Does the Thread Count Really Matter in Sheets?

Learn how high thread counts can be used to trick you into buying more expensive but less comfortable sheets

Young woman making bed at home

Don’t let anyone tell you thread count does not matter when shopping for sheets. Thread count does matter – just not for the reasons you might think.

Since the mid-1990s, bed linens manufacturers have marketed high-thread count sheets as the top of the line in bedding. Higher thread counts mean higher prices, which consumers happily pay believing they are buying top quality sheets with thread counts of 750, 800, 1000, or even higher.

The truth is those pricey high-thread count sheet might be even lower quality and less comfortable than sheets with much lower thread counts. Why? Because those seductively high numbers on the packaging are, like most temptations, deceptive. Stick around to see what we mean.

What is thread count?

Thread count is the number of vertical and horizontal threads (warp and weft) in one square inch of fabric. That means 250-thread count sheets have 125 vertical threads and 125 horizontal threads per square inch. Generally, a higher thread count produces a more substantial, softer sheet. But there’s a limit.

Consumers should be suspicious of sheets claiming 600-thread count or higher.  According to Consumer Reports textile expert, Pat Slaven, “Now you see 1,000-thread count sheets, but you just can’t get that many threads on a loom.” In fact, looms can only handle 400 threads per square inch. So how do sheet manufacturers achieve those impressive thread counts?

Consumers should be suspicious of sheets claiming 600-thread count or higher.

Thread Count Explained by hayneedle.com
Thread Count Explained by hayneedle.com

When 600 doesn’t equal 600

There are two ways to increase thread count that do nothing to improve the quality of sheets. 

1. Multi-ply threads

Those deceptively high thread counts result from a manufacturing process that twists two or more plies together to form one strand of yarn. By counting plies rather than threads, they claim thread counts that are double, triple, or even quadruple the true count of threads per square inch.

Yarn thread explained by solorganix.com
Yarn thread explained by solorganix.com

In 2005, the Federal Trade Commission provided the opinion that textile manufacturers use honest labeling by counting only actual threads rather than each ply forming the threads. That would mean that packaging claiming 600+ thread count sheets would be impossible to justify. So why do we still see high thread count sheets? See #2.

By counting plies rather than threads, they claim thread counts that are double, triple, or even quadruple the true count of threads per square inch.

2. Multiple yarns

To get around the FTC ruling, manufacturers can insert multiple yarns (picks) into the weft, which boosts the thread count without improving the quality of the sheets or the “hand” — the way the fabric feels.

In addition, manufacturers using multiple plies can get by with using lower quality fibers because of the combined strength of the plies. That means those high-thread count sheets you paid dearly for may very well be lower quality and feel less comfortable than sheets with much lower thread counts that accurately describe the fabric.

What is a consumer to do?

Thread count is not the only measure of quality. Fortunately, there are several other factors besides thread count shoppers can look for to determine the quality of sheets.

Type and quality of fiber

100% cotton sheets are by far the most popular bed linens. There are reasons for this popularity. Cotton is breathable, soft, and durable. The type of cotton is just as important as the fabric itself. High-quality cotton has extra-long fibers (called long-staple fibers) that can be spun into fine, strong yarns. Extra-long-staple cotton results in sheets that are smoother and softer than short-staple cotton.

Extra-long-staple cottons include:

  1. Egyptian
  2. Pima
  3. Supima®

True Egyptian cotton is grown in the Nile River Valley and yields extremely soft and supple sheets. Unfortunately, the Cotton Egypt Association, which licenses the trademark and certifies suppliers, estimates that 90% of products in America labeled “Egyptian cotton” are actually grown in China or India and are of lower quality.

Pima and Supima® cottons are grown in the American Southwest and share Egyptian cotton’s smooth softness, so they are safer choices. Martha Stewart warns that sheets labeled only “100% cotton” are probably made from American Upland cotton, which can range from short- to long staple and is usually lower quality than Egyptian, Pima, or Supima®.  

The Cotton Egypt Association estimates that 90% of products in America labeled “Egyptian cotton” are actually grown in China or India.

Ply

Sheets made from 2- or more ply cotton are often made from lower quality fibers and result in a less durable, less comfortable sheet. Single-ply, extra-long-staple cotton yields a smoother, softer hand, will increase in softness with every wash, and will last longer.

Weave

The most common weaves for sheets are percale and sateen. Both are good quality weaves and choosing between them comes down to personal preference. People who prefer cool, crisp sheets should look for percale. Choose sateen if you like your sheets soft, silky, and smooth.

The bottom line

The best sheets are made from extra-long staple, single-ply cotton with a thread count of 300 – 400. Expect to pay considerably more for true high thread count and higher quality cotton sheets. But considering you spend about a third of your life in bed, and the quality of your sleep depends on your comfort, and your health and well-being depend on a good night’s sleep, the return on your investment will be worth it.

Still confused about thread count? Don’t worry. You’re not alone. Drop us a line, and we’ll be happy to answer your questions.