in a given month. Brands such as Coyuchi offer a buy-back program that lets customers send back used sheets for a discount on future purchases. “Many of our customers tire of a selected color or quality of sheets well before they wear out, which is a huge contributor to the 11.2 million tons of textile waste added to landfills every year,” says the brand’s design director Whitney Thornburg. Returned items go through a rigorous cleaning and renewal process through a partner, The Renewal Workshop, and are resold through Coyuchi 2nd Home Renewed.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

5. Your Budget

When it comes to sheets, you get what you pay for. Bedding that contains synthetics or plant-based materials will often be more affordable (under $75), though not as long-lasting. Sheets made from finer, premium materials that are harder to source, such as Egyptian cotton or linen, can set you back upwards of $1,000+ for a set, but there are slightly more wallet-friendly alternatives, such as Brooklinen’s linen bundle. Cotton takes the middle ground with a slew of options that range in price, percale being on the higher end. Figure out your ideal material and shop around to find the best price. Don’t be thwarted by thread count (anything from 200 to 600 is good but not a must), and remember, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. A linen set under $100 isn’t going to be the best quality, and “Egyptian” sheets made from cotton not grown in Egypt (the climate is what makes all the difference) aren’t going to be authentic. 

How to Choose the Best Bed Sheets for You

Once you have a solid idea of the material that fits your lifestyle, you can narrow the search by size, color, and seasonality. “We recommend designing your whole bed around the way you sleep to ensure the best combination of variables, optimized for you,” says Cohen. “Think of it like layering. It’s not just about whether you use a wool, cotton, or synthetic base layer. It also has to do with the comforter, duvet, coverlet, blanket, or throw you incorporate.”

Credit: Joe Lingeman/Apartment Therapy

1. Measure Twice, Buy Once

If you know what size mattress you own, finding the right sheets will be a breeze. Standard bedding should be consistent with conventional sizes, but to be safe, measure your mattress’s depth, length, and width to ensure a fitted sheet will sit snuggly in place. You might get away with subbing a Queen-size sheet for a Full-size bed, and the latter with a Twin, but unless you’re okay with extra fabric protruding from the sides, stick to what fits. You have more leeway with top sheets and duvet covers since a slightly larger size won’t affect the bed’s appearance or comfort. Things get trickier with comforters and pillows, especially in European sizing. IKEA’s bedding, for example, tends to run a few inches smaller, so it’s worth establishing that whatever casing you’re purchasing fits the inserts you own. A comforter swimming in a duvet cover is never a good look. 

Credit: Joe Lingeman/Apartment Therapy

2. Do You Sleep Hot or Cold? 

It’s important to be aware of how your body will react to each fabric choice. If you run hot at night, flannel or polyester sheets will make things worse. Contrarily, if you prefer bedding that feels like a warm, cozy hug, a crisp percale won’t do. Think about your needs. 

  • If you need warmth: Thornburg suggests flannel, which many sleepers prefer in the cool months. “Its soft, brushed surface feels warm from the moment you climb into bed. Sateen is also great for cool sleepers, as it drape-encases your body, helping to keep you warm throughout the night.” 
  • If you want to stay cool: Our experts agree that lightweight cotton percale (thanks to its snug weave) or linen sheets, which tend to be cooler and more breathable than cotton, are your best bet.  
  • If you want the best of both worlds: Thornburg’s answer to couples with differing preferences is linen, due to its natural temperature-regulating and airy qualities.
  • If you want year-round use: This boils down to preference and location. Long-staple organic cotton is the perfect breathable yet buttery-soft, year-round sheeting solution, says Tannen, who adds that it’s simple, elegant, and the perfect weight. Linen, with its ability to keep cool in the summer and warm in the winter, goes without saying. 
Credit: Minette Hand

3. Color vs. Patterned Sheets

Unless you’re a strict proponent of all-white bedding, taking the chromatic route can be a fun way to invite an unexpected touch of color to your space, especially if it’s a little monochrome. You can find sheets in just about every hue, as well as ones with rich patterns across an array of motifs — gridded, tie-dye, ikat, and retro florals happen to be a few of the trending styles. If you’re hesitant about going all out with a solid hue or maximalist print, dip your toes in with embroidery or a refined one-line scalloped detailing. 

Certain fabrics can influence color or pattern choice. Think about a blush pink on polyester compared to linen. The latter, with its textured finish, will give off an effortlessly cool and laid-back vibe, while a synthetic material (which can look shiny) will appear entirely different. Similarly, beige cotton sheets can be snoozy and vanilla, but not in linen form. If you’re going for flannel, plant-based, or synthetic bedding, you’re more likely to find patterned options. Linens are best in a palette of muted neutrals and pastels, while a brilliant shade of white and a crisp cotton go hand-in-hand. You can always mix and match, opting for solid-colored sheets as the base and dressing it all up with a vibrantly patterned duvet cover on top.  

Credit: Amelia Lawrence/Apartment Therapy

4. Sheet Sets vs. Individual Items

Sheet set bundles are a great way to save on bedding, plus they take the headache out of having to source each of the pieces you require. Most DTC brands and major retailers offer this economical and convenient option. The downside is that unless your bedding is consistent in size (e.g. all Twin or Queen), you may run into hiccups. Since sets are packaged according to bed size, if you have a King mattress but standard pillows and a Full comforter, you’ll have to purchase staples individually. 

5. Top Sheet vs. No Top Sheet

Top or flat sheets can be polarizing. Fundamentally, they offer an additional light layer with the bonus of keeping the duvet cover marginally cleaner, avoiding the need to wash it as frequently. For those who prefer a “tucked-in” experience, it’s the ultimate heat-keeper, while on the aesthetic front it provides a polished finish that can show off a sliver of color or pattern.  For Cohen, it’s an element that makes her bed feel complete and allows for better temperature regulation with layering. “It keeps my duvet cover and comforter cleaner and allows me to only have to change my sheets and pillowcases every week,” she adds, “but only do my duvet and the whole comforter removal and reinsertion only once every other time.” While it comes down to preference, if you’re sleeping with a comforter or quilt that’s otherwise going directly on your body, a top sheet becomes essential since… well, when was the last time you washed your comforter?

6. Duvet Cover vs. Comforter

Duvet covers and comforters serve the same purpose and are often used interchangeably. In short, they’re the heavier layer that makes your bedding complete and keeps you warm. The primary difference? A comforter is comprised of one piece while the duvet has two: an insert and a duvet cover

  • Comforters are often thick, quilted, and extra fluffy. They are meant to go above a top sheet as a decorative feature and can be left as is or layered under a quilt or coverlet. They’re available in the standard white as well as a slew of colors and prints.
  • Duvet covers are meant to be paired with duvet inserts, but no one’s going to stop you from sneaking a comforter in there. They lack the warmth of a comforter since they’re essentially two layers of fabric sewn together. Instead, they’re meant to be paired with an insert, which resembles a comforter but is flatter and not quilted. When it’s laundry time, strip the cover off the insert and throw it in the wash with your sheets. 

The Best Places to Shop for Sheets

Credit: Joe Lingeman/Apartment Therapy

If You’re Into No-Frills With a Chic Touch

  • Brooklinen: Brooklinen has a cult-like following and their bedding definitely walks the walk. Choose from classic percale, luxe sateen, linen, and heathered cashmere, then pair the sheets with an equally superb comforter or duvet cover
  • Snowe: Snowe disrupted the homeware DTC scene with a line of household staples that marry form and function with effortless cool. Their collection includes linen and percale sheets and duvet covers, along with down comforters, pillows, and shams. 
  • Parachute: Parachute’s bedding line leaves little else to be desired. Their percale cotton sheets are lightweight and breathable, the linens subtly textured, and the brushed cotton is likened to “sleeping in your favorite, lived-in T-shirt.”

If You’re Keen on Sustainability

  • Coyuchi: Shop duvet covers, sheets, basics, and blankets in muted colors and subtle patterns from the organic bedding brand that’s all about sustainability and giving back.
  • Boll & Branch: Boll & Branch’s founders set out to create a line of essentials crafted from sustainable raw materials. Shop super-soft, heirloom-quality, organic cotton sheets and separates, as well as cost-saving bundles. 
  • SOL Organics: SOL’s mission is to bring you sustainable bedding basics made from organic long-staple cotton that’s void of GMOs and harmful chemicals. Their product line is available in six muted colors and in percale, sateen, linen, and flannel. 

If You’re Looking for a Trend

  • West Elm: West Elm offers modern bedding with a fresh twist thanks to an array of minimalist options that give the understated a touch of cool. Browse by color, fabric (velvet included!), style, and vibe — think cozy and luxe.
  • H&M Home: The trendy retailer’s approach to bedding is all about cool styles with affordable price tags. Choose from linen, cotton, and percale sheets available in muted hues, cheeky prints, and minimalist color block designs. 

If You Want a Deal

If You’re Going for Premium

  • Nordstrom: From designer lines to select DTC brands, Nordstrom has a wide array of bedding options. Go for muted and textured, elegant and refined, or vibrantly saturated. Pro-tip: Don’t overlook the vibrant Marimekko prints
  • The Company Store: The Company Store’s premium bedding collections feature everything from hotel-inspired bundles to individual items in a range of colors and materials. Think 600-thread count, crisp white sateen sheets, whimsically patterned flannels, and year-round quilts.
  • Crane & Canopy: Crane & Canopy is all for giving high-quality pieces a cheeky and colorful twist. The brand carries luxe percale, Belgian linens, and everything including duvets, comforters, and patterned sheet sets.