Over the last couple of years, thread count has become an important factor to consumers planning to purchase bedding. Many consumers take thread count at face value. In fact, consumers now relate thread count to quality, elevating the term to a status symbol of sorts. Interestingly, the term “thread count” has an official textile definition. Cotton Incorporated’s Norma Keyes offers explanations about the industry term, its definition and application to consumers’ understanding about thread count, and recommends additional factors that should be addressed when choosing quality bedding.
Thread Count Re-Defined
Traditionally, thread count has been a term used by weaving manufacturers and technical textile experts to signify the number of strands of yarn per inch for each direction of a woven fabric construction; each fabric direction, length (warp or ends) and width (filling or picks) are reported separately. Definitions for the yarns terms and how to count yarns in a woven fabric are specified in American Society for Testing Materials International (ASTM) textile standards.
Historically, U.S. sheet manufacturers have described woven sheets by adding the number of length and width yarns together. For example, a 400 thread count percale sheet would describe a sheet fabric that has 220 yarns in the width direction and 180 yarns in the length direction. The practice to combine the number of single yarns in an inch in the length and width directions is maintained even when plied yarns (two yarns are wrapped together to make one strand) began being used in sheet manufacturing years ago. This practice to add the length and width yarns and consider plied yarns or threads (not to be confused with sewing threads) specifically for sheets was practiced but not officially defined in standards until recently. The ASTM D13.63 Home Furnishing Sub-Committee defined thread count specific only to woven textiles used in sheets and bedding in its terminology standard D7023 in 2006. This standardization was necessary to address a different interpretation for imported sheets in accordance with the U.S. Customs and Border Control’s enforcement of the Harmonized Tariff Act that has woven fabric descriptors using the full width of the fabric and total yarns per cm2 that allowed for the use of plied yarns to be counted as two yarns. ASTM has also added the U.S. Tariff terms and definitions to its official terminology document.
This difference contributed to consumers’ confusion about bedding thread count and the assumption that higher thread count equated to better quality. Many consumers take thread count at face value without understanding that it is affected by a number of engineering factors, including the ply and the yarn number of the yarns used to make woven fabric. In general, a higher sheet “thread count” is likely to mean “better quality” if one equates “more is better” but other factors may also influence the overall quality if one sheet is made from yarns from different spinning systems, fiber lengths, fiber content, yarn numbers, woven constructions (percale, sateen, jacquard), and different processing. There have been cases where sheets have been “over constructed” in that too many yarns have been jammed into a fabric construction but some expected aesthetics such as hand and appearance may have been compromised.
You Get What You Pay For
While it has become common to select sheets based exclusively on thread count, it is important to take other considerations into account. According to the Cotton Incorporated’s Lifestyle Monitor™, the top three factors shoppers consider in buying sheets, besides size and fit are softness, durability and price.
“The thing that I would stress,” says Keyes. “Is that thread count should not be the only factor for buying a set of sheets. It is important to actually explore the overall quality of the product and find the best product suited for you and your family and your pocketbook.”
Another important 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 thread 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 supper 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
“I can’t stress enough the value of actually touching the sheets before buying them,” explains Keyes “Most of the better bedding retailers incorporate sheet samples within store displays for that very purpose.”
Cotton Incorporated’s Lifestyle Monitor™ research indicates that consumers prefer 100% cotton sheets. When given a choice between a 100% cotton sheet and a cotton-polyester, both with the same wear life, 76% of consumers said they would buy the 100% cotton sheet, because it was softer and breathed better. Cotton bed sheets also provide year-round comfort. The fiber provides cool comfort in the summer and holds a layer of warm air in the cold weather. Consumers can be sure they are purchasing 100% sheets by looking for products that feature the Seal of Cotton trademark.
Cotton Incorporated, funded by U.S. growers of upland cotton and importers of cotton and cotton textile products, is the research and marketing company representing upland cotton. The Program is designed and operated to improve the demand for and profitability of cotton.