Thread count is probably the most advertised attribute for bed linens, yet it is not a very accurate indicator of true quality. Thread count is simply the number of yarns in a square inch of fabric. In prior years when thread counts used to range no higher than 350, the higher the thread count, the lighter, more supple, and durable the fabric.
Through technological advancements in weaving, thread counts can now range to over 1200. Therefore, the rule of thumb that more is better no longer holds true.
Knowing the quality of the cotton fibers is often more important than just the thread count.
A higher thread count doesn’t mean you’re buying a better quality sheet. Yes, higher does NOT mean better.
Believe us, we were as shocked as you. We wanted to get to the bottom of this misconception — obviously — so we spoke with Nancy Koltes, a luxury linens designer, and Shannon Maher, Assistant Professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology Home Product Development Program who also has a background in bedding, to try to figure out this bed linen lie.
How Did the Misconception come About? Thread count, which Maher defines as “the number of yarn per square inch” seems to have started as a pretty genius marketing idea.
“[It’s] an invention of the American market”, said Koltes. More specifically, thread count isn’t so much a “lie” as it is a falsified way to determine to the quality of sheets, especially when it’s used as the only way to determine quality. Just as we attach labels like “low-fat” and “organic” to food, linen retailers extended this to luxury linens in the mid-1990s, Koltes explains. By the early 2000s, the “thread count lie” had reached new levels when the first 1,000-plus thread count linens were introduced. “It’s just all promotional. Thread count doesn’t represent quality,” Koltes says. Nevertheless, it seems to have stuck with customers.
Numbers aren’t everything: Even if a sheet has a high thread count, that can be inflated by manipulating the sheet-making process with a low-quality construction or thread.
Most people deciding between two sets of sheets would choose the higher thread count.
But it turns out we’ve all been duped.
“There’s a maximum number of threads that can fit into a square inch of fabric,” explained Scott Tannen, CEO of Boll & Branch, a luxury linen provider. “Depending on the type of cotton used, that number is generally not more than 400. So there is an awful lot of interesting math involved in the sheets you see in a department store that can be up to a 1200 thread count.”
In fact, Consumer Reports says that 50 years ago, the most luxurious thread count available was 180, but now 1,000 thread counts are the norm.
So what happened?
We spoke with Tannen about what thread count is, why the numbers are so confusing, and how to buy the best sheets for your bed.
Know The “Real” Thread Count Thread count is the total number of threads per square inch in a fabric (counting both horizontal and vertical threads). In theory, the higher the thread count, the softer and higher-quality the sheets.
But brands nowadays are counting multi-ply threads, which can lead to higher, erroneous numbers.
“In reality, to achieve a higher thread count manufacturers are generally using a lower grade of cotton that becomes very thin when spun,” Tannen explained to us. “They then twist this thread around itself to create a `multi-ply’ thread. When they use 2-ply thread and weave it to a theoretical 300-thread count (150 horizontal, 150 vertical) they call it a 600 thread count sheet and sell it that way.”
So imagine that a 4-ply thread is woven as a 200 thread count, but sold as an 800 thread count. A regular ply 300 thread count would feel better and last longer, but most consumers are convinced to always buy a higher thread count.