This Is What Thread Count REALLY Means

Illustrated by Emily Zirimis.
"Thread count" is a phrase shrouded in mystery. Most people would say (and an unscientific poll around our office confirmed) that the higher the number, the more buttery-soft and luxurious the sheets. But, that's not always the case. "Thread count" was originally marketing terminology that gave consumers a quantifiable system to determine what made one sheet more high-end than another. Over time, though, thread count has evolved; today, it's no longer an accurate label. Scott Tannen, CEO of organic linens company Boll & Branch, says that companies have found ways of inflating thread count. 

So, what exactly does the number mean? Karin Sun, co-founder of bedding company Crane & Canopy, says thread count should literally refer to the number of threads woven into one square inch of fabric. A high-quality sheet is usually within the 300-400 range. "Anything higher is often creative counting — either through ply or pick, or manufacturing methods," she says. Plus, the higher the count, the thicker the sheet, which can make for less breathability, says Tannen. 

At the other end of the spectrum, low numbers can be deceiving, too. A sheet might feel as soft as a rabbit's behind, but if it has a chemical overlay, that luxurious feeling could disappear after just a few washes. "What makes cotton products feel so good is that slow breakdown of the cotton," says Tannen. "It doesn't weaken the product, but [it does make it] softer over the years." The true test of sheet perfection? See how the linens feel after the first, fifth, and 10th wash. Many 600-count sheets are actually made with two-ply threads that are merely wrapped and woven around each other. This is basically double-counting. 

So, if everyone's playing the thread-count game, how can you purchase a set of bedding and know it'll be great? Sun says there are a few things to look for. The percentage of cotton used, the type of cotton used, the weave, and the thread count are all factors. Tannen says, "I do think [buying] organic is a simple way to know you're going to get pure quality." The regulations on organic cotton are strict and cut out any possibility of fake shines or other added chemicals.

The last buzzword to be wary of is "Egyptian" cotton. Sun says that Egypt now grows and exports all kinds of cotton, of every staple length (the fiber measurement). She recommends that customers look for terms like “long” and “extra long” staple cotton when searching. "Bedding made from extra-long staple cotton is luxurious, soft, and will last for years to come," she says. 

If your head is spinning right now, don't worry — at the end of the day, what you really want to do is find a balance between your sheets' style, feel, and price. Tannen says, "If you really want lime-green sheets, you should get them. You have to start with what makes you happy." 
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