Consumers equate a higher thread count, which is the number of vertical and horizontal threads in each square inch of fabric, with better quality sheets. However, there are other important factors that affect comfort and durability, such as the type of weave, number of plies in each thread and type of cotton.
The term percale refers to a standard over-under weave that has a thread count of at least 280, which adds a crisp feeling to cotton. The term sateen refers to a weave that cross over four threads to create a lustrous sheet and smoother feel. If you see sheets labeled twill, this means they have a diagonal weave pattern that makes them heavier and less likely to wrinkle. More intricate weaves, such as damask and jacquard, give the sheets a textured feeling but add to the cost (partly because the threads are dyed before they are woven).
In 2007, Bed Bath & Beyond lost a class action suit for labeling sheets with an inflated thread count by including the number of plies in each thread. Although the listed thread count should indicate the true number of yarn strands, the number of plies has an effect on strength and feel. Sheets made with two-ply threads are apt to be stronger but stiffer, while sheets made with single-ply threads are softer.
When buying cotton sheets, experts say the type of cotton affects the feel and cost. The term combed cotton means that shorter fibers have been removed to make the sheets feel smoother and make them less likely to pill. Bed sheets with longer cotton fibers, referred to as long-staple, also have these benefits. This type of cotton requires a longer growing season, like that found along the Nile River (Egyptian cotton) or in Arizona (pima or supima cotton). Bed sheets that are labeled as "organic cotton" were not treated with chemicals during the growing or manufacturing processes. Bed sheets that are made from a blend of cotton and polyester may be stronger and less likely to wrinkle, but you lose the softness and natural stain resistance of 100 percent cotton.
Sheets are a fairly simple piece of fabric, yet buying them and feeling happy with the decision after a few washings can be like an elusive dream. Either the fabric that felt fabulous in the store suddenly starts to pill, or the corners of the fitted sheet keep popping off. With quality queen sheet sets often costing $100 and up, you want them to last at least a few years without tearing or fading.
Experts say to start with a good fit. Measure the depth of your mattress, including the mattress cover, and buy a cotton fitted sheet that's at least 2 inches deeper to allow for shrinkage. Sheets made of other materials that won't shrink, should be at least 1 inch deeper.
The next buying consideration is the type of fabric. Cotton is the most popular choice, but there are plenty of other materials. Polyester is a synthetic fiber that may be blended with cotton or used to create satin sheets or microfiber fleece sheets. Polyester doesn't breathe like cotton, and it won't absorb moisture as well. Modal (from the pulp of beech trees) or rayon (from bamboo) may also be blended with cotton. Silk is a natural material that feels luxurious, but it must be dry cleaned, and it's very expensive.
If you want to buy flannel or jersey-knit sheets, which may be 100 percent cotton or a cotton blend, you won't have a thread count or weave to guide you. Flannel is brushed on one or both sides of the fabric to create a fluffy texture that feels cozy. Experts say high-quality flannel should have a weight of at least 4 ounces per square yard and preferably 5 ounces or more. Jersey is knitted, rather than woven, which gives it a stretchy quality.
Experts offer the following buying advice for bed sheets: