Sunday, October 12, 2008

Thread Count, Weave and all that Jazz...

I use to choose my sheets, duvet and pillow covers based on their pretty patterns and colours (and affordability) not giving much thought to what they were made of or what the quality was. But after a few cheap and highly uncomfortable bedding buys (although they were pretty), I remembered the comfortable white bedding that my mum bought us after a trip to Malaysia. So I decided to replace all the bedding in our house with plain white bedding that was comfortable and breathable, thinking it would be more affordable and would hopefully last throughout my changing colour schemes.

What I didn't realise was what a minefield of terms and decisions I would have to go through just in order to buy a simple white cotton sheets - not to mention some rather expensive choices. I wanted to know how it was possible that one white sheet costs £90 in comparison to a £3 sheet? So here you have it, a post all about sheets and bedding, and how to make sure that next time you treat yourself to new pillowcases you can make an informed decision about whether those pillowcases really are worth the money you are spending on them. Just a quick note be fore we start, I'm very easily swayed by bargains, but I must say that in terms of bedding I have learnt that investing in good quality is worth it, but don't worry, it still can be very affordable - but you might want to forget about that £3 sheet if you want a good night's sleep. There's allot of detail in this post that some of you might not be that interested in, in which case skim through the top bit and skip to the conclusions to sum up how to make your choices, but these are the things you need to consider (in this order) when buying sheets: Fibre content, weave and thread count.

Fibre Content

This refers to what the bed linen is made from, cotton being the most common and in my opinion, complicated, so let's get that out the way.

Cotton is comfortable, natural, easy to care for, it keeps you warm but also cool. Have you ever notice that when you wear a synthetic fibre top you tend to get a bit sweatier than if you wear a cotton top? That is because cotton is 'breathable' meaning it is permeable to water vapour, thus allowing sweat to freely evaporate away from your body, lovely. It's wonderful stuff, but confusing when you try to buy a sheet. There are different types of cotton fibres identified by the staple or length of the fibre. The longer the staple, the stronger the fabric. Here are the type of cottons you can find, if a sheet is simply marked 100% cotton, it is probably a shorter staple.

Egyptian cotton - the longest staple in the world, but only if it comes from the Nile region.
Pima Cotton - one of the best quality cottons grown in America (Supima is the trademark that shows a sheet is made from 100% Pima cotton)
Sea Island Cotton - Said to be the finest of all cottons - rare, silky and white grown in the west Indies.
Intermediate staple cottons - Used for bedding with a thread count up to 230.
Shorts staple cottons - these are what you will find commonly in bedding from Asia.

Sheets made from linen are ideal for hot climates because the fabric stays cool. Linen is made from the flax fibres that are very durable because of resistance to abrasion or rubbing. But linen can also be rendered into delicate fabrics. Linens need special care, and are more expensive than cotton ones, but can last a very long time if cared for properly. So not the best choice if you love your 40 degrees wash cycle for everything and remember that linen also creases easily. But saying that, good quality linen bedding is a great luxury!

As opposed to linen, silk sheets will keep you warm as they drape around the contours of your body closely, but they are also durable although less so to abrasion which is why silk is not commonly used to upholster sofas or chairs. They are the epitome of luxury to some, but be weary if you like to keep cool at night.

Bamboo is usually mixed with cotton to make sheets, but because of the bamboo plant's ability to grow fast, it is becoming a popular choice as an environmentally friendly fabric. The great thing about bamboo is that it is naturally antibacterial, it is soft and allows for air circulation and as a bonus dries quickly after washing. I think bamboo will become more and more popular in our environmentally aware times.

These fibres include polyester, acrylic and rayon. They are resistant to creasing, but less comfortable than 'natural' fibres because of their low absorbency IE. you tend to get warmer under synthetic sheets because sweat cannot effectively evaporate away from your body. Many sheets nowadays are a blend of synthetic and natural fibres for durability and crease free qualities.


There are three basic weaves - the rest are variations of these particular weaves, plain weave, satin weave and twill weave.
Plain weave is the most common weave used to make sheeting, it is crisp and allows for air circulation.
Percale is a plain weave cotton fabric or cotton mix fabric with no fewer than 180 threads per square inch (see thread count below). These tightly woven threads result in a fine finish and texture.
Muslin is another plain weave where the thread count must be no fewer than 128, but muslin sheets normally don't exceed a thread count of 160.
Satin weave or sateen is where a number of threads lie directly next to each other when woven making for a smooth lustrous sheen to the fabric. They snag easily which is why the thread count of a sateen sheet needs to be higher.
Twill weave produces strong bedding fabrics that have a softer drape. They have more cotton fibres exposed on the surface and can therefore be brushed for extra softness.
Flannel can be made from either a plain or twill weave with a slightly napped surface on one or both sides giving it a soft fuzzy texture. Flannel sheets are usually very warm and best suited as winter bedding.
Jersey is a plain stitch knitted cloth. The fabric is knitted in circular, flatbed or warp knitted methods. Very elastic with good draping qualities.

Thread count
You might have seen adverts for Egyptian cotton sheets with a 600 thread count at a hefty price, and let me tell you, the sheet industry knows how to cash in on marketing sheets at a certain thread count... so what does it mean? Thread count is the number of horizontal and vertical threads in one square inch of fabric, so basically how closely the fibres are woven together. The higher the thread count the softer, more durable and probably more expensive the sheet is. But that doesn't mean you should buy the highest thread count you can afford, it's not quite that simple and not the only way you should choose your bedding sets. If a finer yarn is used, it's easy to get more threads within the one square inch of fabric, but this only makes a stronger sheet if long staple fibres are used. Therefore a muslin sheet made with a courser yarn might only have a 180 thread count, but would be just as durable as a sheet made of a finer yarn at 300 thread count but it wont be as soft and luxurious. Hospital sheets are an example of this - they are crisp and course but very durable.
Some manufacturers also cheat by using two very fine threads twisted together to make on thread, and then double the stated thread count even though it doesn't make a difference to the quality or feel.

Basically when you look at thread count, if you want a touch of luxury, look for a minimum of 200 thread count, but be wary of thread counts higher than 400.

More bed linen terms:
Combed- a technique used with cotton to remove shorter fibres producing soft durable fabrics.
Mercerized - this is where yarn is immersed in a caustic soda solution to increase the lustre and strength.
Carded - this process removes impurities by separating the fibres. Carded cotton is constructed of short-staple cotton.
Ring spun - A technique where fibres are mechanically twisted to produce a stronger yarn.
Yarn dyed - this is where the yarn is dyed before it is woven to produce a uniform colour.

Consider your preferences of how you like to sleep at night - do you prefer crisp sheets that keep you warm, but don't smother you? Or do you prefer luxurious softness that lies close to your skin?
If you can afford it, a true Egyptian cotton at a thread count of 400 would make most people very happy. But 100% cotton bed linen at a 200 thread count is great if you like crisp sheets. Although if you don't believe in ironing bed linen, cotton does crease quite a bit, but then I find hanging the bed linen up taught helps allot!

A synthetic/cotton mix is preferable if you really want to avoid ever ironing sheets or pillowcases, and will probably stand more wear and tear from repeated washing, so good for children's bedding. Personally I wouldn't recommend purely synthetic bedding because I find them uncomfortable and sweaty, but then I do love my cotton, so perhaps I'm biased.

Silk bed linen is of course a great luxury, but only if you like being kept warm, some people find them a bit smothering and claustrophobic because they drape so close to the skin. But apparently silk pillowcases don't make nasty sheet marks on your face after a good nights sleep... I'm not so sure about this, but I thought I'd let you know anyway. It sure would be great waking up without those red lines on my face.

My choice is pure cotton sheets that can be machine washed at 40 degrees and they are great for allergy sufferers. I like plain white because I like the look of it combine with colourful cushions and throws. However, I also love floral and dotty patterns too! Recently I've bought 100% bed linen from Dunelm mill in the UK at a very reasonable price and they have been great! I've also bought some Egyptian cotton bed linen from ASDA (yes you read that right). The ASDA ones, although okay quality, aren't sewn together very neatly, and don't have poppers at the bottom of the duvet cover (what a pain!). So next time I might just skip the Egyptian bit until I can afford quality ones.

So here's my suggestion for putting together a luxurious bed linen set at an affordable price:
There are plenty of very pretty and fun duvet sets out there at cheap prices, and you shouldn't have to miss out. Use good quality plain sheets, including a top sheet and pillowcases (buy the best you can afford according to your preferences) then combine that with a pretty duvet set or blanket and pillows. That way the fabric that touches your skin when you sleep is comfortable and luxurious (and preferably breathable and absorbent), but you can still have that funky IKEA duvet cover you like so much. I have found that some hotel or catering suppliers can provide quality sheets at great prices, but you need to buy in bulk (10 pillowcases etc), so it might be worth doing if you have many beds in your house or a friend wants to go halves with you. But do try and stick to mostly natural fibres for 'breathability' since our bodies need to drop in temperature at night for a good night's rest!

Okay, my head hurts from all that information now, but I hope it helps you to have a good night's sleep after your next bed linen purchase because you made an informed choice as to what you sleep on. Good night and sleep tight!

Thanks to all the great resources out there for this informative post:
Martha Stewart's Homekeeping Handbook
Home Comforts by Cheryl Mendelson


Judy said...

Hi what a great post. I've tried to stay white with my new purchases because I got tired of having sheets/blankets that didn't go with a new color scheme. I bought new bedding when I got my new mattress and I think I did OK!! I love it when you post something and I find out I do ok or I'm as far off as I thought I was.

Ivy said...

I had no idea buying bedding could possibly be so complex. Yikes!
I just get a thread count higher than 400 and get out of he store. Haha!

Lesley (Notesfrommydays) said...

wow fab post well done you :-) i am very particular about thread count and buy a ridiculous amount of bedding but need even more after reading your post :-D
Lesley x

Debbies-English-Treasures said...

Great suggestions and info!
This is regarding another one of your posts...
I used your warm water and vinegar suggestion to clean my laminate floors and wow!
It work amazingly!
I phoned my mama and had to share your tip!
We are both thrilled with it!
Thanks so much my dear Friend!
I`m sure that this post will come on handy too... when time to buy new bedding!
Debbie Moss

A note on perfection

Many of the posts featured on this blog are about doing household chores the correct, or so to say perfect way. My intention is not to make readers feel that the way they are running their households are wrong. So if making the bed, or ironing shirts in a certain way doesn't fit your lifestyle, do not feel guilty about it. But by learning the correct way of doing things it might just come in handy for those times when special guests are staying, or when you need to iron that shirt perfectly for a job interview. So enjoy the learning, but skip the guilt and LOVE your homes. x

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