We all assume that a higher thread count means better quality but the vast majority of high thread count sheets don't use the best cotton. When starting in 2010, we were in for a surprise.
Green as they come
In January 2010, we were excited to be starting a new business. We wanted to sell high quality cotton sheets, so asked our Portuguese producer for 1000 thread count sheets, 2000TC if they made them.
Honestly, you could hear a pin drop.
After an awkward silence, the experts laughed (politely). They explained that if we wanted to sell high-quality bed sheets, we didn't want 1000 thread count sheets because they were considered an industry joke. In fact, a US retailer was sued over high thread count sheets.
How can this be?
Super high thread counts are achieved in one of two ways; double or triple insertions which requires good cotton and manufacturing. Or by counting the invisible threads in a multi-ply yarn. Invisible threads?
Multi-ply yarns are made by twisting two or more threads together. The simplest form of multi-ply yarn is called a two-ply yarn (illustrated).
In a two-ply yarn, each visible thread is made up of two invisible threads (see 1 & 2 in the illustration). In a three-ply yarn, there are three invisible threads, and so on.
So in a four-ply yarn with 250 visible threads, there are actually 1000 invisible threads (250 x 4), and counting them results in a thread count of 1000.
A controversial sheet recipe
In the commercial world this how thread count is calculated. But all the information required to determine quality such as yarn type (2-ply, 3-ply etc), cotton grade, cotton origin and weave-type, is fully disclosed. That way, a company knows exactly what it's buying.
But in the retail world, these important quality indicators are rarely stated. And because we as consumers equate higher thread counts with higher quality, we naturally conclude that 1000 thread count sheets are made from the finest quality threads.
And now we have the main ingredients for a modern sheet recipe that (discussed here) has resulted in a class action law suit, and prompted the US Federal Trade Commission to warn the textile industry about thread count claims it considers 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
A higher thread count sometimes means lower quality
The 1000 thread count sheet recipe is favoured by brands and manufacturers because it offers advantages (for them):
- Manufacturers can use lower quality cotton while claiming an impressive thread count
- We as consumers feel like we're buying something special
The problem with this recipe is that it takes advantage of the assumption that higher thread counts are always better. But high thread counts can't make up for poor cotton, and this is the problem with judging sheets by thread count alone.
At this point, it's important to stress that not all sheets made from multi-ply yarns are subject to this kind of criticism, it comes down to the quality of the cotton. But expect to pay $1100+ NZD for a set of 1000 thread count sheets made from the best cotton. And because manufacturers rarely publish cotton grades, understanding what you're truly buying is difficult.
A New Zealand 1000 thread count sheet
Left sheet: A brand new, 1000 thread count (TC) sheet, cold washed, and air dried on an indoor clothes rack. It was purchased from a chain of 'designer' and 'exclusive' New Zealand bed linen stores, retailing for around $320 for a Queen set.
Right sheet: A 435 thread count (TC) sheet from The Hotel Sheet after fives years of use in rotation with three other sheets (slept in, washed then dried every third week for five years).
In terms of straight out quality, this is an unfair comparison because The Hotel Sheet on the right is better quality (so costs more). But in this instance it's relevant because we're simply using it to show what a sateen weave should look like, at any price.
To begin with, we're looking at the underside of a sateen weave, so although the ridges we can see won't directly touch your skin from the bottom sheet, they will from the top sheet.
OK, so what exactly are these ridges?
Well, they're not particularly soft and while they improved after ironing, they didn't get much better in many areas (and we have one of those mega steam irons).
To be honest, we had no clue what was going on, so received help from a lovely textile expert who knows her stuff, and who happened to be visiting (handy that).
She said that when sheets (or any fabrics) are washed the first few times, stresses within the yarns/threads, which occur during manufacture, are relaxed. Initial stress relaxation is normal, but should be even and of minimal amount. Otherwise there is noticeable shrinkage in size and change in fabric appearance.
She suspects uneven stress on the warps and wefts (vertical and horizontal threads), and possibly inconsistent thread twist (or windings), may have caused the fabric to appear puckered and uneven after it was washed.
OK, so these ridges are probably the result of lower manufacturing quality. And in the same way that a high thread count doesn't guarantee quality cotton, it also doesn't guarantee good manufacturing.
Whatever the cause, 'exclusive' and 'designer' sheets shouldn't really do this.
Why doesn't the 1000TC sheet look finer?
Some of you may have also noticed that the 1000TC sheet doesn't look finer than the 435TC sheet, if anything, it looks bulkier.
This is another reason why many feel multi-ply sheets mislead consumers. We tend to think that a higher thread count translates into finer quality.
But depending on the cotton, multi-ply threads can end up thicker as the bulkiness comes from all those invisible threads which were twisted together. To see this visualised, compare the multi-ply thread (1) with the single-ply thread (2) in the illustration.
So where does this leave us?
You're going to tell us to spend more – right?
Well, there are strong arguments for spending more but less often (as opposed to spending less, more often). One being the amount of drinking water cotton crops use. Cotton is universally acknowledged as a thirsty crop and the more often we buy, the more drinking water we use up - something we don't appreciate in a rainy nation like New Zealand.
Another reason for buying quality is wastage. Cotton products in general have a horrifying churn rate (mainly due to changing fashion) and the Textile school at the University of Otago has estimated that kiwis toss 37kg of home textiles per person, per year.
We all know that buying quality reduces waste but it's an issue of cashflow for most of us (it's also better for retailers to have more regular business). So this has been our challenge, could we produce a cost-effective sheet that performs better than the 1000 thread count sheets we've tested?
Well today, we’re super excited to announce that our new range will land next month. It's our take on the cool, crisp hotel sheet.
The Long-staple Sheet will start at $349 NZD and is made from beautiful long-staple cotton.
As an alternative to buying from us, the best place to buy bed sheets is any company that understands cotton is more important than thread count. Look for companies that state a cotton grade such as medium-staple or long-staple cotton.
There's a difference between Percale and Sateen, especially if you prefer warmer sheets over cool and crisp hotel sheets. So stay in touch for information on how sheets are made and how different techniques effect the way sheets feel and last.
Future posts will also discuss the different types of cotton quality, threads per square inch vs threads per square 10cm and much more.
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What do others think?
Click the small speech bubble under the Facebook post to see comments from other New Zealanders - an interesting read. And hey, why not join in?
More reading and reference:
- US Federal Trade Commission: Letter to the National Textile Association
- The New Yorker: Bed, bath & beyond class action suit
- ABC News: The truth behind thread count
- Wikipedia: Plying
- Wikipedia: Units of textile measure
- Wikipedia: Warps
- Wikipedia: Wefts (Warp and woof)
- Wikipedia: Thread twist per inch
- The Hotel Sheet: Sheet shopping; how can you tell what you’re buying?
- The Hotel Sheet: The truth about Egyptian cotton
DISCLOSURE: We aren't trained textile experts. All opinions are our own and are based on a decade's experience sleep testing, wash testing and lab testing bedding, as well as working with textile experts and high-quality European manufacturers. If you spot mistakes or incorrect information, let us know, we're always learning.