Most people deciding between two sets of sheets would choose the higher thread count.
But it turns out we’ve all been duped.
“There’s a maximum number of threads that can fit into a square inch of fabric,” explained Scott Tannen, CEO of Boll & Branch, a luxury linen provider. “Depending on the type of cotton used, that number is generally not more than 400. So there is an awful lot of interesting maths involved in the sheets you see in a department store that can be up to a 1200 thread count.”
In fact, Consumer Reports says that 50 years ago, the most luxurious thread count available was 180, but now 1,000 thread counts are the norm.
So what happened?
We spoke with Tannen about what thread count is, why the numbers are so confusing, and how to buy the best sheets for your bed.
Know The “Real” Thread Count
Thread count is the total number of threads per square inch in a fabric (counting both horizontal and vertical threads). In theory, the higher the thread count, the softer and higher-quality the sheets.
But brands nowadays are counting multi-ply threads, which can lead to higher, erroneous numbers.
“In reality, to achieve a higher thread count manufacturers are generally using a lower grade of cotton that becomes very thin when spun,” Tannen explained to us. “They then twist this thread around itself to create a ‘multi-ply’ thread. When they use 2-ply thread and weave it to a theoretical 300-thread count (150 horizontal, 150 vertical) they call it a 600 thread count sheet and sell it that way.”
So imagine that a 4-ply thread is woven as a 200 thread count, but sold as an 800 threat count. A regular ply 300 thread count would feel better and last longer, but most consumers are convinced to always buy a higher thread count.
“Fortunately, brands are now required to list the thread ply on the package,” Tannen said. “So when sheets are ‘lustrously woven from 2-ply cotton thread’ as I recently saw at a major department store, people should be highly sceptical.”
Always Buy Cotton
Experts say that organic cotton, Egyptian cotton, and Pima cotton are the best choices over synthetic materials that don’t breathe as well and can make you hot (and sleep poorly as a result).
“The term ‘Egyptian Cotton’ was given to a plant called Gossypium barbadense when it grows along the Nile River in Egypt,” he told us. “This plant type is known for its extra-long staple length (the length of the strand of cotton the plant produces). Unfortunately, modern manufacturers realised that customers were looking for ‘Egyptian Cotton’ when purchasing bedding, so they stretched the definition.”
Now, most so-called Egyptian cotton is either a sub-par cotton grown in Egypt or Gossyplum barbadense that isn’t grown in Egypt but in Pakistan, China, or India (and due to soil compositions, is not quite as good as the original).
To be safe, Tannen recommends 100% organic cotton because it’s durable, soft, and breathable.
Don’t Rely On Touch
Common sense dictates you can tell how nice sheets are by touching them, but unfortunately it’s not that simple.
“Many manufacturers are applying polishes, waxes, and other substances that increase the luster or soft feel,” Tannen said. “Unfortunately, they all wash off after a washing or two.”
Instead, Tannen advised that your sheets are a good quality if they feel better after every subsequent wash. Good quality sheets should also last for years and never pill.
If you’re deciding in the store, look at the seams and manufacturing. This won’t always be an easy tell, but if there are threads hanging off or nonuniform stitches, that’s a giveaway that these sheets are not the best.
In conclusion, consumers should stop putting so much emphasis on thread count, and put far more emphasis on the quality, softness, and durability of the cotton.
And worst comes to worst, keep your receipt.