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Luxury Linens: Why Thread Count Doesn’t Equal Better Sheets

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May 15, 2015
Buying Better Sheets: Thread count and other myths debunked

Apparently, we’ve all been duped: Thread count in luxury sheets doesn’t matter much.

Thread count is only one metric that should be considered when looking at sheets, and it’s really not the most important one, according to bedding experts. Beginning in the mid-1990s, thread count took on a life of its own, equated with a higher-quality sheet on the assumption that the more thread used, the denser and smoother the fabric. 

But Scott Tannen, founder of luxury organic bedsheet maker Boll & Branch, says to ignore the buzzwords.

The Truth Behind Thread Count

“What happened is like with most things, people started taking advantage of it,” says Tannen, whose sheet sets sell for some $240 each. “They came up with a way to make the threads thinner and multiply cotton thread, which is really low quality. Now they can say it’s 800-thread count, but it’s really 200-thread count, [using] a four-ply cotton so they can call it 800-thread count,” he says.

Here’s how that works: Thread count is the number of threads woven into one square inch of fabric, counting both vertical (warp) and horizontal (weft) threads. But only so much thread can fit in each square inch. To increase the thread count, manufacturers have thinned down the strands that are twisted together to create the ply, as Tannen notes. If they use a four-ply thread and weave it into a 200-thread count, that’s 100 horizontal and 100 vertical threads in a square inch, so they count it as an 800-thread count sheet.

However, thinner strands don’t hold up well, so the quality of that 800-thread count sheet is poor.

So, what should you look for? Julian Tomchin, who’s been counting threads and all else in linens for more than 45 years for some of the U.S.’s biggest manufacturers and department stores, has simple advice: “Once you get beyond 400 threads per square inch, be suspicious,” he told the New York Times. By most expert accounts, a 300-count single ply is well worth slipping into after a hard day’s work. It will be soft, durable, and of good quality.

Most experts think cotton is a wise choice for its softness and breathability. But don’t be fooled by the term “Egyptian cotton.” That doesn’t necessarily mean it was grown in Egypt. Instead, it’s a variety of the cotton plant, in this case extra long staple, which can be grown in many regions of the world. It’s a go-to choice, but be sure you’re getting the real thing. Tannen says fashionable brand names in department stores are often just licensing agreements and primarily boost cost, not quality. Pima is another favorite, versus synthetic materials that don’t breathe well and will get hot as you sleep.

The Touchy-Feely Test

To find high-quality sheets, get hands on.

“You can’t tell a good set of sheets until you feel them,” Tannen says. “Pull it out of the package, or look at the sample on the floor. Look at the stitching. Is it tight? Is it neat? Although a lot of products are machine-made, if the craftsmanship looks good, that’s a sign of a product that will last.”

Very high-end luxury sheets will have fine and very detailed stitching that will often be done by hand, he says. “Some of the thread they use may be similar to what are used in men’s suits,” he adds.

For another quality check, wash the sheets before using them—just in case you want to return them. If manufacturers have applied polishes, waxes, or other substances that can up the luster of the sheet, it will wash off. Poorly made sheets will also begin to pill or pull apart.

Companies using certified organic cotton, which is grown and harvested without synthetic pesticides, are also entering the luxury bedding market. In addition to Boll and Branch, companies like Coyuchi and Portico make high-end linens out of organic cotton and environmentally friendly fibers, and pay cotton farmers fairly for their best product.

Portico’s products are found in the Hyatt hotel chain, with its Genius sheets in Hyatt’s VIP suites. The bedding is made of certified organic cotton, says Marci Zaroff, president of Portico and Under the Canopy brands. Portico’s sheet sets sell for $80. To make their sheets luxury-soft, Zaroff says they have a propriety blend of 70% cotton and eucalyptus fiber they call “ECOlyptus.”

“By blending the cotton and the eucalyptus we get that super rich, soft, yummy silky feeling,” she says.

These earth-friendly and sumptuous linens may help anyone sleep a little more soundly at night. 

Good Sleep Is Big Business

From frame to mattress to top sheet, you can research stocks that track the bedding industry and consumer companies that may fit your investment goals.