MY FAVORITE SHEETS are a 400-thread-count set I bought several years ago at Costco. They’re deliciously soft and have held up pretty well (even though I’m known in my family for ruining everyone’s laundry). I had no idea what made my Costco find great, so I was at a complete loss when I ventured out to replace my guest-room sheets. Did I want all-cotton, flannel, linen? Is a 1,000-count set worth the steep price tag? And what on earth does Supima mean? After asking around, I nailed down three factors (and a number of buzzwords) to consider:
1. FABRIC CONTENT
Cotton/polyester blends are cheapest, and also the most durable, because polyester is resistant to fading, shrinking and wrinkling. But you may end up clammy if you run warm or experience hot flashes. Unlike cotton, polyester doesn’t wick away moisture. Pure cotton sheets are also softer and less splotch-prone. Cotton is super absorbent in the wash, allowing it to better release stains.
If you go the all-cotton route, there are three main types to choose from. Egyptian cotton, so named because it grows near the Nile, is the most luxurious, followed by Pima cotton (trade name: Supima). Both are made from superior, extra-long fibers, making them extremely soft, absorbent and strong. (Check labels for purity. Unless a product boasts 100 percent Egyptian or Pima cotton, there may be sub-par yarns mixed in.) If a product has a generic label that says simply “100 percent cotton,” it’s most likely made of American Upland cotton, which is a scratchier, less exclusive product.
Linen is another option, particularly in sticky climates. It dries quickly (wicking away sweat), is cool to the touch and allows for superior air circulation. But linen sheets can feel scratchy if they’re not super-high-quality (read: pricy) and, of course, they wrinkle like crazy. Flannel (which can be made of wool, cotton or synthetic fibers) keeps you warm on cold nights by trapping body heat, acting as an insulator.
Whatever the material, keep in mind that most sheets are treated with chemicals to minimize wrinkling and shrinkage. If you have sensitive skin, check labels for “pure finish” sheets. Organic products are similarly chemical-free and are made from cotton grown without pesticides.
2. THREAD COUNT
This figure reflects the number of threads per square inch of fabric. Theoretically, the higher the number, the more luxurious the linens. Some companies inflate thread count, though, by forcing thinner, low-quality threads onto the loom. It’s tough to know who’s cheating, but it’s probably safe to assume that a bargain-priced set that boasts a thread count of 1,000 isn’t legit. Most people claim that you can’t feel much of a difference once you get over 400 anyway. Better to look for high-quality fabric rather than an impressive thread count.
Choosing a weave depends upon personal preference. Percale is a strong fabric that has an equal number of vertical and horizontal yarns. It creates a crisp sheet with a matte finish (think your favorite Oxford shirt). If you like your sheets silky, opt for sateen. It’s woven with more vertical than horizontal yarns, making it shiny and soft to the touch. The downside is that sateen is a bit less durable than percale. Jacquard, which requires a special loom that weaves a pattern into the sheets, tends to be expensive.
Whatever you choose, proper care extends the life of your sheets. Stay away from fabric softeners, which eat away at fibers, causing them to wear out faster. Washing in hot water and drying in high heat are also tough on your sheets by causing the the fabric to repeatedly expand, then shrink.