Demystifying thread counts

Cotton Incorporated logo

Cotton Incorporated

The Cotton Research and Promotion Act of 1966 in the United States enabled the establishment of Cotton Incorporated to promote the use of cotton. The company issued the following press release in January 2006.

Demystifying thread count:
what to consider when buying sheets

Over the past few years, the notion of thread count has become increasingly influential in consumers’ sheet purchases. According to Cotton Incorporated’s Lifestyle Monitor™ survey, 29% of consumers surveyed in 2001 cited thread count as the most important element influencing the sheets they bought. That number rose to 34% in 2005. Ironically, thread count and its role in the overall feel and comfort of sheets, is often misunderstood by these same consumers. To demystify thread count and sheet selection in general, Cotton Incorporated offers the following explanations and recommendations:

What is thread count?

Technically speaking, thread count is the number of threads, both vertical and horizontal, in a one-inch square of fabric. “What many consumers don’t realize is that thread count is affected by a number of factors, including the ply and the thickness of the threads used” explains Dana Poor, home trend forecaster for Cotton Incorporated.

Do one and one equal two … or one?

Ply refers to how many threads are wrapped together into a single thread. Single-ply fabrics, for example, use threads on their own, while two-ply fabrics are formed by two pieces of thread twisted together. And herein lies the confusion: Should a two-ply fabric’s threads be counted as one, single thread; or as two, individual threads? Or, more practically speaking, are those 600 thread count sheets truly 600 single-ply threads-per-inch, or are they 300 double-ply threads-per-inch?

Do the numbers matter?

The short answer is, no. The numbers don’t matter – at least not on their own. Another crucial element to the quality of a sheet is the thickness of the threads being used. “Using finer threads lets more thread fit into that one square-inch measure” states Dana Poor. “Finer thread generally creates smoother, softer fabrics, and is part of the reason why high thread count fabrics are considered more desirable.” Finer threads also create a more delicate fabric. Sheets made of a two-ply fabric are stronger and more durable, but usually heavier.

What are some other factors?

While it has become common to select sheets based exclusively on thread count, it is important to take other considerations into account. Dana Poor elaborates “The thing that I would stress is that high thread count should not be someone’s only barometer for buying a set of sheets. Thread count on its own does not convey many of the factors that comprise the end product.” For example, how the cotton is treated can be a much more decisive factor in comfort and overall feel than the thread count of a fabric, as can the final finishing of the fabric. Another key factor is weave. Some of the more commonly-used weaves in bed sheets are:

Percale: a closely woven, plain weave, spun fabric made from both carded and combed cotton. Percale sheeting is the finest available. The high tread count gives the fabric a silk-like feel.

Flannel: a soft, medium weight plain or twill weave fabric, usually made of cotton with a napped finish on one or both sides. The raised surface provides a fluffy appearance and super soft, cozy feel. Great for warmth during the cold winter months.

Jersey: a plain stitch knitted cloth. The fabric is knitted in circular, flatbed or warp knitted methods. Very elastic with good draping qualities.

Sateen: a weave construction that has more yarn surface on the face of the cloth than other basic weaves giving a softer hand and more lustrous look.

The look … the feel …

“At the end of the day, the best sheets you can buy are the ones that you think look good in your bedroom and that feel comfortable against your skin” says Dana Poor. “I can’t stress enough the value of actually touching the sheets before buying them.” These days, most of the better bedding retailers incorporate sheet samples within store displays for that very purpose.

One thing remains true, consumer studies have found that the majority of people want 100% cotton sheets. Nature has given cotton attributes that make it a smother, softer and more comfortable choice. It’s breathable, so cotton sheets never feel sticky against your skin.

Cotton bed sheets also provide year-round comfort. The fibre provides cool comfort in the summer and holds a layer of warm air in the cold weather.