"What's the thread count?" is often the first question many shoppers ask when comparing bed sheets. In recent years, higher thread count has become synonymous with higher quality fabric. But this isn't always the case. When evaluating bamboo, cotton percale, or cotton sateen weave sheets, thread count only tells part of the story. Higher thread count sheets may prove to be better quality, but other factors -- such as the quality of the cotton fabric and softness of the weave -- also play a part. Egyptian cotton sheets made of extra-long staple cotton and 100% Supima cotton sheets, for example, are made from cotton known to be some of the finest on Earth. Two hundred thread count bed sheets made from these cotton fibers may indeed be better quality than higher thread count sheets made from inferior cotton.
Understanding how thread count works, and what it means for cotton and bamboo bed sheets, can help you choose the ideal sheets for your style, comfort, and budget.
Sheet Thread Count Defined
Thread count is defined as the number of threads per square inch of a given fabric. It's calculated by adding the number of horizontal threads (the weft) to the number of vertical threads (the warp). If a fabric has 100 horizontal threads and 100 vertical threads, the total thread count is 200.
Cotton Sheet Thread Count illustration
A widely held belief is that sheets with higher thread counts are softer and more durable, regardless of type. But thread count alone isn't a reliable measure of quality. The Italian luxury linen maker Sferra offers the following illustration.
Imagine that you have an opportunity to weave fabric using any one of the five "yarns" shown below:
- The first "yarn" is a threaded steel bar,
- The second is an unstable brass chain
- The third is a coarse hemp rope
- The fourth is a rigid polypropylene rope, and
- The fifth is a soft, fluffy strand of cotton.
If you were to weave different fabrics using each of these yarns at a fixed thread count, say 200, which sheet would you rather sleep on? Probably the soft, fluffy cotton.
What if you increase the thread count of the hemp rope fabric to 400? What if you increase the thread count of the steel bar fabric to 600? You probably would still rather sleep on the 200 thread count percale or sateen sheet using the soft, fluffy cotton yarns, even though the thread count is significantly lower.
Indeed, the quality of any sheet is based on far more than thread count, including factors such as the construction of the fabric and workmanship by the manufacturer.
What is ply and does it matter to thread count?
It's important to understand the difference between thread count and "ply." When talking about cotton fabric, ply is the number of strands in the yarn. Ply is not synonymous with thread count. However, some manufacturers artificially inflate the thread count of their bed sheets by multiplying a fabric's thread count by the number of plies, or strands, in the cotton yarn. This is unethical and artificially inflates the thread count number. A consumer may believe she is purchasing 600-thread count sheets when in reality, the sheets are 300 thread count made with two-ply yarn In the early 2000s, the Federal Trade Commission began to crack down on companies making these misleading claims.
What is Ply
A ply is the number of strands in a thread. A single ply yarn is a single strand made from strong long-staple cotton fibers. Fabric woven with a single ply yarn results in a light and breathable fabric, which in turn makes the finest, durable bedding.
A multiple-ply yarn is made from 2 or more strands, multi-ply yarns can result in thick sheets that may restrict airflow.
Cotton Single-Ply and Multiple-Ply Thread Count illustration
Does high thread count mean better quality?
For years thread count was considered a measure of quality. It was thought that the higher the thread count, the better the quality. Sheets that may have a high 900 thread count could have been constructed with 3-ply strands, in turn, making the sheets feel heavy and sometimes coarse. In fact, a sheet of a better-quality fiber with a lower thread count will feel softer and stand up to washing better than a sheet of a lower-quality fiber with a higher thread count the material it is woven from is what provides the most comfort.
Close-up of Cotton Single-Ply (300 thread count) and Multiple-Ply (900 thread count) illustration
Evaluate Cotton Bedding by Fiber, Finish and Feel
The first step in evaluating any luxury fabric is the quality of the cotton fiber. In general, the finer the natural fibers, the better the fabric. The world's finest cotton is grown on the banks of the Nile River in Egypt. Egyptian cotton is revered for yielding one of the longest staple (or fiber) cotton in the world. The longer the fibers, the more easily they can be spun into smoother, stronger, finer yarn or thread.
Next, you take a look at the craftsmanship involved in spinning, weaving, and finishingthe fabric. These steps determine the final texture, color, strength, stability, and softness of the fabric. At Fine Linen and Bath, we believe the European methods of manufacturing are superior to those used elsewhere in the world. The cotton weavers of Italy and Portugal pride themselves on adhering to strict environmental, ethical, and legal conditions in both their manufacturing process and their factories.
Lastly, consider feel. Ultimately, how a fabric feels to you is what matters most. Do you like the sleek, silk-like feeling of a sateen weave, or are you more partial to the smooth, crispness of a percale? Both sateen and percale weaves use the same cotton yarn; it's the weave that differentiates them. Weight also matters; do you like light sheeting, or do you prefer the feel of being swaddled in softness? It's all a matter of personal preference -- similar to choosing a hard or soft mattress -- and only you can decide. These factors are important to consider when starting your search for the perfect luxury sheet set, as we will discuss below.
How to shop for luxury sheets
When shopping for luxury sheets, ask yourself a few simple questions:
- Do you prefer crisp sheets or do you rather have a silky feel to your fabric?
- Are you looking for a pattern on your sheeting or would you prefer a solid color?
From here can begin to evaluate various collections that meet your needs, considering all factors including thread count. Below are four popular fabric sheeting styles.
For a crisp-like cotton sheet, closely woven percale sheeting is the best option. These are crisp mid- to high thread-count sheets made from cotton. This highly breathable material is a must for the summer bed and is incredibly cozy and durable for years of use. Percale, in general, is a bedroom standard, as it is soft and luxurious.
Known for its luster and drape, sateen feels a little thicker and more tightly woven than percale. While percale may be the perfect sheet for the summer months, sateen is definitely a warmer fabric choice for a winter bed. Sateen is silky and smooth to the touch and has a characteristically high sheen that makes it the perfect choice for bedrooms that have a heavy emphasis on luxury and romance.
Jacquard fabrics are created using a special technique that allows the maker to implement a design or pattern into the material. Jacquard is unique as it allows textural variety, making your sheets stand out as if they were printed with a three-dimensional pattern. In general, jacquard tends to be a crisp fabric that washes and dries well and can either have a flat look or a lot of sheen depending on the material.
In recent years, bamboo sheets have grown in popularity as an eco-friendly, sustainable option for luxury sheet buyers. The quality, softness, and comfort of bamboo bedding continues to improve as the fabric becomes more widely available.
How the Fabric Feels Matters Most
Lastly, consider feel. Ultimately, how a fabric feels to you is what matters most. Do you like the sleek, silk-like feeling of a sateen weave, or are you more partial to the smooth, crispness of a percale? Both sateen and percale weaves use the same cotton yarn; it's the weave that differentiates them. Weight also matters; do you like light sheeting, or do you prefer the feel of being swaddled in softness? It's all a matter of personal preference and only you can decide.
A word of caution about thread count
Focusing thread count alone leads to confusion and misunderstanding. In reality, it is only a small part of the equation, only relevant given other factors relating to the fabric's composition. Thread count can also artificially inflated by manufacturers who factor in the ‘ply" of multi-strand yarn. Finally, thread count won't tell you the quality of the fibers used to produce the yarns, how they are spun, woven or finished, and -- most importantly -- how the fabric feels.
At the end of the day, count sheep… not threads!