Note: This information is only relevant for cotton sheets, other materials are drastically different in characteristics for quality.

Did you know that the highest thread count you can get with cotton sheets is 400? If you didn’t know, then let’s have a quick chat about thread counts, especially with regard to cotton sheets. 

While a number of factors go into making an exceptionally soft and comfortable set of sheets, most people just seem to be fixated on the thread count. 

But what really is thread count, and is it as important as people make it out to be? Does a higher thread count equate to better, softer sheets?

The truth is, thread count is only important to a certain extent. To get your hands on a good set of sheets, you need to look for things other than the thread count, too. 

Is thread count a gimmick?

Simply put, thread count is the number of threads (both vertical and horizontal) woven together within one square inch. So if a square inch has 100 vertical threads (known as warps) and 100 horizontal threads (known as wefts), the thread count is 200. 

While thread count was initially designed to help consumers compare the quality of bed linens from different brands, today, it is often used to mislead consumers.

According to Consumer Reports and New York Magazine, manufacturers manipulate and inflate their numbers and advertise thread counts as high as 1200, which tricks consumers into believing they’re getting luxurious linen when they really aren’t. As a result, manufacturers get the leeway they need to sell degraded or poor-quality sheets disguised as quality ones. This way, they keep production costs down and maximize profits. 

But the truth is, thread count is not the only important factor that determines the perfect bedsheet. When it comes to bed linens, cotton and ply are more important than thread count. Plus, you need to account for the weave, too. Unfortunately, most people get lost in the thread count and end up with a less-than-satisfactory product.  

Does a higher thread count mean better, softer sheets?

Consumer Reports states that to get a higher thread count, manufacturers use thinner strands, known as plies, and twists them together as if they were one. They then double or triple, or, in some cases, even quadruple the thread count to make the numbers look more attractive for those fixated on the thread count. 

In simple words, this means that a single thread might be three or four plies twisted together, and while a reputable brand would call that just one thread, companies looking to cut corners would call it four.  

You should also know that since there’s only a finite amount of thread you can weave into one square inch, the thread count maxes out at around 500. So, anything higher than that is basically a fantasy.

Does thread count not matter at all?

A higher thread count requires finer threads, and the finer the thread, the stronger (and tightly woven), smoother, and softer the fabric.   

The problem is, most manufacturers use shorter-staple cotton and lower-grade, multi-ply threads twisted together, so you get less durability, false strength, and a rough, coarse feel. In such cases, a sheet with a 400 thread count is much better than one with a 600 thread count. 

Textile experts state that the thread matters the most. A lower-thread-count sheet or linen with good-quality fiber will be softer and stand up better to washing than a higher-thread-count sheet with a poor-quality fiber. A sheet made of high-quality fiber will also allow air to pass through the weave, which gives superior breathability and ensures a more comfortable sleep. 

So, since the thread count is often over-inflated, you should first look at other factors like the weave and fiber of fabrics and then consider the thread count. 

How to find the finest bedding

To make sure you get your hands on luxurious, high-quality bedding, make sure you look for:

Fiber

Longer fibers in the bedding translate to better quality yarn and more durable, lightweight fabric. Long-staple or long-fiber cotton is known for producing exceptionally soft sheets. Since longer fibers are lighter than average cotton, the sheets are more comfortable and more breathable, so you sleep cooler. The surface of these sheets also doesn’t pill or lint like it does in sheets made from shorter fiber. 

Supima cotton is particularly known for its ELS (extra-long or Egyptian long-staple) fibers that are at least 1⅜-inch long. Supima is made using pima that’s 50% longer than average cotton fibers.    

Meanwhile, average cotton fibers are usually 1-inch long, and sheets made of these have a rough texture.   

Sheets made of a cotton-polyester blend are durable and wrinkle-resistant, and relatively low-cost, but they are not as soft and cool as sheets made of 100% cotton. You won’t ever wake up hot, flustered, or clammy with cotton sheets since cotton wicks moisture from the skin. Plus, cotton sheets are easier to clean and are less likely to stain compared to polyester blends.  

All in all, fiber is more important than a high thread count that results in an inferior-quality, average sheet.

Weave 

The weave of the fabric determines how the sheet feels against the skin. It also affects how it looks, its price, and its longevity. 

Weaves are of various kinds and include blending together fabrics to create the ultimate material. Some common remarkable weave fabrics include:

  • Sateen: This cotton fabric is created using spun yarn with a satin weave structure. In this, vertical yarns float over horizontal yarns, which creates a sateen fabric characterized by a softer feel and a luscious sheen. But since this involves a looser weave, sateen is less durable compared to a tighter weave and is more apt to tear and pill.
  • Percale: This simple weave fabric is commonly used for sheets and usually has a thread count of 180 or higher. Percale is a medium-weight, tighter woven fabric known for its crisp feel and longevity. But since this is a simple fabric, it doesn’t have a fancy sheen. Percale is made from a mix of combed and carded yards that use either one fiber or a combination of fibers like polyester and cotton. Since carded yarn is made from variable-length fibers, it is cheaper. Plus, mixing the combed stronger fiber yarn with the carded yarn helps manufacturers save money.    
  • Combed cotton: This weave is produced through a machine combing process, which involves removing impurities and short fibers. The result is longer fibers that produce a stronger, more durable fabric. Sheets made of combed cotton have a soft texture and are quite durable. 

To sum up, basic weaves made from equal horizontal and vertical yarns are the least expensive. Meanwhile, intricate weaves like damasks and jacquard are more textured and can either be nubby and courses or satiny soft. Such weaves can be as durable as basic, plain weaves, but since they are made on special looms, they are more expensive.  

Ply

The quality of the sheet also differs according to the plies. As we said earlier, the highest thread count possible is 400, so to go higher than 400, companies start increasing the amount of ply. Single ply can get up to 400, double ply can get up to 800, triple ply can get up to 1200, and so on. 

Now, unlike toilet paper, the higher the ply of the sheet, the worse the quality. 

Don’t believe us? 

Well, have you noticed that your sheets don’t seem to last very long before needing to be replaced? 

This is the biggest issue with multi-ply sheets. They are great for a few weeks, but as you wash them, they quickly start falling apart and the quality isn’t the same anymore. You will start to notice that they’re not as soft as they used to be when you bought them. Some even become scratchy, and sometimes small holes develop. 

All of these facts are why it’s best to always stick between the 300-350 range, because it’s a safe bet that these sheets will last you more than a year. 

Why not 400? 

Because as your sheets get higher in thread count, they also become hotter to sleep in, since tighter weaves leads to heat being trapped, leaving you a sweaty mess! 

Finish

Most bedding is treated with chemicals like silicon, formaldehyde, and chlorine to prevent them from wrinkling, shrinking, or losing their shape. Some sheets are even treated with alkalis to give them a sheen.

A few manufacturers offer pure-finished sheets as well that don’t involve any chemicals during the manufacturing process. While it’s difficult to keep pure-finished sheets wrinkle-free, they are a great option if you suffer from chemical sensitivities or allergies. 

Dye

Colors and patterns are applied to sheets once they’re woven, which means the bedding might feel stiff until you wash them a handful of times. The softest patterned or colored sheets like jacquard weaves are made using yarn-dyed fabrics that are woven from colored yarns.

The Bottom Line

While thread count is important, it’s not the only thing that matters when it comes to choosing the finest-quality bedding. So make sure you take into account the fabric, weave, finish, and dye, too. 

And remember: be wary and suspicious of an excessively high thread count, especially if it is available at a low cost. A $100 sheet set featuring a 1200-thread-count might sound enticing, but that is just too good to be true.