Have you, too, stood in the linens department, eyes glazed as you try to figure out the best sheets? It doesn't help that they tend to be folded up and jammed into a plastic container so that you can only feel a tiny corner of them. How are you supposed to know how it will feel on your entire body if only the tip of your finger can brush a sliver of the sheet?
Well there's always thread count, which is what it seems "they" want us to rely on. And the higher the better, right? I mean, if 200 is good then those $80 eight-million-thread count sheets at HomeGoods must be amazing, and what a deal!
Hold up. It turns out, we might be getting suckered. There's more to a sheet's quality than thread count, and kind of like sunscreen, there's a point beyond which you're really not adding anything. In fact, it could be even lower quality.
To get the full story, I asked some people in the industry to explain what's what: Ben Adair of truthaboutthreadcount.com, which is a website run by high end sheet seller Abode; Brooklinen co-founder Vicki Fulop; and Karin Sun, founder of Crane & Canopy, demystified the whole thing for us. And speaking independently of one another, they all said essentially the same thing, starting with those crazy high thread count claims are at best, meaningless.
To be fair, "it is true the higher the thread count the softer and silkier the fabric feels," Adair says. "The fabric feels more exotic and is harder to weave therefore usually bringing a higher price tag."
But here's the thing. "There is a limit to how many threads can be reasonably woven into the 10 sq/cm2 area, which calculates the Australian thread count number," Adair explains. "Brands have started to cheat this number by twisting four yarns together to create the thickness of one yarn and by doing this they can inflate the number of threads used. We have seen thread counts as high as 1,200 or even 2,000. We do not approve of this falsehood. And, if the fabric is not woven by high quality weavers, then this fabric does not stand up."
The magic number is around 430, according to Sun. After that "additional thread count can only be achieved through creative manufacturing methods."
In fact, says Fulop, "as multi-ply construction is often used to strengthen lower-grade cotton, a super high thread count can actually indicate the presence of a lower-quality sheet."
Now, not to say we should totally ignore thread count. It is a factor, and, as Fulop explains, "as the thread count rises, the fabric becomes softer, denser and warmer. So that you know you're getting an accurate and not misrepresented thread count, you want to be in the 200-500 range. In the lower range you'll have a crisper, cooler sheet and on the higher end you'll have a smoother and warmer sheet."
Single-ply vs. Multi-ply: Turns Out Less is More
The real story, it seems, is told in the length of the cotton fibers and the resulting quality of the yarn spun from them.
"Make sure the yarn used is single ply," Fulop says. "It can only be spun from long-staple cotton, and results in light, soft, yet extremely long-lasting sheets. Multi-ply yarns are a group of weaker fibers twisted together to create a false strength. They use mostly lower-grade, shorter-staple cottons, which result in thicker, coarser and heavier threads. The longer the staple of cotton, the higher the quality."
What's more, says Adair, "Shorter fibers create loose fiber heads that can potentially lead to the fabric pilling." [noooooo, the dreaded bumpy, pilly sheets!] "These fibers are then spun into yarn which is then woven into fabric. We believe this is another really important part of the process. Who is doing the spinning and weaving?" Adair notes that, for the money, the best weavers are in Italy so that's where Abode gets most of their sheeting fabric.
What about Egyptian cotton — another buzzword we've come to associate with quality? "These days, Egyptian cotton just means cotton that originates from Egypt, not the type of extra-long staple cotton Egypt was originally known for," Sun says. "Today, fine extra-long staple or long-staple cotton can be grown anywhere around the world."
Fine, what's that? "The fine thread spun from single-ply, long-staple cotton is responsible for the most sumptuous sheets," Fulop notes. Picture the difference in threads woven in a burlap potato sack versus those of a fine business suit, she described. "The finer the thread, the smoother, lighter, and softer the resulting fabric."
Percale, Sateen, Jersey: What Does it All Mean?
Sure, now we understand about thread count, but...what about the classifications of sheets? What's the difference between percale and sateen? That's just how it's woven, Adair explains. "One is no better or worse than the other. It is a personal preference. A percale weave has threads that go one over, one under and has a crisp feel whereas a sateen weave has threads that go three over, one under and creates a more silky feel." #themoreyouknow
Let's not forget linen, which is a fabric made from fibers of the flax plant, rather than from the cotton plant. Particularly in linen, the sky-high thread count is not what you're after. It "can be as low as 50 or, like our preferred weight in linen, 140," Adair says.
There; we've now traded one single mark of quality that actually does us little to no good for several more, which will hopefully guide you to a smarter purchase the next time you find yourself staring down an aisle of bed linen options.
It does make sense now that I think about my own experience. I haven't used Crane and Canopy sheets or Abode, but am a longtime fan of Brooklinen. It's all we use in our Airbnb, and guests love them. What's impressive to me is how they hold up to a pretty punishing laundry schedule. Meanwhile on our own bed, the inexpensive and — in hindsight too high to be true thread count sheets — literally ripped like paper when my husband made the bed a couple weeks ago. I replaced them with…270 thread count sheets from Brooklinen (and now, because I know what that truly means, I'm feeling — and sleeping — pretty good).