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Choosing The Perfect Bedding Part 2: Understanding Thread Count (And Why It Doesn’t Matter As Much As You Think)

Thread  count is probably the most commonly used indicator of quality when it comes to bedding. It’s common knowledge that a higher thread count means better sheets, and often people will buy sheets based on that number alone. Unfortunately, the entire concept of thread count has become somewhat outdated. Machine weaving has made it possible to triple or quadruple the thread count, either by using different weave patterns or different types of thread entirely. Because different weave patterns will change the appearance and texture of the sheets, though, thread count alone won’t tell you what you’re getting, and numbers north of 350 are all but meaningless. Here’s what you should look for instead.

Plain Weave

Primrose Floral Percale Sheets Z50106_30 from Cuddledown
Primrose Floral Percale Sheets Z50106_30 from Cuddledown

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Plain weave sheets are the simplest, most common, and most traditional type of bedding, and probably the type of weaving you think of if you don’t really know a lot about weaving. Single threads are woven together in a basic over/under pattern, creating a fabric that is very light and incredibly durable. A plain weave fabric made with single ply thread is the type of fabric where all the old rules about thread count apply: a higher thread count means more threads woven closer together, and a corresponding increase in durability, longevity, and softness. That said, while some other weaves may have thread counts over 1,000, plain weave sheets rarely top about 400. Because the weave pattern is so simple, though, these are widely considered to be the most durable and longest lasting type of sheets, and will soften well over time without pilling or tearing.

Plain Weave (With Plied Yarns or Multi-Yarn Insertions)

Italian Linen Plain-Sewn Sheets Z2260_30 from Cuddledown
Italian Linen Plain-Sewn Sheets Z2260_30 from Cuddledown

Because thread count is such a ubiquitous indicator of quality, though, it’s not uncommon for manufacturers to try to artificially raise the number. One easy way to do this is to replace the horizontal threads in a piece of fabric with plied yarns – yarn created by twisting two or more threads together. This multiplies the thread count for every thread used while technically still keeping to a plain weave pattern. Multi-yarn insertions – that is, using multiple threads side by side without alternating – can also be used to artificially increase the number of the thread count. Unfortunately, these techniques both result in fabrics that are heavier and less soft than true plain weave fabrics, and in the case of multi-yarn insertions, also make for a less durable fabric, too.

Twill Weave

Cotton Twill Pillow Cases Z9645 from Cuddledown
Cotton Twill Pillow Cases Z9645 from Cuddledown

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Other, more complex weaves get their higher thread counts more honestly, but these tend to have a very different texture or appearance from plain weave fabrics, which makes thread count just as meaningless. Twill weaves, for example, use a diagonal rather than horizontal weave. This creates a fabric with a similar level of durability to a true plain weave, but with more exposed cotton fibers and a subtly different texture. Twill weave bedding can also be lightly sanded to make the surface even softer. Because this type of weave pattern is a bit more intricate, though, these sheets tend to be a bit more expensive than plain weave bedding.

Sateen Weave

Sateen Cotton Sheets Z5705_30 from Cuddledown
Sateen Cotton Sheets Z5705_30 from Cuddledown

Plain weave fabric is made using a repeating one over one under pattern, but sateen weave “floats” the horizontal threads, so they go only go “under” once every four vertical threads, leaving longer lines of uninterrupted thread both horizontally and vertically. The result is a fabric that’s smooth and slightly shiny, closely resembling satin. Sateen is one of the most popular alternatives to a plain weave for its sheen and texture, but all those exposed threads also mean that it’s more likely to snag and pill. A higher thread here can help reduce the risk of damage by pushing the threads closer together, making them less likely to catch. That said, sateen is also the most difficult basic weave pattern to produce, so it tends to be more expensive.

Patterned Weaves

Emanuela King Size 6 Piece Jacquard Cotton Bedding Set DM447K from Dolce Mela
Emanuela King Size 6 Piece Jacquard Cotton Bedding Set DM447K from Dolce Mela

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From there, weave patterns only get more complex and intricate, which generally means a higher thread count and higher degree of durability, but also much different patterns and textures than more conventional sheets. Dobby weave fabric often has a more pronounced, textured weave that can be slightly coarse to touch, but is very dense and durable. The patterns are limited to fairly simple designs, like stripes, but sheets made with a dobby weave are generally the least expensive patterned weaves. Jacquard weave sheets are some of the finest available, made with extremely high quality yarn and capable of intricate patterns (like damask or brocade) that alternate a matte and sheen finish for a truly luxurious look and feel. Of course, jacquard sheets are correspondingly expensive, since they require high quality materials and a high level of craftsmanship.

Ultimately, thread count can be useful when comparing two types of sheets made of the same fabric and done in the same weave pattern, but doesn’t hold a lot of meaning all on its own. So when you’re hunting for a new set of sheets, take a look at the thread count, but don’t let it be the only deciding factor when choosing your new bedding.