Our Guide to Shopping for Sheets
Thread count is one of those things; we know it's important, but we don't exactly know why. Simply put, thread count is a calculation of the number of horizontal threads plus the number of vertical threads present in a square inch of percale sheeting. Thread count only applies to percale* bedding, not to linen or flannel. Historically, the higher the thread count, the smoother and softer the sheets.
But as some discounters have entered the bedding business, so have some methods of counting threads that don't necessarily lead to a smoother sheet. If the price on a 1000 thread count sheet seems too good to be true, it probably is. Some very high thread count sheets are made from plied yards rather than single threads, which yields a much coarser sheet that pills over time.
When choosing percale, I think you can find a really nice 200-300 thread count sheet from a reputable bedding brand that's much smoother than a 1000 thread count sheet from a discounter. And look for combed cotton. It's much smoother and less likely to pill than carded cotton.
You'll also hear terms like Egyptian Cotton (a higher quality cotton fiber), Sateen (a type of weave that creates a smoother surface) or Dobby (a method of weaving a pattern into a sheet using only one color). If you are unclear about the offer, don't be afraid to ask questions.
There are other types of bedding to consider for which quality is not measured by thread count:
There's a reason Europeans invest in linen sheets for their beds. It has a soft, has a casual, artfully rumpled appearance that makes your bed look like a stylist just made it for you. And it's cool, breathable and naturally anti-microbial. Fibers are much thicker than cotton, so not as many can be fit into the loom to drive the thread count up. But linen fibers are also softer and more durable, leading to a softer, longer lasting sheet.
A flannel sheet is a percale sheet that's been brushed to create a soft surface. It's heavenly in the winter, a nightmare in the summer. The best measure of the quality of a flannel sheet GSM (grams per square metre). The higher the better.
This natural fiber is an enigma to me. It's a rapidly renewable resource, so I like that. But the process to transform the bamboo into a pliable fiber that can be woven requires so much water and electricity, that it feels counter-productive. And I just don't love the way it feels.
Think of your favorite t-shirt as a sheet. Jersey sheets tend to be offered more by discounters because they're cheap to make and are great for dorm rooms and occasional use in guest rooms. But you can find some higher quality jerseys sold by brands that specialize in bedding.
One last tip: if your sheet has stripes, make sure they are yarn-dyed stripes rather than printed stripes. Printing can turn a very soft sheet into a very scratchy one.
*Percale is a tightly woven, plain-weave fabric, resulting in a smooth matte finish, cool to the touch and breathable against the skin.