Whenever people talk about buying sheets, thread count is inevitably part of the conversation. The commonly held belief is the higher the thread count, the higher quality the sheets—but is there really a discernible difference between 400 thread count sheets and 800 thread count sheets? There’s certainly a price difference!
To make it a little easier the next time you're sheet shopping, here's everything you need to know about thread count and how it should factor into your purchasing decision.
What is thread count?
Thread count is a measurement of how many individual threads make up a piece of woven fabric.
Woven materials have threads that run vertically and horizontally, and thread count is the number of both horizontal and vertical threads in 1 square inch of fabric. So if, for example, there are 200 threads running vertically and 200 running horizontally in 1 square inch, you add the two together and the thread count would be 400. Pretty simple, right?
In theory, thread count is a fairly straightforward concept—if you’re so inclined, you could even use a magnifying glass to literally count the threads in an inch of fabric. We did this in my textile science class in college, and while it definitely strains your eyes, it’s a great learning experience!
Why does thread count matter?
You might be wondering why it matters how many threads are used in your sheets, and it’s a great question to ask. Thread count can indicate how a fabric will look, feel, perform and wear over time—all important factors when you’re shopping for sheets.
To get a high thread count—or, to think of it another way, to fit a higher number of threads into one inch of fabric—you need to use finer yarn. Fine yarn results in a smoother, denser fabric, which is why high thread count sheets are considered better quality. However, keep in mind that when fabric is dense, air can’t flow through it as readily, so sheets with a higher count can actually get quite hot in the summer.
Another key consideration is that a high thread count often means a fabric will be more durable. When threads are woven tightly together, they’re less likely to get snagged and pulled out, like they might on your favorite sweater.
What is the best thread count for sheets?
When people hear these desirable characteristics associated with high thread counts, they tend to run out and buy the highest thread count sheets they can find. However, you’ll want to put those 1,000 thread count sheets back on the shelf for a minute.
Experts say the ideal thread count range for percale sheets is around 250 to 500. If you’re looking for sateen sheets, the optimal range is a little higher, around 300 to 600. We found this to be true when we researched and tested the Best Bed Sheets.
Our Best Overall pick, the Brooklinen Luxe Core Sheet Set ($149.00 at Brooklinen.com), uses a sateen weave with a 480-thread count. And the top-ranking percale sheets, the L.L. Bean Pima Cotton Percale Sheet Set ($109 at LLBean.com), sports a thread count of 280.
How can you spot deceptive thread count practices?
So what about those 800 to 1,000 thread count sheets? As with most things in life, thread counts aren’t always so cut-and-dry.
A fairly common manufacturing practice is to “inflate” thread count using multi-ply yarn. Multi-ply yarn is created when two or more threads are tightly wound together to create one piece of yarn. To the eye, a piece of two-ply yarn looks like just one “thread,” but manufacturers will count it as two—essentially doubling the thread count of the fabric.
So while there may only be 400 threads per square inch, the manufacturer may list the thread count as 800 if the yarn is two-ply. Because of these less-than-honest practices, you can’t always trust the stated thread count on sheets, and unfortunately, the Federal Trade Commission has yet to regulate the issue.
In general, sky-high thread counts are more often than not simply a marketing ploy, and the fabric may very well be made with cheap, rough threads that won’t be as smooth or durable as you might expect. As such, you'll want to approach sheets with a thread count over 600 with a healthy dose of skepticism.
What else should you consider when buying sheets?
Since thread count can be a little misleading, here are a few other factors to take into consideration when shopping for sheets:
- Fiber: The fiber sheets are made of is arguably more important than the thread count. Long-staple cotton is typically the softest, smoothest, and most durable, but many people also like linen sheets, which get softer over time and can last for decades.
- Construction: Sateen and percale weaves are two of the most common constructions for sheets. Percale sheets have the “crisp” hand-feel many people like and stay cool in the summer, while sateen sheets tend to be silkier but hotter.
Do all sheets have a thread count?
The majority of sheets you can buy today will have a thread count, but there are certain types of sheets that won't list this measurement on the label. Don’t panic! This typically just means they’re made from a knitted fabric.
As noted above, thread count only applies to woven fabrics. When a fabric is knitted, one thread is used to create a series of interlocking loops—the same way you’d knit a scarf at home—so this unit of measure doesn’t really apply.
In particular, jersey and flannel sheets are made from knitted fabrics and, as such, don’t have a thread count. Instead, you should look at the material, weight, and feel of these fabrics to determine if they’ll fit your needs.