If you’ve ever shopped for bedsheets, you probably know that the phrase “thread count” refers to the number of threads per square inch, which is true. But you may assume that the higher the thread count, the smoother and “higher quality” the sheets, which absolutely is not—at least, not for most products on the market.
The entire concept of thread count is only useful for sheets made from single-ply cotton fabric; for any other material, it’s utterly meaningless. To understand why, you need to know a little bit about textiles, starting with what “single-ply cotton” means. The “ply” of a fabric refers to the number of individual strands (or “yarns”) twisted together to make each thread. A single-ply thread has one yarn, a double-ply thread has two, and triple-ply thread has three; therefore, single-ply cotton sheets are made of single-strand cotton threads. Here’s where thread count comes in: The finer the threads, the more of them you can fit into a woven fabric, and the smoother that fabric will feel. But at some point, it becomes impossible to make a single strand of cotton any finer, which means there’s a hard limit on how many threads you can weave together. For single-ply cotton, that limit is about 400-500 threads per square inch; if a set of “100% cotton” sheets touts a thread count any higher than that, someone’s lying to you.
For synthetic fabrics, the limit is much, much higher. In fact, some synthetics are designed to have the thinnest possible threads specifically to jack up the thread count for marketing purposes. On top of being ultra-thin, many synthetic fabrics are also multiple-ply, which some manufacturers use to further inflate the thread count. For example, if you use 3-ply thread, a set of 300 thread count sheets can suddenly become 900 thread count, which sounds a lot nicer on a label. (Thread counts aren’t regulated, so this is allowed.) And that’s just the ply—once you take the many different types of synthetic weaves (like stretchy “T-shirt” sheets or so-called “microfiber”) into account, thread count numbers can get even higher. This is why the vast majority of ultra-high thread count sheets are either polyester or a cotton-poly blend.
Synthetic sheets aren’t necessarily bad—for one thing, they tend to be more wrinkle-resistant than cotton—but the way they’re made stretches the definition of “thread count” to the point of uselessness. You just can’t use advertised thread counts as a point of comparison between different synthetic or blended fabrics because the numbers are fake. If you prefer a little stretch and wrinkle resistance in your sheets, your best bet is to read a lot of reviews and ask friends and family for recommendations—there’s just too much variance to go on marketing claims alone.
If you prefer cotton sheets, keep in mind that a high thread count doesn’t always mean a better product. Light, airy cotton percale, for example, is usually somewhere in the 100 thread count range—anything higher would defeat the purpose. Cotton sateen is denser and smoother, with a thread count somewhere between 250 and 400.
The bottom line: Unless you know what you’re looking for, thread counts are mostly a meaningless marketing tool—so don’t let them sucker you in. You don’t have to get a degree in textile design to buy bedsheets, but it does help to know a little bit about what you actually want so you can seek it out.
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