Cotton quality, how can you tell what you're buying?

After a competitor kinda copied our quality page, we tested their sheets and expected to catch them telling porkies. But what we found surprised us so much, it changed our view of sheet quality.

The sincerest form of flattery

Earlier this year, we discovered a New York-based bedding store whose quality page was remarkably similar to our own. And upon discovering that one of the owners was subscribed to our newsletter, we realised we’d been web-stalked.

But there was something else. This brand claimed that exceptional quality could be had for below market price (their brand's unique selling point if you will).

Curious about their product claims, and thinking they'd blindly copied our quality page with no thought to their own products, we decided to put their claims to the test - in a textile lab.

Lab testing sheets

 

The New York store was claiming beautiful quality, 100% long-staple Egyptian cotton and single-ply yarn. So we purchased a set and sent their sheets along with our own for testing and comparison.

I'll be honest, we expected the lab to confirm that some of their product claims were a work of fiction but the results surprised us. After testing, the lab confirmed some of their product claims to be true (testing for Egyptian cotton isn't possible without DNA tetsing after manufacture).

But the piling test, a type of abrasion test (see video), told another story. While our sheets held at grade 4-5, the New York sheets dropped to grade 2-3 (grade 5 is best in this test).

The Hotel Sheet New York Brand
Grade 4-5 (5 is best)* Grade 2-3 (5 is best)*
300 Threads per square inch 480 Threads per square inch
100% Long-staple Egyptian cotton 100% Long-staple Egyptian cotton
Single-ply yarn Single-ply yarn
*Testing completed by Intertek on sheets purchased from a US-based, specialist bed linen store and sheets from The Hotel Sheet.

The problem with sheet marketing

Looking at the product claims above, most of us would have expected the New York sheets to win the test. After all, they claim the same cotton quality but in a higher thread count. However, during the test, they dropped several grades and this illustrates a problem with modern sheet marketing.

Somehow we all think that Egyptian cotton and high thread count equals quality. But not all Egyptian cotton is the same (the really good stuff, long-staple cotton, equates to about 3% of global production).

And then there's those impossibly high thread counts like 600, 800 or 1000+ threads per square inch (we say impossible because you can't physically fit more than 500 visible threads into a square inch / 625 threads per 10cm2). Back in 2005, the US Federal Trade Commission told the industry that it considers the way super high thread counts are calculated, to be misleading.

“…we believe that consumers could be deceived or misled by the practice of stating an inflated thread count, achieved by multiplying the actual count by the number of piles within the yarn."

— US Federal Trade Commission

For similar reasons, a thread count class action suit was brought against Bed, Bath & Beyond but despite this, sheets using the same thread counting standard can be found in almost every retail store throughout New Zealand and Australia.

But thread count for the New York brand was below 500 threads per square inch – and this is what surprised us. Prior to the test, we assumed that certain product claims such as 100% long-staple Egyptian cotton, single-ply yarn and thread counts under 500, virtually guaranteed a beautiful, good wearing sheet.

However, the test results showed that the right product claims no longer guarantee a good wearing sheet.

OK, so why should we care?

A mother's wedding gift to her daughter

After sharing the test results with a friend, she confided in us that she could no longer sleep on the Egyptian cotton sheets given to her on her wedding day by her mum.

They felt too rough after repeated washing (roughness was also mentioned in some reviews of the New York brand). In fact, our friend felt so bad for her mum, she couldn’t bring herself to tell her mother.

This left us wondering how many other people had purchased low-quality sheets, thinking they were actually buying something special.

Is there a better way to judge sheet quality?

Because the traditional indicators of quality like Egyptian cotton and thread count can be unreliable, it's become difficult to truly understand what you're buying.

However, because most companies can't afford to give away quality products, price is still a quick, reliable way to size up quality. Yes, that's rich coming from the people selling sheets! But compared to clothing, a sheet set uses a lot more cotton, so the amount you pay directly effects the quality you get.

Thanks for reading. For more insight into how bed linen is made, tips and special deals, subscribe to our newsletter below.

More reading and reference:

  1. US Federal Trade Commission: Letter to the National Textile Association
  2. The New Yorker: Bed, bath & beyond class action suit