What is thread count? Of all the factors that go into creating an amazing set of sheets, thread count seems to be the one that everyone talks about. But what is thread count anyway (technically, it’s the number of threads woven together in a square inch, a baseline devised by bedding industry insiders to help—and sometimes mislead—consumers looking to compare the quality of a sheet across brands, but more on that later), and how important is it really? Does a higher number automatically correlate to better sheets? In a word, no.
Thread count is to sheets what carats are to diamonds—a key but not the only factor when it comes to determining a perfect product. For bed linens, the four major aspects to consider, in order of priority, are cotton, ply, thread count, and weave, but that message gets lost in all of the fancy packaging touting thread count as the be all and end all. Here’s the low-down behind one of the industry’s most misleading concepts.
How is Thread Count Determined?
To determine thread count, manufacturers calculate the number of both vertical (warp) and horizontal (weft) threads woven together in a square inch. So 100 vertical threads plus 100 horizontal threads produce a thread count of 200. Easy—and helpful in the conventional sense. Consumers can compare thread counts across brands to determine value and find the bedding that’s right for them.
But according to exposés from New York Magazine and Consumer Reports, many manufacturers use “creative math” to inflate their numbers, advertising thread counts of 800, 1000, and 1200—and leading consumers to believe they are getting a luxury product when they aren’t. This allows manufacturers to sell degraded sheets disguised as quality ones, keeping their production costs down while upcharging for something no knowledgeable consumer would want and maximizing profits on the cheap. But here’s where that math falters.
Does a Higher Thread Always Mean A Softer, Better Product?
To get that higher number, as Consumer Reports explains, “manufacturers use thinner strands of fabric [known as plies] twisted together as if they were one. Then they double, triple, or even quadruple the thread count to make the number more attractive to the consumer.” In practice, this means that a single thread might be four plies twisted together; a reputable company would call that one thread, while one that is trying to cut corners would instead call it four. The truth is, thread count generally maxes out at 500 because there is a finite amount of thread that one can weave into a square inch. Anything higher is fiction.
Is there an Ideal Thread Count?
The logic behind why a higher thread count is better makes sense: all things being equal, higher thread counts require finer threads (the better to fit into a square inch), and the finer the threads you use, the softer, smoother, and more tightly woven (and thus, stronger) the fabric should be. But when you use multi-ply threads of lower-grade, shorter-staple cotton fibers twisted together, you get not only false strength but a rough, coarse feel (because the fibers tend to poke out of the weave) and less durability. When you look at it that way, a 400-thread-count sheet is a much better product than a 1,000-thread-count one. As the textile experts at Real Simple attest, “It's the thread that matters most. 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.” It will also let air flow through the weave, giving you superior breathability and allowing for a more comfortable sleep.
Other Factors to Consider When Shopping for Bedding
So what can you count on if not the thread count when shopping for luxury bedding? First, look for long-staple, single ply cotton with a thread count no higher than 500. Then choose the weave that’s right for you: percale feels cool and crisp, while sateen is exceptionally soft and smooth. But, that said, a good sheet is one that feels great to the touch, and that’s something only you can determine. After all, you’re the one who has to sleep on it.
The takeaway? Be wary of excessively high numbers, but also take all four factors into consideration when investing in sheets. A good rule of thumb for navigating around false advertising: always be suspicious of a super-high thread count being offered for an extremely low price. That 1,200-thread-count sheet set for $100 USD is likely not going to be the bargain you think it is. Like everything else in life, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.