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Sheeting thread count – What are the facts?

I am often asked if high thread count sheets are worth the extra cost over lower thread count sheets. Many factors go into the quality of a sheet or any other woven fabric. Only one of these is the fabric count.

Fabric count, or thread count as it is often called, is the number of vertical yarns (warp ends) and the number of horizontal yarns (weft) that can be counted in a square inch of fabric. This number can be used to get a relative comparison of the closeness or tightness of the fabric. This number is also indicative of the yarn thickness in the fabric; since only so many yarns can be placed into a given space, a higher thread count fabric will use finer yarns in comparison to a lower thread count fabric.

The yarn thickness also has an effect on the quality of the finished fabric. Generally speaking, longer fibers are used to spin finer yarns. Longer fibers are also usually finer which gives them softness and flexibility. Thus, finer yarns are generally associated with higher quality fabrics. Likewise, higher fabric count, which generally requires finer yarns, is associated with higher quality.

Armed with that information, the consumer goes out in search of a quality set of sheets. Once at the store, he or she may be faced with deciding on whether to buy 200, 300, 400, 600 count sheets, and I have seen some advertised as 1000 count. As you would expect, there is a price differential as the count goes up. Is the value worth the added cost in terms of softness and durability? How does a consumer get added value from higher count? The fabric count value for sheets and other bedding products can be transferred to feel, comfort and durability only when the yarns used are single ply yarns. If the yarns are too fine to weave as single ply, manufacturers may ply two or more of these together to increase the strength, pilling and abrasion resistance and to be able to weave the fabric satisfactorily.

What some suppliers have done is show the two yarns plied together as being two individual yarns. Technically that is true, but the space occupied is the same as one larger yarn. The feel and hand of the plied yarn will not be as soft as it would be with two finer single ply yarns. The FTC has ruled that plied yarns should be counted as only one thread for the purposes of thread count. This has not been enforced very well, but this caused some manufacturers to switch to inserting multiple fine yarns at each weft insertion, taking the fabric away from its original design of a true plain weave. Such a fabric will have a shorter wear life and be more subject to abrasion.

Studies have shown that, in the case of a product like sheets, properties such as softness, drape, and durability have been found not to be increased perceptibly above the 400 – 450 thread count range. Given that most consumers cannot notice appreciable difference above that range, and that consumers run the risk of purchasing sheets with deceptive thread counts, it is my opinion that the benefits of thread counts above the 400 – 450 count range is not worth the extra cost if that is the only deciding factor.

--Dr. Jim Watson