Back in the day, when I’d shop for new bed sheets, the first thing I’d look for was the thread count. The higher the thread count, the more expensive. So higher must be better, more luxurious. Right?
Surprisingly, the answer is often no.
There are a few reasons why thread count is no longer the sole measure of a high-quality bed sheet. We’ll cover those reasons, as well as what you really want to look for when you’re shopping for new sheets.
Inflated thread count
Thread count is supposed to be a measure of how many vertical and horizontal strands of fiber are woven together per inch, based a single ply of thread. But as consumers (like me, and probably you) began equating thread count to quality, manufacturers got clever.
Bedding brands that wanted to market a higher thread count, began weaving two (or more) strands of thread together to create a two-ply yarn. Since they used two threads instead of one, they were able to artificially double the thread count of their sheets on the label. In other words, what was a 300 thread count sheet by traditional measure, was now marketed as a 600 thread count sheet.
Credit: Sol Organics
While the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) still uses the traditional definition of thread count, it isn’t always enforced and this practice is still alive today.
And in case you’re wondering, all else being equal, those 600 count sheets would not feel any softer than the 300 count sheets. They also wouldn’t last any longer. They’d just cost more.
For a single-ply of thread to make a soft and durable bed sheet (without any help from harsh chemicals), that thread has to be made from cotton fibers that are naturally long, strong and soft. But bed sheet manufacturers that use two-, three-, and even four-ply threads can get away with using thinner, low quality strands, since they will be woven together to ultimately form a thicker yarn.
This thicker yarn is often chemically enhanced in order to improve the durability and comfort of the sheets. Without the chemicals, this thicker yarn would not be as soft or last as long as the single, high quality strand of woven fiber.
Softeners and treatments
In addition to inflating their thread count and using a lower quality fiber, brands will often treat their fabric with “hand enhancers”, using silicone and/or chemical treatments. So when you poke your finger into the packaging to feel the sheets, they feel incredibly soft and you want to buy them. When they use silicone, this soft feel is misleading, since the silicone is washed away the first time you put the sheets through the laundry. Alternatively, if they used chemicals instead of silicone, well, those stay put and keep the sheets feeling soft.
Neither softening option is appealing, if you ask me.
Manufacturers also use chemicals to make their sheets look shiny (which we also equate to softer and prettier) and to make them more resistant to wrinkles, stains, and shrinkage. This can be a problem for the chemically sensitive, though I’d think most anyone who is reminded that they lay their face against their sheets for 8-hours a day would be bothered by knowing these contaminants were in there.
And by the way, these chemicals can also weaken the fabric, make the sheets rougher, and reduce the fabrics ability to “breathe”. In other words, the sheets won’t last as long, they won’t be as soft, and they won’t keep us as cool and comfortable on warm nights.
Conventional vs. organic
Synthetic fabrics, such as polyester, are made with plastics and petrochemicals that can cause rashes or other skin issues. Cotton is better, but it matters how it was grown and produced.
Conventionally grown cotton is dirty, dirty, dirty. It is heavily sprayed with pesticides and then chemically processed into yarn and fabrics. By contrast, organic cotton is grown without chemical inputs and, if the final product is also certified organic, then it has also been manufactured without harmful chemicals as well.
What to look for in bed sheets
For quality cotton bed sheets, check the package or website so make sure they are woven from a single-ply of longer fibers. Extra-long fibers (which are considered premium) will often be labeled as Egyptian, Sea Island, or Pima cotton.
In terms of pattern (how these fibers are woven or knit), choose sateen, jersey, or flannel if you prefer a softer feel or opt for percale if you prefer crisp sheets.
For the best performance, choose a high quality fiber + low thread count over a high thread count + low quality fiber.
Cotton isn’t the only high quality bedding fabric. Luxury bed sheets are also made from hemp and linen.
Hemp is considered a renewable resource and is easily grown without the use of pesticides. It is great for regulating body temperature, keeping you warm in winter and cool in summer. Linen is also considered a renewable resource. It is incredibly strong, it’s hypoallergenic, and it is naturally resistant to dust.
Both hemp and linen sheets can be soft, comfortable, and manufactured without harmful chemicals. And while some brands dye their linen and hemp (ideally using plant and mineral colorants), both are absolutely beautiful in their natural state.
For cotton sheets, look for a thread count between 200 and 400. The highest count possible that a long, single-ply thread will produce is around 400. This is because only around 400 threads will fit on the loom. Anything over a 400-count isn’t going to offer you a higher quality sheet.
Linen is a naturally thicker fiber and doesn’t need as high of a thread count to feel luxurious. Expect to see a thread count between 80 and 150, if any is listed at all.
I couldn’t find any information from textile websites regarding thread count for hemp sheets. Neither could I find one listed in any product descriptions for brands that sell them. Given this, I have to assume that thread count isn’t a strong measure of quality for this particular fabric.
Whether you choose cotton, hemp or linen sheets, make sure they are free from harmful chemicals. The fibers should ideally have been grown and manufactured to organic standards. In addition, the sheets should be free from any wrinkle or stain protectants, as well as any other harsh chemicals, bleaches, or dyes.