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rumpled white sheets

We spend a third of our lives sleeping; it doesn’t make sense for our beds to be anything less than the best. And one of the key components of a comfy bed is quality sheets.

So when you want the highest-quality sheets, you go for the highest thread count, right? Not necessarily. Although it might be tempting to shell out for the 1200-thread count option, a 400-thread count might be just as good (or better). The truth is, there’s really no answer to the question: “What’s the best thread count for sheets?” because a high thread count can be achieved any number of ways—not all of them creating softness. If you think about it, this makes sense: an itchy raw wool that’s woven to a 800-thread count is never going to be as soft as a brushed cotton with the same weave.

So before you go shopping for the fanciest sheets you can afford, here’s what you need to know about thread counts.

Thread count refers to the total number of threads in a square inch.
This is taken by adding the number of vertical threads in the weave (the warp) to the number of horizontal threads in the weave (the weft), and there don’t have to be the same number of threads used in the warp and weft. So whether a sheet has 300 threads running from left to right and 200 threads running from top to bottom, or an even 250 in each direction, you still get 500-thread count sheets.

Thread counts can be fudged.
Two or more thinner threads can be twisted together before being woven, which means sheet manufacturers effectively get to double-count their weave. Double threads, for example, might be woven the same way they would be for 200-thread count sheets, but the sheets can be sold as 400-thread count because of this trick. Loose, unwoven fibers may also be inserted between the threads, bulking up the thread count—and the sheet’s density—without really being incorporated into the structure of the weave. These are both common practices, and not always unscrupulous, but they are proof that thread count should really be taken with a grain of salt.

You can really only fit so many natural fibers in a square inch.
One of the reasons those thread counts are so frequently fudged is because consumers have been taught that higher counts equal better sheets, and manufacturers have responded by continually raising those numbers. But think about how thin a thread must be in order to fit 1800 strands of it into a single square inch. Thread counts this high can really only be achieved with a weave that uses microfiber (thread with a diameter even smaller than silk’s), and microfiber cannot be spun using traditional methods, but rather is produced only in a lab. Though some microfibers do use natural materials (like wood pulp or bamboo), if you really want to keep your sheets natural, it’s not going to be possible to get a set of sheets with microfiber-level thread counts.

Materials matter.
As I mentioned above, an 800-thread count itchy wool blanket is still going to be an itchy wool blanket. Instead of focusing on the number of threads used in the sheets you buy, you should consider instead what kind of thread is in use. Cotton sheets are generally going to be softer than sheets made from synthetic materials, but not all cottons are created equally. Sheets made from Egyptian cotton are going to feel different from those labeled “100% cotton” (which usually indicates American upland cotton) because its fibers are longer and smoother. And pima (or Supima) cotton is less likely to pill than sheets made from upland cotton.

Good sheets improve over time anyway.
Have you ever had a set of high thread-count sheets start to pill on you after repeated washes? It’s not because they’re such high quality that the soft material is especially sensitive to damage. Rather, it’s because the lower-quality fibers used in the weave (or in the fill, as noted above) are starting to poke out from the weave. Sometimes, you’ll see the price on a set of sheets that feels buttery soft in the store and think it’s too good to be true—and it probably is. Even if the sheets don’t pill, they may become less soft as conditioners and waxes applied to the material for in-store appeal wash or rub off.

On the flip side, you might find that you pay good money for sheets and find them to be uncomfortable. But don’t give up! If the sheets were really worth the price you paid, you’ll find that after a few washes, they’ll soften up so much that you’ll never want to sleep in anything else.

Not all sheets even have thread counts.
Looking for flannel sheets to keep you warm and cozy during those long winter nights? Then you’re not going to be able to rely on a thread count when you’re trying to figure out quality. The same goes for sheets made from silk. Both of these sheets have their own weight-based measures for softness, and, like with traditional sheets, both also rely on other elements to determine their softness.

Not only that, but even manufacturers of upscale cotton bedsheets are shying away from listing thread counts on their products. Casper goes out of its way to emphasize that thread count is not the end-all for quality sheets before listing its count (400) well below the fold. Parachute doesn’t list thread counts for its sheets at all, and a search on their website for the words “thread count” sends you to a blog post de-emphasizing the importance of this number. And Purple flat-out refuses to list its thread count, saying that the calculation “doesn’t even make sense.”

So if premium sheet manufacturers have stopped worrying about what’s the best thread count for the sheets they make, maybe you should, stop worrying about what’s the best thread count for the sheets you sleep on.

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Jillian Ashley Blair Ivey

Jillian Ashley Blair Ivey

Jillian Ashley Blair Ivey is a Philadelphia-based writer, editor, and communications strategist. She has a BA in English from the University of Pennsylvania, an MFA in Creative Writing from Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey at Camden, and has published under her own byline at publications including DAME Magazine and The Frisky.
Jillian Ashley Blair Ivey

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