Sheet dreams: How to shop for bed sheets

After finding holes in our second set of seven-year-old sheets, I decided it was time to go sheet shopping. With quality ranging from my elastic-only-in-the-corners polyester blend to sheets created by Italian artisans and prices to match, I wanted to get the best, most durable set for my money.

The Cotton Tale

After inspecting the labels of all my sheet sets, I found my favorites were made of 100% cotton.

And I’m in good company, because cotton makes up the majority of bedding options. But not all cottons are equal. The length of cotton fibers (called the “staple”) differs and, in general, the longer the fiber length, the softer and more durable the fabric.

If you’re looking for less pilling and greater durability, Pima cotton, Supima cotton, and Egyptian cotton are reputed to be high-quality cottons. Egyptian cotton, in particular, has fine, silky, extra-long staple fibers, and Egyptian cotton venders claim their sheets last decades. My set of Egyptian cotton sheets were the first to develop holes, but they felt awesome.

How will you know which cotton is used in your sheets? If the label does not specify the type of cotton, you can assume it is lower quality cotton (most cotton grown in the U.S. is upland cotton, a shorter staple variety).

Cotton is popular because it resists stains and wicks moisture away from your body as you sleep. Though far less common, sheets made of silk and linen also have these moisture-wicking characteristics.

As I read many top-performing sheet reviews, I discovered the main complaint for cotton sheets was wrinkles. No big surprise there.

What did surprise me was that some cotton sheets are treated to resist wrinkles, but these sheets may have formaldehyde on them. Plus, wrinkle-resistant treatments often result in sheets that are less comfortable. A natural solution for fewer wrinkles is to take sheets out of the dryer while they’re still slightly damp and put them immediately on your bed. Or you can iron them, of course. Another less-wrinkly, but less moisture-wicking (how many times can I put “moisture-wicking” in one article?) option is a cotton/polyester blend.

Though cotton bedding is the most popular, other fabric options exist. Silk, while hypoallergenic, is pricey. Some people love the eco-friendly linen bedding, though it’s also more expensive than cotton. Some people even like satin sheets to cry on. Synthetic fabrics, like polyester, are inexpensive alternatives, but pill more easily.

Threads Up!

Thread count is the number of fibers per square inch of fabric, and I thought more is better. And it does matter…to a point.

Most people agree that good quality sheets have a thread count of at least 200, while the best thread count is 300-400. Beyond 400, though, manufacturers are probably using multi-ply fibers to increase the thread count which may slightly increase durability at the expense of stiffer fabric.

Note: During this research, I did find a website that claimed their 1500 thread count used single-ply thread. However, most sources said that manufacturers would find it difficult to put 1500 single-ply threads in a square inch. I found other sites that admitted using two-ply thread for a thread count of 800.

Other Quality Indicators

So more $$$ doesn’t necessarily equal more Zzzzzzs, as my holey Egyptian sheets demonstrate. Type of fiber and thread count do matter. But don’t forget about weave type and stitching.

Weave type
If you like crisp sheets, go with percale weave. If you like soft, go with sateen.

  • Standard weave is strong and even, one stitch over and one under
  • Percale weave, used at thread counts of at least 200, is tighter and more crisp than standard
  • Sateen sheets have more vertical than horizontal fibers, resulting in a very soft sheen, but is more likely to pill or tear
  • Patterned weaves, like jacquard or damask, are very expensive but very durable

My set of sheets with elastic only at the corners pops off the mattress after a restless night, so my next set of sheets will have elastic all the way around. Also, look for double-stitched hems and pillowcases. With pillow top mattresses, especially, the sheets should have a pocket depth deep enough (add at least two inches to your mattress depth) to cover your mattress.

Finishing touch
Mercerizing strengthens the fabric and adds luster. Wrinkle resistance and shrinkage control have their advantages, but may result in less comfortable fabrics. If you select sheets with a pure-finish label, it ensures that chemicals were not used in the manufacturing process or all traces of chemicals have been removed.

The Bottom Line

Although everyone’s preferences are different from mine, I decided I wanted high-quality (but not organic) cotton, percale weave, and a thread count of at least 200. In the end, I picked the “best cotton percale sheets” from one vendor because I am not sure if I will like the crispness of percale. I am glad L.L. Bean offers such a great guarantee if I like sateen weave better after all.

At $150 per set, I’ll admit my choice doesn’t seem incredibly frugal. If they last 10 years though, they’ll cost less than a nickel for each good night’s sleep.

On the other hand, I feel crazy for spending that much money on sheets when Walmart has a microfiber sheet set for less than $22. Decent reviews, but 100% polyester. Sure, I prefer 100% cotton, but do I prefer it enough to spend $128 more to get it? Which set would last longer?
I’ll have to sleep on this decision.

Do your sheets help you get a good night’s sleep? Has anyone tried linen? Did I miss any other important factors?

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