Admit it: you've been caught by marketing speak before. Whether it was a sudden urge to treat yourself to a delicious looking snack after watching an advert or an impulse buy of another scented candle that you didn't really need but it swore it was different to all your other dust-gathering candles.
Well, this time we're saying no more. No more spending more because of marketing speak - especially when it comes to bed sheets. Understanding the difference between bamboo vs. cotton bed sheets is downright kid's play compared to figuring out what the heck thread count is and why it's important.
Come with us as we explore the most mystical of marketing arts - thread count.
What is thread count?
Thread count is the number of horizontal and vertical threads woven together on a piece of cotton. Which basically means it's a measure of how tightly woven fabric is. The lower the thread count, the lighter and more breathable the sheet is. The higher the thread count, the heavier and cosier. The thread count is intended to give you an idea of the softness and feel of your new sheets.
Although it's often sold that high thread count sheets are the best bed sheets that's simply not true.
- It's easy for manufacturers to inflate thread counts for starters (more on that below).
- Different countries and different manufacturers use different area sizes. Although traditionally it's been threads per square inch, some manufacturers use centimetres. There's no industry standard.
- Manufacturers don't have to explain how they've calculated the thread count so it's not a reliable way of measuring quality.
How thread count can be inflated
There's a limit to how many threads can be crammed into a small area without making a super dense, thick, unbreathable sheet. So, how do manufacturers get away with it?
Normally, by using multi-ply threads and counting each strand of yarn as a separate thread.
[Daniel, Sleep Junkie article has a great diagram we could recreate and include here. Far easier to understand]
A 300 thread count is achieved by having 150 vertical threads and 150 horizontal threads.
But to get counts in the 600, 800 and 1,000 range, manufacturers use 2- or multi-ply threads.
A 900 thread count can be achieved by having 150 vertical 3-ply threads and 150 horizontal 3-ply threads. Technically that gives you a 300 thread count but manufacturers multiple it by 3 because they're using 3-ply threads. Sneaky.
A 1,000 thread count sheet (it's high! It must be good!) would actually need to have 500 threads weaved vertically and 500 horizontally. That would make a dense, thick sheet. So, we can assume that it has multi-ply threads. Yes, it has a high thread count but the thread quality isn't going to be the best.
The problem with multi-ply threads
Ply is the number of yarns in every individual thread. One-ply threads have 1 strand of yarn per thread, 2-ply has 2 strands. Multi-ply threads contain more than 2 strands of yarns per thread.
To fit more than 2 strands of yarn into a thread, multi-ply yarns have smaller threads. This means they're not as durable, so your sheets won't last as long.
Plus, you're not getting any extra threads, just extra ply. And that doesn't have much impact on how comfortable and cosy your sheets are.
Look for 1- or 2-ply threads to get the best quality fabric for your sheets.
The ideal thread count
When shopping for sheets, our research shows that:
- Single-ply thread counts can get up to around 400 - 500.
- Higher than that, manufacturers have to use 2-ply thread. That's still ok although not as durable as single-ply.
- 800 - 1,000 thread counts mean manufacturers have probably used multi-ply threads, which are less durable with a shorter lifespan - yet more expensive.
- In short, bed sheets with a thread count of around 400 should be good quality and comfortable. Going up to a thread count of 800+ won't get you a better quality sheet but will probably cost you more.
Quality factors that aren't thread count
Thread count only tells you how many threads are used in your new bed sheets, not about the quality and feel. For that, you also need to consider material and yarn (and its quality) and the type of weave.
- Generally speaking, natural materials, like cotton and bamboo, are better than synthetic options, like polyester. That's because natural materials are more breathable. If thread count is the most important quality factor, it would make sense that a 400 thread polyester sheet would feel as comfortable as a 400 thread cotton sheet. However, plenty of sleepers will tell you that's not true.
- Quality of the yarn is important too. Dig into the manufacturer's supply chain, quality processes and reputation.
- Egyptian cotton sheets are known for their quality. It's luxurious, soft and durable.
- Sateen and percale are ways cotton is woven and they impact on how bed sheets feel.
- Sateen sheets have yarns in 1 direction that float over several yarns in the opposite direction. They tend to be soft and luxurious but pill and wrinkle more than Egyptian cotton.
- Percale sheets are closely woven in a basic, grid-like weave. It feels light, smooth and crisp.
When thread count doesn't matter
Thread count is most important when it comes to 100% cotton, single-ply weaves only. There, we said it.
There's no point looking at thread count when it comes to:
- Multiple-ply threads. The more the ply, the more over-inflated the thread count.
- Polyester or blends, like microfibre. Man-made fibres can be manufactured to be super thin so their thread counts can be in the thousands. For microfibre sheets, they're measured in weight (grams per square metre).
- Linen or silk. You can't compare linen or silk fibres to cotton. Linen is thick so the thread count is low. Silk is so thin it's normally measured by weight.
- Flannel and knit fabrics. Although they might be made from cotton, you won't typically see thread counts associated with flannel and knit. That's because flannel sheets are sold by weight and jersey knit sheets are constructed completely differently to woven sheets.
What's the best thread count for sheets?
If after all this you're still keen to check out thread count, our research suggests that the best thread count for sheets is around 400 for 100% single-ply cotton.
A high thread count doesn't mean a high quality sheet. To help you choose the best bed sheets for you, you're better off considering the material (natural tends to be better than synthetic) and weave. The best way to do this? Give your potential new sheets a quick feel. If you're buying online, read reviews, like our hands-on Bed Threads one, to understand how soft they are.