Shopping for new sheets or other bedding is a treat and one of the fastest and easiest ways to give your bedroom a whole new look, but it can be a bit confusing. There are so many different types of fabric, but how do you know which is the best? Cotton? Tencel? Pima? And what exactly are those fabrics, anyway?
While picking your favorite color is a snap, choosing sheets made from the right fabric to suit your preferences is a bit more complicated.
Cotton is the most popular fabric used to make sheets and other bedding and for good reason. It’s durable, breathable, soft, easy to care for, and generally quite affordable. You’ll find several different types of cotton, however. Some terms refer to the origin of the cotton fibers themselves, while other terms refer to the style of weaving or methods of treating cotton fabric. Here are some of the most common:
- Egyptian cotton is the most luxurious variety. This is is the choice if you want super-soft, high-quality bed sheets. Grown in the warm, dry climates of North Africa, Egyptian cotton has extra-long fibers that create the softest, smoothest fabric.
- Pima cotton is also known for its softness and natural sheen. It has medium- to extra-long fibers that are ideal for bed sheets. This cotton is primarily grown in the southwest of the United States, along with a few other locations.
- Upland cotton is native to the Americas but is now the most commonly grown cotton in the world. Its fibers are not as long as Pima or Egyptian cotton, so it’s not as soft as those varieties. Most cotton sheets, unless they specify otherwise, are made of Upland cotton, especially if they are bargain-priced.
- Supima® is a trademarked name for fibers and materials woven from 100% American Pima cotton.
- MicroCotton® is a trademarked brand of extremely fine cotton thread developed in India. This durable cotton, made from long-staple cotton fibers, is very soft and absorbent.
- Cotton jersey refers to sheets made from cotton fabric that is knit rather than woven. Cotton jersey is essentially the same fabric used in cotton T-shirts, so you will like them if you enjoy the feel of soft cotton T-shirts.
- Percale refers to a closely woven cotton fabric with a plain weave. It has a very cool texture with a thread count of 180 or higher.
- Combed cotton refers to cotton fabric that has been treated to remove all the short fibers during the manufacturing process, leaving a very smooth fabric.
- Flannel, a staple for cold winter nights, is cotton fabric that’s been combed to fluff up the fibers. The result is a very soft fabric with a nap that traps body heat, thus giving flannel its snuggly-warm qualities. Unlike other types of bedding materials, flannel’s quality is measured in ounces per square yard, rather than by thread count. You'll find the best selection of flannel sheets as winter approaches, along with flannel sheet sets in holiday-inspired patterns.
Linen is made of fibers from the stems of flax plants. Linen sheets, pillowcases, and duvet covers are durable, hypoallergenic, breathable, moisture-wicking, and grow softer and stronger with use. A natural fiber, linen bedding is as easy to care for as cotton bedding if you don't mind a few wrinkles.
Tencel is a brand name for fabrics made from Lyocell and Modal fibers. Lyocell is made out of wood pulp from eucalyptus or oak, bamboo, and birch trees. Modal is made from beech wood. The fabrics are soft and very durable. Tencel is generally considered an environmentally friendly fabric, as its production requires less water, energy, and chemicals than does cotton.
While Tencel is fairly cool, it's not quite as breathable as cotton, and it can have a slightly clammy feel.
Acetate is a fabric made from the cellulose in wood fibers. It has a very soft and satiny feel, but because the fibers are weak, these sheets must be dry-cleaned or hand-washed.
Silk is a luxurious, soft fiber produced by silkworms. For sheer indulgence, it’s hard to beat real silk sheets; they’re cool and soft. The downside to silk, of course, is its cost, which is high, and its care, which is delicate. Still, if you want the utmost in luxury, consider a set of silk sheets.
Polyester is a manmade fiber produced from the same polymers used to make plastic drink bottles. While polyester is inexpensive, it’s quite stiff and scratchy when used on its own. Generally, you’ll find polyester mixed with another thread, often cotton, in inexpensive sheet sets.
- Microfiber - very finely woven polyester is sometimes sold as microfiber. While these sheets can be very soft, they are still not as breathable as cotton, and so are not the best choice if you tend to "sleep hot." They are durable, however, and resist stains, so they can be a good choice for a child's bedroom.
- Nylon is a strong and durable synthetic fabric that can make for soft and satiny bedsheets that do not wrinkle. But nylon starts to pill up after only a few washings. And nylon does not hold up well under the high heat of dryers or under a clothes iron. Even too much sunlight can cause problems for nylon.
- Acrylic is another synthetic material. It is not as comfortable against the skin as natural fibers, but it is very wrinkle-resistant and can be used to make very colorful bedding. It is used more often in blankets and comforters than for actual sheets. Careful washing is required to avoid pilling.
While bamboo fibers can be made into fabric, it’s typically rather stiff and rough. Most often, what you find labeled as “bamboo” sheets are actually rayon. This means the bamboo pulp went through a chemical process to dissolve the pulp, re-solidify it, and then spin it into thread. This process is potentially hard on the environment, making bamboo sheets less environmentally friendly than their manufacturers claim. It does, however, produce a very soft, durable, and silky fabric.
Bamboo is as breathable as cotton and feels good against your skin.
There are lots of blended fabrics available, most including some form of cotton. Cotton/polyester is the most common, but you’ll also find cotton/bamboo, cotton/rayon, and nylon/polyester. Blended fabrics are usually inexpensive, durable, and wrinkle-resistant, making them a good choice for children’s bedding.
Not All Bamboo is Created Equal. Natural Resources Defense Council.