Everything you need to know about choosing bed sheets
What should you consider buying your next sheet set? Turns out, a lot.
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Percale, pima, jersey, knit. With bed sheets made of numerous types of fabric and in so many different ways, how do you know what’s good for sleeping, and what might make for a lackluster night?
Even though sheets have standard sizes from twin to king, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to fabric: Fiber composition and other factors all come into play when buying new bed linens. On the broadest level, there are three main types of fabric that sheets are made from: natural, synthetic, and semi-synthetic (a.k.a. natural-synthetic). Each group has distinct qualities, characteristics, benefits, and drawbacks. You may have heard, for example, that natural fabrics tend to be cooling and absorbent, while synthetic fabrics are good at wicking moisture away. But taking it a step further, you’ll find different constructions, like percale and jersey, and even distinct types of cotton.
Trying to sort it out on your own is enough to keep you up at night! Not to worry: Here’s what you need to know to choose the best sheets for you.
Egyptian cotton sheets and other types of natural fabrics
Cotton sheets are the most popular, and it’s no wonder: The natural fiber is absorbent, cool, and breathable, making it ideal for sleeping for many people. On packages, you may see the terms Pima and Egyptian to describe it. Both refer to the staple, or length, of a cotton fiber used in manufacturing. Pima, primarily grown in the U.S., and Egyptian cotton, which is only grown in the U.S., Egypt, and Turkmenistan, are considered long or extra-long staple, meaning the fibers are, well, long. Upland cotton, which is the most common and grown across the southern United States, is considered long to medium staple, but not as long as Egyptian or Pima. Staple length might not sound important, but it's good to consider when shopping for sheets, says Sean Cormier, an associate professor in the department of textile development and marketing at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York City. Longer staple cotton is less likely to pill, which happens when fibers loosen and tangle together in a little ball on the fabric’s surface, Cormier says. You should make sure labels explicitly state the cotton used is “long staple,” because sometimes sheets produced in Egypt don’t use Egyptian cotton.
Organic cotton has become popular in recent years, as farmers have commonly used a lot of pesticides and insecticides in growing conventional cotton, making it one of the most chemically intensive crops. If choosing organic bedding is important to you, look for the GOTS Organic or Made with Organic seals on packaging, which require products to be at least 95% or 70% organic, respectively.
“Bed linens” got their name from the fiber that bed sheets were first made from: Linen, a natural fiber that’s made from flax. It’s known for its supreme wicking, durability, and fast drying time. Combined, these qualities are what make it feel cool and give it the reputation as a great choice for summer. However, linen is infamous for wrinkling, which is caused by the fabric’s low elasticity, the trait that gives the material its characteristic smooth and hard texture. Linen also tends to be scratchy until it’s been washed a few times, unlike cotton, which is soft right off the bat. Those are the main reasons linen’s popularity has been usurped by cotton, but linen sheets can still be found for sale.
Percale sheets, sateen sheets, and other fabric weaves
Woven fabrics dominate the bedding market. The weave of a fabric describes the patterns of crossing yarns over, under, or across one another to form a cohesive piece of fabric. This may not sound like it would make a noticeable difference in your experience with a product—after all, the threads are so tiny to begin with. But weave patterns are at the core of what gives fabrics different textures and qualities.
To understand fibers, threads, weaves, and fabrics, Cormier uses hair as an analogy. Single strands of hair are comparable to individual fibers that are used in fabrics. When a group of hair strands is gathered together for a braid, it’s akin to the thread, which consists of multiple fibers or "plies." The final product, in this case the braid or fabric, is made when you weave the bundles of hair, or threads, together in a certain pattern.
Percale—often called “cotton percale," as it’s typically made from that natural fiber—is a pattern that falls under the “plain weave” category. Plain weaves follow the simple over, under, over, under pattern and threads run parallel or perpendicular to one another (this pattern would be the first one you'd learn in a basket-making class). These weaves have a matte appearance, unlike fabrics with a "sheen," and manufacturers often tout their “crisp” feel.
Sateen or satin fabrics are made using a traditional satin-weave pattern. Though you may be tempted to think of satin as a fabric itself (maybe the term brings to mind the shiny, luxury sheets made of silk), it's really just a weave. What differentiates sateen weave from plain weaves like percale are “floater threads,” Cormier says. Floater threads run in the same perpendicular and parallel manner, but don’t weave over and under every time—instead, some pass over other threads. The floating threads, which are responsible for sateen’s sheen and smoothness, are also what make the fabric more prone to getting snagged on jewelry and other sharp objects. Cotton and polyester fibers can be woven into a sateen, though there aren’t many 100% polyester sateen sheet sets and instead you'll see blends.
Twill weaves are relatively new to the bedding world. While they aren’t considered a major player in sheets, you may still come across them, says Elizabeth Easter, a professor at the University of Kentucky who specializes in laundry and textile science. But you’ve almost certainly already come into contact with this fabric byway of a couple wardrobe staples: denim jeans and chinos. In bedding, however, the fabric feels different. It isn't rough, rather it has a more textured feel, says Jamie Ueda, the apparel writer at Reviewed who’s spent years working on material development, technical design, and product integrity in the textile field. Twill is woven with diagonal lines, as opposed to the typical perpendicular pattern that plain weaves follow. The diagonal weave pattern makes it possible to fit more threads in a small area, which increases its durability. Twill is comparable to sateen weaves, but it is sturdier and more durable, giving it a longer lifespan, Easter says.
Thread count and what it actually means
If sheet shopping had a catchphrase, it would have something to do with thread count. Everyone talks about it, and you’ve probably heard that higher thread count means better quality sheets. But what is thread count? The simplest, most basic answer is: It’s the number of threads woven together within a square inch. But of course, it’s never that easy.
In recent years, countries have started counting and calculating thread counts differently. In the U.S., thread count refers to the number of strands of thread, Easter says. Overseas, thread count can be doubled by counting the number of plies that are twisted together in an individual thread, and applying that to the total thread count, she says. Take two-ply thread, for example. In the U.S., where the individual ply aren’t included, a sheet set might have 400 thread count. Elsewhere the same set, with two-ply thread, could be labeled as 800 thread count.
What’s more, higher thread count sheets aren’t necessarily better. Very high thread counts can make bed sheets more uncomfortable. “Some actually feel like a stiff board, they’re very rigid, and they’re not as soft or flexible,” Easter says. And if you really want to get into the nitty gritty, some fabrics, like flannel, have inherently higher thread counts just for production purposes. (For flannel, it makes it possible to create that soft, fuzzy surface texture.)
Thread count is only worth considering when a sheet or bedding set has a very low number, say, less than 200. This indicates that the fabric is lower quality and likely won’t stand the test of time well. So long as you’re looking at sheet sets above that threshold, thread count shouldn’t be a make-or-break factor.
Microfiber sheets and other synthetic fabrics
Second in popularity to cotton as a material for sheets are synthetic fabrics, like polyester, which is derived from petroleum. Polyester can offer a smoother texture than cotton, Ueda says. Plus, in some cases, polyester or polyester blend sheets are less expensive than cotton, which may appeal to consumers.
Microfiber is a well-known and common type of polyester that’s named for the fiber’s small diameter. In bedding, this characteristic can provide a more cotton-like feel, Easter says. However, cotton is still more efficient at cooling because it absorbs sweat. Microfiber, and polyester in general, wick sweat away from the body, but aren’t equally capable of absorbing it, Easter says.
Some microfiber sheets will tout either a “series” number and/or something called GSM as a measure of their quality. The series number may be very high, say 1200 or 1800, and relates to the number of synthetic fibers within the fabric, Cormier says. “There are more microfibers in an 1800 series than 1200 series, which implies a softer product,” he says. Sometimes microfiber sheets’ packaging mentions thread counts, but since thread count doesn't apply to microfiber, it's more likely that manufacturer's suggestion of the feel of the sheets as compared to cotton sheets with that thread count.
GSM, or grams per square meter, is a weight measurement often used for microfibers and knits. It may have more value in terms of determining quality: Here, the lowest number you should consider is 90 GSM, with 100 and above being a higher weight fabric that should be more durable over time. It’s also worth noting that higher GSM fabrics may also be heavier and warmer, Cormier says.
Bamboo sheets and other semi-synthetics
When you peruse the bedding aisle, you’ll likely also spot some semi-synthetics, sometimes called “natural synthetics.” These include rayon fabrics, which is the umbrella that lyocell and Tencel fall under, as well as fabrics made from bamboo.
Bamboo sheets became popular in recent years due to the woody grass’s fast growth, limited need for pesticides, and a higher yield per acre planted. Manufacturers claim it shares characteristics with cotton, like cooling, breathability, and absorbency. The fabrics, which are often marketed as eco-friendly, are manufactured in a manner that often involves cooking and processing the plant matter with chemicals, which can take a toll on the environment. Bamboo fabrics are also thought to share characteristics of the plant they’re derived from, such as antimicrobial properties, the ability to absorb liquid, and a cool, soft sensation to touch. However, with the amount of processing needed to turn reedy bamboo into soft fabric, the jury is out on what qualities from the plant, if any, are present in the final product. Despite the chemical laden manufacturing, some people contend bamboo is better for the earth than petroleum-derived products and even cotton. In the past, bamboo material was more expensive than polyester and cotton, but prices have come down.
Rayon was developed as a substitute for silk, but Cormier notes it isn’t as strong or durable as other fibers. Rayon fabrics are “cellulosic,” meaning they are made from natural materials, like wood pulp and plant cellulose, one of the main substances in plant cell walls that make the plant’s exterior strong and durable. Like bamboo-based fabrics, plants undergo significant processing to reach their final fiber form.
For those who prefer to support sustainable manufacturing but also like the feeling of cotton, Tencel, a trademarked type of lyocell, may be worth considering. It’s made from wood pulp from trees that aren’t grown with as many pesticides as traditional cotton, and the vast majority of chemicals used to process and produce the material are recaptured and often reused. Tencel is an improved version of lyocell that’s stronger, according to both Cormier and Easter. The fabric is inherently smooth and soft to the touch, and absorbent, like cotton. It also has greater washability and strength than other lyocell fabrics, but may still pill over time, Easter says.
Jersey sheets and other knitted fabrics
Knit bedding, yet another subtype that has its share of fans, is made by needles that interlace and interlock loops of thread. All knits have some stretch, due to the way the fabric is made, Ueda says. The most common knit bedding is jersey sheets, which people love for their soft feel, in contrast to woven fabrics, which offer a more crisp sensation, she says. They feel like sleeping in a t-shirt, because that’s exactly the material they’re made from. What’s more, these sheets aren’t prone to wrinkling.
GSM, not thread count, is also the industry standard for measuring knit fabrics. A jersey sheet set with 90 GSM, for example, is considered on the low end, Ueda says. It’s likely to be less durable, but also could be better for people who prefer lighter sheets. While personal preference for fabric texture plays a key role in determining what GSM you’ll prefer, something above 100 is a good choice. However, many knit sheets don’t advertise their GSM—if that’s the case, and you’re feeling unsure, Ueda suggests opting for a brand that you already know and trust.
Flannel sheets and other special finishes
Flannel, the fabric that’s synonymous with cold winter nights, hipsters, pumpkin spice lattes, and L.L. Bean, is considered among the main “weaves” in bedding fabric, even though it is typically made from a plain or twill weave and the texture is achieved in post-production, Ueda says. Sheets made from flannel have inherently higher thread counts so that they can be brushed after manufacture to create the signature fuzzy texture, Easter days. Flannel is known for its warmth, hence it’s fall and winter popularity.
Flannel gets its characteristic softness and warmth in one of the last steps of fabric production, called brushing. Unlike smooth cotton, polyester, and rayons, flannel has what’s called a “nap,” which just refers to a raised surface. (Velvet is another example of a napped fabric.) This nap is created by running the fabric through cylinders covered in fine bristles or wires, which pull and slightly loosen short fibers from the up and out. This process weakens the textile slightly, but isn’t worth concern for most consumers, Cormier says. Plus, the sheets already clock in at a higher thread count, in part to compensate.
Using bristles to create flannel isn’t the only fabric finishing process. Other post-production treatments can give fabrics sheen or make them wrinkle- and shrink-resistant.
How to wash bed sheets
So you found the perfect sheet set. How do you keep it that way? The longevity of sheets is partially determined by how you care for the products.
Cormier recommends running sheets on delicate cycle washes, as it’s easier on the fabric. While he would suggest line drying, he realizes it’s not always possible with something as bulky and large as sheets, so instead he recommends putting sheets in the dryer on tumble dry low.
Tumble dry low is often recommended for fabrics, but without much explanation. Higher heats are harder on fabrics, Cormier says. This is due to the expansion fabrics undergo in the wash as they retain water. Hotter drying cycles force them to expel the water more quickly, which can contribute to shrinkage, but also just wears on the fabric, he says.
Cotton sheets are among the most durable out there, even when they're drenched, according to Easter. That’s because of how the fabric and fiber responds to water. While wet, cotton is still a strong fabric. Other fabrics, such as rayon, aren’t as durable when wet. That aside, one of her biggest recommendations is washing and drying sheets separately from towels. Towels and sheets dry at different rates, and lumping them into one load takes a toll on sheets.