Why did Grandma's sheets last longer? After being asked this at home shows up and down the country, we set out to provide the definitive answer. And while it’s true that retailers often lower quality to lower prices (two years is the accepted industry average for sheets), the truth is that modern tastes, convenience and cleanliness all conspire to drastically reduce the life of modern bedding. Read-on and discover how to double the life of your sheet set.
Over the years, we’ve examined some of Grandma’s mythical sheets (thanks to those of you who’ve let us) and there are some obvious differences to point out right away…
- The sheets aren’t actually cotton. Firstly, several people have admitted then when they checked, the sheets were actually poly/cotton, especially if purchased in the eighties. Secondly, the sheets we've been allowed to examine look to be Irish linen which is legendary for lasting decades compared to cotton. However, after decades of wear, Irish linen often feels like beautifully worn cotton. As a side note, many have told us their modern French or Belgium linen hasn’t lasted more than a year. If that’s you, we’d love to hear from you as we’re exploring linen but obviously want products that last longer than a year.
- None of the sheets we’ve examined were fitted sheets. So were probably in rotation with other flat sheets. We’ll get into this later but sheet rotation is a huge part of why Grandmas sheets lasted longer.
- Grandmas sheets were white. And if your Grandmas sheets weren’t white and have lasted, they were probably dyed using chemicals that are no longer allowed in OEKO-TEX certified production, or they use human-made fibres. We’ve encountered more than one person unaware they were sleeping in poly/cotton; almost anyone staying in a New Zealand five start hotel for example!
- Grandmas sheets weren't high thread count. So weren’t woven using the sateen weave. Sateen doesn’t last as long as percale which is why commercial sheets rarely use sateen, and if they do, rarely in 100% cotton.
Changing taste and Grandma’s thread count
More than one textile expert has assured us that in the 1940s/1950s, it was common to buy sheets with a thread count of 80 or even less. We can’t verify this for New Zealand but it’s true that super high thread counts only became mainstream in the late 1990s/early 2000s.
This matters because Grandma’s lower thread count used thicker yarn which often lasted longer. There are always exceptions however, and it depends on quality. For example, long-staple Egyptian, Pima and Supima cotton is prized for being both fine but strong.
But there’s another reason why high TC sheets don’t generally last, which is the sateen weave used to make them. All things being equal, sateen doesn’t last as long but that silky/softer weave sure does seduce people! And consumers often equate silkiness with quality, even though the two are independent (depending on the cotton).
So as retailers started pushing softer/silkier high TC sheets, people started sleeping in hotter sheets that didn’t last as long (we’re assuming you’re not paying $1,600–$2,000 NZD for high TC sheets made from really great cotton!).
So this relatively modern taste for a silky/soft high thread count is definitely one reason why modern sheets don’t last as long as Grandma's. Sateen is a much weaker weave which is why commercial sheets avoid it unless using polyester or polyester blends.
You get what you pay for
In the past, bedding was a huge investment, often a wedding gift you spent a lifetime caring for. But these days, retailers have sucessfully trained us to spend less money, more often. This is great for everyone’s cashflow because the initial outlay is less for consumers, and retailers get consumers buying more often. But how has the price been reduced?
Well, there are a lot of reasons but the quality of the cotton, yarn and weaving is often of a lower standard depending on the price you pay. We’ve had more than one person yell at a home show; ‘Why would I pay that for sheets? I just buy a new set every year!’.
Each to their own but there are a lot of price/quality options available and media have dubbed some retail practices as ‘fake bargains’ - especially if the sheets have impressive thread counts. So another reason modern sheets don’t last as long is because we’re often buying lower quality, and paying lower prices compared to Grandma (after adjusting for inflation etc).
Colour and fashion
Colour doesn’t stay in rotation as long as white because white can be brought back to white. Colour on the other hand, fades (especially in New Zealand) and has a tendency to look tatty, quicker. So people are often replacing colour because the textile no longer looks good, not because it’s worn-out.
But bleach and whiteners are bad for the environment right? Yes, but as far as we can tell, consumerism and buying more often is a much bigger problem compared with keeping what you have for longer. Obviously if you live on a farm or have tank waste water, products like Napisan or bleach may not possible.
It’s also hard finding definitive environmental data on the full product life-cycle of textiles, so if you have data, please set us straight! But as far as we can tell, a little bleach every six months to a year has less environmental impact compared with buying cotton products more often. The enormous amount of drinking water cotton consumes plus the impact of all the manufacturing and transport-related activities created when we buy new stuff more often, are just some of the hugely impactful environmental issues excessive retail churn causes.
Colour also goes out of fashion, especially printed patterns which seem popular these days. Hotels do the opposite and keep their hard-wearing textiles white, then use cushions, bed runners and decor to add colour. They do this because white is neutral so goes with everything both now and in the future, and white lasts longer as the colour can be renewed - even at home.
So coloured or fashionable bedding is another reason Grandma's white sheets lasted longer. BTW, we think it’s criminal to dye genuine Egyptian or organic cotton but that’s for another day!
Fitted sheets halve the life of your set
99% of sheet wear, sweat and body grime goes onto the bottom sheet. So if your bottom sheet is a fitted sheet, 99% of grime and wear is going onto a single sheet in your set.
This means that as soon as fitted sheets came in, they instantly halved the life of sheet sets. If you use two flat sheets instead, you can rotate the wear across two sheets and literally double the life of your set. And if you also rotate where your feet go, so top to bottom, you get even more wear as feet (especially men's feet) wear-out sheets faster.
Grandma's linen rotation
But your Grandma was often rotating wear across three sheets. As kids, many of you may remember the following routine: the bottom sheet goes in the wash, the top sheet goes on the bottom, and a fresh sheet goes on top.
And the following week, the same thing would happen, so you’re now rotating the wear across 3 sheets, tripling their life. Another reason Grandma's sheets lasted longer.
Yuck, fresh sheets only please!
Some of you may have spotted that with Grandma's rotation, you’re only washing one sheet a week. Your laundry (different machines, cleaning products) and minerals in the water wear-out sheets hugely. So washing more often also shortens the life of your set. No joke.
In fact, when a hotel is in a location where the water is bad, the hotel often has to formulate a special sheet so it lasts a reasonable amount of time.
OK but my husband sweats like a pig. Well, men are pigs! Seriously though, this is a common complaint and while it’s true that men have more muscle mass which makes them hotter, in our experience, people having this problem are also sleeping in sateen sheets and/or higher thread counts (420+ threads).
We can’t emphasise this enough; the higher the thread count, the hotter the sheet and the only thing hotter than sateen, is flannelette and many high TC sateen sheets are even hotter than flannel in our experience. Percale is cooler but it’s crisper, so just be aware that when you buy soft/silky sateen, you’re also cooking men and menopausal women, in some of the hottest cotton sheets available.
But back to cleanliness, Grandma's rotation is not as bad as it sounds because most of the body grime goes on the bottom sheet anyway. But there are obviously times of the year when you want to be washing more often - so each to their own.
However, make no mistake, a modern obsession with cleanliness is definitely wearing your sheets faster than Grandma's. Up to you.
Are fitted sheets really that convenient?
We’ve always used fitted sheets and never really questioned them so decided to do a quick test to discover if in reality, fitted sheets are really that much more convenient.
Timing-wise it took us a 30-40seconds longer to put a flat sheet on with hotel corners (when not in a hurry). So if you want your sheets to last longer, 30-40 seconds is not that much when in return, you can double the life of your set and save some pennies.
Fitted sheet injuries are no joke - yep!
Earlier in 2022, One News ran a story about increased injuries caused by fitted sheets. Some people are having trouble pulling their fitted sheets onto the newer, taller, mattresses - or because of lower quality bedding causing excessive shrinkage.
These taller mattresses are also much heavier and we hear people expressing regret at buying them at almost every home show. Although One News probably made a bigger deal over the injuries, fitted sheets are often more frustrating than we realise. YMMV.
A proper flat sheet
Although they’re not for everyone, all of the above is why we also sell proper Hotel flat sheet sets. These proper flat sheets are designed to be tucked-in top and bottom so are much longer than top sheets most retailers sell, which are only designed to be folded-over at the top, not tucked-in.
If you have a taller mattress, you can be sure they’ll always fit but yes, you’ll have to to do hotel corners and do a tidy-up every 3-4 days, or more often with restless sleepers.
Rotate the wear
If you choose a flat sheet set, make sure to rotate the wear each week. Some will sew a coloured thread into the tag or mark the tag to keep track of which sheet is on the bottom each week.
And many will also rotate the bottom (where your feet are) to the top to gain even more life out of the set because feet wear-out sheets the most.
And to get even more life out of the sheets, consider Grandma's rotation of only washing one sheet per week (weather and sweat dependant!).
How to make your sheets last longer
- Buy percale sheets because percale lasts longer than sateen
- Buy low thread count because less threads often means better threads for the same money (look for higher prices to ensure better cotton though)
- You get what you pay for, cheaper sheets generally use cheaper cotton
- Buy white, then whiten a couple of times a year to keep them looking new. But ensure the retailer allows bleaching of sheets because many don't and be careful! If you have our sheets, see our care instructions for bleach instructions and follow them to the letter - and please note the warnings!
- Buy proper flat sheets, then rotate the wear across two sheets instead of one
- Each week, rotate the bottom of the sheet (where your feet are) with the top (where you head is) especially if someone in the bed has rough feet/heels.
- If you use flat sheets, try Grandma's rotation where the bottom goes into the wash, the top goes on the bottom and a fresh sheet goes on top. That way, you’re only washing one sheet per week and your water/laundry will have less affect on wear
The above tips may not be to everyone’s taste but hopefully this article gives you ideas and helps explain that it’s not just cheaper quality cotton that makes modern bedding wear faster than Grandma's (although that’s often true if you buy high TC retail sheets). Fashion, convenience and a modern taste for soft/silky also make sheets wear faster than Grandma's.