How to Buy the Perfect Bed Sheets

If you're only thinking thread count, you're missing the big picture.
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Manufacturers and retailers have brainwashed us into thinking about one thing when it comes to sheets: thread count. It’s as though luxury and comfort can be defined by just a single number. But while thread count is definitely a factor in what makes the best bed sheet, it’s far from the only thing. Here’s what you need to look at when you’re shopping for bed sheets.

The Fiber

Sheets can be made from a variety of materials, including cotton, polyester blend, silk, and linen. Each has its own advantages. 50/50 cotton-polyester blends are probably at the bottom of the totem pole. Though they are wrinkle-resistant and easy to wash at home, they are also relatively stiff. If you must opt for a blend, try a 60/40 split between cotton and polyester instead.

Silk sheets are often associated with luxury, and have a smooth feel that you can glide your fingers across. Silk is great for keeping in warmth during the colder winter months, so if you’re looking to bundle up, silk might be right for you. On the downside, however, silk demands dry cleaning. This might be fine if you already get a lot of dry cleaning done, but it may be an extra hassle otherwise.

Linen is light and airy, yet wear-resistant and can last for decades. Perfect for homes in the northeast or southern U.S.—or anywhere with a hot, humid climate—linen naturally wicks away heat and moisture to keep you feeling cool and comfortable even when the weather is sweltering hot.

All that being said, the mainstay material for the average consumer should probably be cotton. Nothing matches its cool, soft feel. But not all cotton is equal. Look for one of these two types: Pima or Egyptian cotton. Pima cotton is grown primarily in the Americas (“Supima” is a subset of Pima cotton grown in the U.S.) and is a high-quality cotton for sure, but Egyptian cotton really is the best in the world. Not only is it softer, but long-staple Egyptian cotton is less prone to forming lint, since the fibers are long and can be woven differently. When reading labels, make sure it states 100% pure Egyptian cotton, otherwise you might end up paying full price for just a few fibers of Egyptian cotton.

One other interesting material to consider is bamboo. While rare and probably not something you’d immediately think of as a material for bed sheets, it is soft like cotton yet also has some of the moisture-wicking properties of linen. If you’re looking for a premium material that’s also unique, bamboo sheets might be something to look into.

The Weave

While the fibers themselves form the foundation of how a set of sheets feel, the manner in which they are woven (i.e., the construction) has a big impact as well. The two most common weaves are percale and sateen. Percale is a basic weave, which means there are an equal number of alternating horizontal and vertical threads. This makes for a durable, if perhaps plain, sheet. (Note that percale refers to a tightly woven basic weave and is typically reserved for thread counts that are 180 and up. You might see muslin listed as a basic weave without these thread count requirements.) Sateen has a smoother feel to it, which is achieved by having more vertical threads than horizontal. This introduces a little extra softness, but also increases like the likelihood of pilling and tearing.

Other, fancier weaves include jacquards and damasks, which change the weaving pattern throughout the fabric so as to create a textured effect. Though this conveys no extra durability, it can help provide a more premium feel. Due to the extra effort and specialized equipment required, these weaves are often more expensive.

Perhaps just as important as the type of weave may be where the fabric is woven. Some experts believe Italian cotton weaving to be the pinnacle of textile craftsmanship, and while Italian-woven Egyptian cotton may carry a heftier price tag, they believe it to be worth it.

The Thread Count

Thread count plays a big role in the price of a set of bed sheets, but not always deservedly so. Ironically, it might be a more important number in cheaper sets made of cotton-polyester blends, as the high thread count will help ensure a (relatively) higher quality product and softer overall feel.

While people often confuse thread count as a way to measure softness, what it really tells you is how tightly the threads are woven. A sheet with a thread count of 180 has 180 threads in a 1 inch square area. While it is true that in the lower range, high thread count will mean improved softness (given that the same material is being used), at some point it becomes a matter of personal preference, and don’t rule out a placebo effect just from seeing a higher number on the label.

Set your sights on sheets with a thread count about 200 and then feel for yourself. Anything above that really comes down to what you feel suits you best.

The Fit

As obvious as it sounds, the fit of a bed sheet is something that, while vitally important, seems to get overlooked. If you’ve ever struggled to get a fitted sheet over your mattress, you know exactly the trouble a poor fit can cause. While mattresses come in standard dimensions (twin, full, queen, king, etc.), the depth can be a wildcard. With pillow-top and extra-deep mattress, you might find you have to size up when buying sheets. The easiest thing to do is measure your mattress in advance. Use to following guide to make sure your sheets can accommodate your mattress.

  • Standard: 7 − 9 inches
  • Deep: 10 − 15 inches
  • Extra Deep: 16 − 22 inches

The Finish

If you’re looking for patterns or colors in your bedsheets, you should know that dyes are usually added after the garment is completed, which can stiffen the fabric up until after a few washes. Some sheets are made with yarn-dyed fabric, which means that each individual yarn is dyed before being woven. Not only does this help retain the original softness of the cotton, but it also is a more durable dying process, so your colors won’t run the risk of fading as much over time.

A final consideration you should make is how your sheet is treated after it is made. Most sheets receive chemical treatments with chlorine, formaldehyde, or silcon. The purpose of these treatments is to reduce shrinkage, wrinkling, and warping. Alkali treatments can give sheets a desirable sheen. But it’s unclear how much of these chemical remain on the fabric, and you may decide that you’d rather avoid sleeping for 8 hours a night in something potentially toxic.

Pure-finish sheets are a subset of bedsheets that are either made without this chemical treating process, or have had all traces of chemicals removed after the fact. These can be especially valuable if you suffer from allergies or have certain chemical sensitivities. Organic sheets are also another option, as they use cotton grown without pesticides and are usually untreated as well. Each of these will add some expense, but it may be worth it.

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