07 November 2010

Autumn re-runs: Roll me in designer sheets I'll never get enough

This post ran originally on 16 January 2010. Somebody asked me for a sheet recommendation this week and I knew I'd read something that cautioned about thread counts but for the life of my I couldn't remember what I read or where I found it. Well, it turns out that I read it on my own damn blog. Middle age is fun.

I love good sheets. I love white on white striped Damask sheets particularly. Like everybody else with a thing for good sheets I look at thread counts as some kind of an indicator of quality. Well, it turns out that thread counts don't tell a very accurate story about a particular sheet's quality. Who knew?

I had my bubble burst and my consciousness raised by an article I read on Linenplace.com. Linenplace sells amazing sheets of high quality, check them out if you are in the market for some self-indulgence.

The Truth About Thread Count

The high thread count story hit the bedding market in the mid to late 1990s and has since dominated all conversations about sheets.  Now over ten years later it's still the focus of questions asked the most by our customers. Honestly, we wish there was a simple answer. The truth is that it's just not that simple, thread count is one metric that should be looked at when considering sheets. At Linenplace, frankly, we don't even think it's the most important one.

Sheeting Quality Indicators

  • Fiber Quality
  • Yarn Size
  • Finishing
  • Thread Count & Construction

Fiber Quality:  100% cotton sheets are by far the most popular and widely used type of sheets. (We do also like silk, cotton/silk, modal and linen; but we’re going to focus on 100% cotton.) There is a huge variety in the quality of 100% cotton sheets. The highest quality cotton is long staple cotton. Staple refers to the length of the cotton fiber; the longer the fiber the better because it creates stronger and finer yarns. Among long staple cottons, the longest are Egyptian extra long staple and Pima (sometimes called Supima).

Yarn Size:  The fineness of each yarn is what the term yarn size refers to - the higher the yarn size, the finer the yarn.  (think of men’s suiting where they often speak of 100s wool etc)  Finer yarns allow for lighter, more supple fabric. The yarn size in quality sheets is typically between 40 and 100. Up to 120s may be used also, but are pretty rare (and the resulting product very expensive). Higher thread counts are created with finer yarns, as more of them can be woven into a square inch.  Also, super fine yarns can be twisted together, creating 2 ply yarns that can then be woven into sheeting.  When 2 ply yarns are made with a very high yarn size, they make a nice product that is not at all weighty or blanket-like.

Finishing:  After the cotton yarns are woven into a fabric, the fabric needs to be finished.  This includes singeing and mercerizing.  The singeing process is vital; it burns off the tiny fuzz that can later develop into pilling on your sheets.  Mercerizing is a treatment conducted under tension, in order to increase strength, luster, and affinity for dye.  Bed linens of lesser quality may not be singed or mercerized.

Thread Count & Construction:  Thread count is simply the number of threads per square inch of fabric. These consist of vertical threads (warp) and horizontal threads (weft) woven together.  Construction refers to how the thread count is achieved (# of warp and weft yarns, # of picks in the weft, use of 2 ply yarns etc.) To achieve higher thread counts, sometimes 2 ply yarns are used and sometimes multiple yarns (picks) are inserted into the weft.  The FTC has ruled that plied yarns should each only be counted as one thread for the purposes of thread count. This is not enforced, but in response the market has moved more toward single plies with multiple picks as the preferred method of achieving higher thread counts. In weave quality terms alone, the best fabric would be made with single ply yarns and have a single pick; but the highest thread count you can get with this type of construction is about 400. Above that, 2 ply yarns and/or multi-picks must be used.

The buzz about "single ply" in the last five years or so, was a reaction to customers feeling cheated by the concept of 2 ply. (meaning a 300 thread count construction made with 2 ply yarns and called a 600 thead count) But the "single ply" concept has its own problems, as stated above. Sheets made with "single ply" yarns but with 6 to 8 picks do not necessarily result in the best feeling or highest quality weave --but they do achieve the higher thread count in a way deemed more correct by international standards and the FTC.

In a quality product, the incremental comfort value of thread counts over 300 is very little.  A 300 thread count can feel far superior to a 1000 thread count.  Thread count has become a simple metric used by marketing people to capture interest and impress with high numbers.  The problem with mass produced high thread count sheets is that to keep the price down, important elements of quality must be sacrificed, meaning in the end the customer gets a product with an impressive thread count but that probably feels no better (or even worse) than something with a lower thread count.

How does this happen?

  • Weaving with 2 ply yarns that do not have a high enough yarn size so the end product feels heavy and blanket-like.
  • Inserting multiple yarn threads (picks) into the weft.  These are often visible to the naked eye.  We’ve heard of as many as 8.  This practice increases the thread count but otherwise really has no practical or useful purpose. Depending on the number of picks and yarn size used it can also make the product feel heavy.

There is no simple answer to the thread count, ply and pick game; there are thousands of combinations that will make a beautiful product. We've seen excellent examples of every type of construcion (thanks to quality fiber, yarn size and finishing). Keep in mind that with higher thread counts, price and quality do tend to go hand in hand. An extremely high thread count sheet at a very low price is exactly what it sounds like: too good to be true. This is not to say that you have to spend a small fortune for quality sheets - just don't fall into the thread count trap. Unfortunately, a lot of companies don't make it easy to be well informed. At Linenplace, we do our best to present you with all the information you need to find the product that's right for you. We would like to encourage our customers to focus less on thread count and more on the other quality indicators (fiber quality, yarn size, finishing and construction).  We believe you will get a better, more comfortable product that truly represents quality and value.

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  1. I'll be damned. I thought thread count was all I needed to know. I had no idea you could make a 300-thread sheet with 2-ply thread and pass it off as 600-thread. But I guess in the end you're really at the mercy of the people manufacturing the product. If they're not honorable, they're not, and nothing they say about the finished product can be trusted.

  2. It's yet one more reason to look at apparent bargains with a critical eye.


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