It's not just about thread count―learn what words are key when shopping for high-quality sheets.

By Christine Camean and Amanda Lauren
Updated May 31, 2019
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In the past, thread count was used as a measure of quality—the higher the thread count, the better the quality. However, that simply isn’t true anymore. High thread counts can certainly make for better sheets, but it's the thread that matters most. In fact, a sheet of a better-quality fiber with a lower thread count will feel softer and stand up to washing better than a sheet of a lower-quality fiber with a higher thread count. Here's what you pay for when you're buying sheets.

Fiber

Cotton-polyester blend sheets are wrinkle-resistant, durable (polyester lasts longer than cotton), and relatively inexpensive (up to half the cost of all-cotton). But if you're looking for that cool, soft feel, nothing beats 100 percent cotton. You'll hardly ever wake up clammy on cotton sheets, since the fiber wicks moisture away from your skin. And cotton sheets are less likely to stain than polyester blends; a water-loving fiber, cotton releases dirt easily when wet.

All types of cotton share these wonderful traits, but long-staple (or long-fiber) cotton makes for a noticeably softer sheet, and the surface won't pill and lint like one woven from shorter fibers. The words "Egyptian long-staple," "pima," and "Supima" all denote high-quality long fibers.

Weave

The weave affects the way a sheet feels, the way it looks, its longevity, and its price. Basic plain weaves, which are woven from an equal number of vertical and horizontal yarns, are least expensive and may not rate a mention on the label. Percale is an upscale plain weave with a thread count of 180 or higher and is known for its longevity and crisp feel.

Sateen weaves have more vertical than horizontal yarns. The higher proportion of vertical threads results in an extremely soft fabric, but one that is more apt to pill and tear than a plain weave. Intricate weaves, such as jacquards and damasks feel textured, with a pattern alternating from satiny soft to coarser and nubby. They can be as durable as plain weaves, but they are made on special looms and are considerably more expensive.

Finish

Most sheets are treated with chemicals (including chlorine, formaldehyde, and silicon) to keep them from shrinking, losing their shape, and wrinkling. Some are treated with alkalis to produce a sheen.

A handful of manufacturers offer pure-finish sheets, meaning that no chemicals were used or that all traces of chemicals used during manufacturing have been removed. You'll have a harder time keeping these sheets wrinkle-free, but it may be worth it if you suffer from allergies or chemical sensitivities. (Pure-finish sheets are available from Garnet Hill, garnethill.com.)

Dye

Patterns and colors are usually applied to sheets after they're woven, which means the sheets may feel stiff until you've washed them a few times. The softest (and most expensive) colored or patterned sheets, including jacquard weaves, are made of yarn-dyed fabrics, woven from colored yarns.

Thread Count

There isn’t really a best thread count for sheets. Depending on budget, aim for a thread count between 400 to 1000.

The highest thread count you should look for is 1000. Anything above that number is unnecessary and oftentimes lower quality. This is because manufacturers use thinner cotton to cram in as many threads as possible, increasing the ply, or amount of single threads twisted together.

Sheets that are 800 thread count are almost always double ply, meaning they are twice as thick as 400 thread count sheets. Double ply sheets are thicker and more durable, so they tend to last longer, justifying higher prices. They are also ideal if you sleep with pets. Another advantage of 800 thread count sheets is that they allow the body to retain more heat.

A thread count of 600 is the highest possible for single ply sheets. These sheets tend to be less expensive than 800 thread count. While comparably soft, they are often less durable. However, they are better at keeping the body cooler during the warmer months.

While 400 thread count sheets are the minimum you should look for, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re low quality. In fact, 400 thread count sheets made of premium quality material can feel as soft as higher thread count sheets, possibly even softer. Long staple cotton is an ideal fiber for sheets, but particularly for lower thread counts.

  • By Christine Camean
  • By Amanda Lauren