When it comes to choosing sheets, you need to know this little secret: That whole “thread count” thing is kind of a marketing gimmick. 

There are so many other things to look for when you’re searching for the perfect set of sheets. According to the National Sleep Foundation, the kinds of yarns or threads used in sheets is often more important than the thread count. So let’s take a look at what your sheet packaging is trying to tell you. 

What exactly does “thread count” mean? 

“Manufacturers calculate thread count by adding up the vertical warp and horizontal weft yarns in a square inch of fabric,” reports the New York Times. High thread counts are often associated with softness (or — beware — “luxury”), but actually a higher thread count just means a thicker sheet. And that might actually be less comfortable, as heavier sheets tend to run hotter and breathe less. Plus, a 300 thread count on percale sheets is going to look and feel different than it does on sateen. 

Most sheet manufacturers may be lying about that thread count.

Thread counts aren’t regulated, so there’s a lot of wiggle room in how you constitute a “count.” In 2016, the Huffington Post reported that in some cases, for example, manufacturers might twist, or braid, several threads together, and then inflate the count. So a set of sheets with 125 vertical and 125 horizontal threads woven together — aka a 250 thread-count set of sheets — might include the braiding of those threads in threes, which gets packaged and marketed to you as a 750 thread-count sheet set. Woof.

So what does matter in picking good quality sheets? 

As ever, the quality of fabric matters more than the quantity of its threads. You also want to do a little bit of experimenting to determine your preference. Sheets tend to be woven in two styles: percale (light, durable) or sateen (silky, wrinkle-resistant), and quality varies within each.  

In your shopping, you’ve likely seen Egyptian, Turkish or Pima cotton on sheet labels. The New York Times reports that those terms may correspond with high quality — but they also might not. A better indicator of quality is “long-staple cotton,” which indicates a longer cotton fiber. Longer fibers mean the finish is smooth, strong, and durable. 

What’s price got to do with it? 

Sheets are a little bit like wine when it comes to cost. Highly rated sheet sets exist for each budget, with a lot just depending on your preferences. 

John Hughes, owner and operator of the Gardner Farm Inn in Troy, says that when he first opened his bed-and-breakfast, he dressed the beds in Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein sheets. He’s since discovered that the Kirkland sheets he replaced them with are better. “People have always said they like these sheets,” he says. At 100% Pima cotton, the Kirkland sheets run about $80 for a queen set, compared with about $120 for something similar by one of the name brands Hughes mentioned. 

Which sheets should I choose? 

We don’t know which ones you’ll like best, but here’s a checklist for you to keep on hand as you do your shopping. 

    • Look at the fiber content. For soft and affordable, you’ll have a hard time going wrong with 100% cotton, although cotton mixed with polyester is more affordable and wrinkle-resistant. 
    • Keep the thread count under 500. Anything higher is likely hot air. (Literally: If they’re actually sheets with a higher-than-500 thread count, you’re going to be very hot at night.) 
    • Make sure you know what size is best suited to your mattress. (Good Housekeeping recommends 15 inches as a good standard, but it’s not a bad idea to measure your mattress, especially if you have a topper.)

At a Glance

What are the ideal thread counts for popular fabrics? The New York Times breaks it down like this. 


      • Optimal: 250-300 threads 
      • Average quality: About 180 threads

But 200 can also be good. Going up to 400 or 500 threads could signal good-quality yarns, but they’re very likely to be pretty heavy sheets. 


      • Optimal: 300-600 threads 
      • Average quality: About 250-300 threads

Sateen sheets with higher than a 600 thread count are likely to be heavy (and not in a good way). 

Couple peeking out from under bedsheets photo: iStockphoto.com/Nastasic.

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