3 Most Important Bed Sheet Terms: Thread Count, Weave and Fabric

Here's what you need to know to choose the perfect sheets.

How to choose the best bed sheets.
Quality sheets are worth the splurge. Tetra Images/Getty Images

When it comes to buying bed sheets, it helps to know more than your bed size and favorite color. Is it true that the higher the thread count, the better the sheets? What’s the difference between percale and sateen? And does it really matter if the cotton is Egyptian? Answer these three questions, and you’ll be better prepared to choose the sheets that are perfect for your budget, your preferences, and your bed.

Thread Count – Is Higher Always Better?

One of the most common myths when it comes to buying bed sheets is that the only way to get good quality is to choose sheets with a very high thread count. While it’s true that many high-thread-count sheets are very soft and luxurious, it’s also true that so are many less-expensive sheets with lower thread counts. So don't automatically reach for the sheets boasting the most threads.

In fact, some manufacturers inflate thread count by twisting multiple fibers into one thread, and then counting each separate fiber in the final thread count number. So remember: a higher number does not always equal higher quality. 

What is Thread Count, Anyway?

Thread count refers to how many threads make up one square inch of sheet fabric, including the horizontal threads (called weft) and the vertical threads (called warp.) Typically, this number ranges from 150 count (these are the cheap sheets you’ll often find in children’s bedding sets) up to 1,000 or more (the most expensive luxury sheets.) However, those very high numbers can be deceptive. Most weavers consider 500 to 600 threads per inch to be the maximum count – but extra threads (called picks) can be twisted into the weft, adding to the thread count without actually doing anything to make the fabric softer or more luxurious. As a general rule, you’ll find 400 to 600 count sheets to be very soft and comfortable, yet far less expensive (and far stronger) than higher thread counts.

It's also good to keep in mind that typically, as thread count rises higher, the sheets become more fragile and prone to rips or snags.

Weave – Do You Like it Soft or Crisp?

Sheets that don’t specify any particular type of weave are generally a basic weave with the same amount of threads in the weft and warp. These tend to be low thread count and quite inexpensive.

When it comes to named weaves, the two most common are percale and sateen. Like basic-weave sheets, percale has the same number of warp and weft threads, but the cotton is combed, woven tightly, and is of a higher quality than basic weaves. Percale sheets are strong and durable, with a crisp feel that many people love. Choose percale sheets with a thread count between 200 and 400 if you want a lighter fabric, 400 to 600 if you prefer a heavier fabric.

Sateen sheets (not to be confused with satin, which is a fabric, not a weave) are very soft and silky, and have a slight sheen, thanks to a higher percentage of warp threads than weft threads. Although this makes sateen sheets extra soft, it also makes them likelier to pill and rip, so these are not the best choice if durability is a concern, such as on a child’s bed. If you love the sensuous feel of sateen sheets, choose a set with a thread count between 300 and 600 for strength without a loss of softness.

Fabric – Does It Matter If It Comes From Egypt?

While you’ll find many choices of bed sheet fabric, cotton and cotton/poly blends are the most popular by far. But although blends are better at resisting wrinkles -- and are durable and inexpensive -- nothing beats the comfort and breathability of 100% cotton sheets.

But even after narrowing it down to cotton, you still have choices. Does it really make a difference if the cotton is Egyptian, Pima, or no particular variety? Well, yes, actually, it does. Egyptian cotton is the highest-quality cotton in the world, with long, silky fibers that weave into exceptionally soft and comfortable sheets. Pima is a similar, long-fiber variety of cotton that is grown in the United States, Australia, and Peru. It’s often sold under the brand name Supima. It’s an excellent choice as well. If the sheets are cotton, but don’t specify 100% Egyptian, Pima, or Supima, then the cotton is probably a lower-quality variety that won’t feel as nice against your skin, and may not be as durable. You’ll pay more for Egyptian or Supima sheets, but the extra cost is worth it. After all, you’ll spend eight hours every night on those sheets, so make them the best you can afford.