In the world of bed linens, the term “thread count” refers to the number of threads woven together in one square-inch of fabric, and conventional wisdom has held that the higher the number, the greater the luxury. Unfortunately, it seems as though we've been misled about the importance of thread count.
The Truth Behind Thread Count
Because literally no person ever thought there could be any sort of drama in the world of bed linens, nobody thought to ask questions, and accepted the thread count lie without so much as a bat of an eye. No one even wondered if it was scientifically possible to fit over thousand threads into a single square inch of fabric. It’s not! The maximum number of threads that can fit in that amount of space is around 400; any more and the fabric would be stiff like cardboard, and similarly foldable.
How Does Thread Count Actually Work?
So how are bed linen manufacturers able to sell 600+ thread count sheets if they don’t actually exist? By using multi-ply thread, and getting creative with counting. Textile manufacturers are able to transform weak, low-quality fibers into thread by twisting strands them together, and as the number of strands go up, the stronger—and coarser—the thread becomes.
To inflate their thread counts, some bed linen companies will count each strand as its own individual thread. So, an 800-count sheet is actually a 400-count sheet, but made with two-ply thread, and a 1200-count sheet is one made with three-ply. Ironically, this means that most high thread count sheets can be made of inferior materials, and their thick, coarse threads are not as soft, or comfortable, as the ones used in low-count sheets. You know, the ones you were told were no good. The ones you haven’t been buying for years because you were hoodwinked. That stops today!
What to Consider When Buying Sheets
When buying sheets, focus on the quality of the thread — not the quantity. Even though multi-ply thread is thicker, its short fibers will break down quicker than the long, durable fibers in single-ply threads. Fabrics woven from single-ply thread — even if made from synthetic materials — produce sheets that are soft, luxurious, and built to last.
As for thread count, the best sheets will fall in the 300-400 range — or, in some instances, zero. You see, not all fabrics are manufactured the same way, and some — like breathable (and sustainable!) bamboo fiber sheets — are woven in a way that doesn’t conform with the traditional concept of thread count doesn’t exist. So, if thread count doesn’t matter, what does? It’s all about the feel of the fabric.
All fabrics have different distinct qualities that are suited for a wide range of preferences. Pure, high-quality, single-ply cotton thread can be woven in different ways to produce sheets with dramatically different textures, like smooth and luxurious sateen, crisp and breathable percale, and warm and cozy flannel.
Not all cotton threads are created equal, though, so look for high-caliber varieties like combed cotton, Egyptian cotton or Pima cotton, which are extremely durable. But cotton sheets are not the only fabric on the market, and they’re not always the best choice, since they’re known for retaining moisture, and aren’t as breathable as many synthetic fabrics.
For sheets that will keep you cool and dry, blends made from silk, polyester, or Tencel might be more up your alley. And if you’re looking for softness and sustainability, it’s hard to beat the aforementioned bamboo, which are durable, breathable, easy to clean, and hypoallergenic.