How to Choose the Right Type of Sheets for Your Bed
We put a lot of time, thought and energy into figuring out our wardrobes. We look for pieces that are comfortable or perhaps sweat-wicking, and that look good.
Figuring out bedsheets can require similar deliberations. After all, bedding is like a wardrobe for your mattress. The sheets you choose will certainly change the look of your bed. But they’re also the last thing you touch when you go to sleep at night, and depending on your needs, they can cool you off, keep your allergies in check, and bend and stretch to accommodate your adjustable base. So, with all of that in mind, how do you know you’re committing to the right set of sheets for you?
What to Know About Sheets: Thread Count, Ply, Construction, Finishes and Treatments
From percale to microfiber, linen to lyocell, the textile choices appear to be endless, as do the ways they’re woven and finished. But once you understand the main categories to focus on, it becomes easy to know what you want.
After all, each set of sheets is a composite of natural and/or synthetic fibers, chemical processes and brilliant engineering techniques. Knowing the anatomy of your sheets, and taking a holistic view of their components, can help you make a more informed decision about your purchase. The most basic element is understanding the construction of a sheet, or the type, amount and density of fibers, as well as the methods and techniques employed during production. Fibers include materials like cotton, silk, linen, etc., while the method refers to processes like weaving and knitting. The nature of your fibers, combined with the processing techniques, will determine the ultimate look and feel of your sheets.
Thread Count and Ply
Thread count has long been touted as a sign of luxury when it comes to sheets, but does high thread count really mean higher value? It helps to understand what it means. Thread count is the total weft and warp within a square inch of your textile. Weft applies to the horizontal threads, while warp applies to the vertical.
“Just because a thread count is higher does not mean it’s more luxurious,” says Mattress Firm Merchandising Manager Sydney Decesare. “A higher thread count is just going to be a heavier sheet.”
According to Decesare, you only need to worry about thread count when it comes to cotton—and the numbers don’t need to be as stratospheric as you might think. She says that “when looking at thread count, it is important to note that higher doesn’t always mean better. For premium 100% cotton such as Supima or Egyptian, the optimal thread count is between 550 and 800. The higher thread count on a cotton sheet can feel too heavy and lose its breathable benefit.”
“It’s kind of a myth that the best sheets have to be over 1,000 thread count,” she says.
Outside of cotton, the number of threads in your sheets doesn’t matter much. In fact, higher numbers and a label of “multi-ply” may be an indication of lesser quality. If a textile is multi-ply—which means thinner strands have been twisted together and then woven—manufacturers sometimes double or even triple the number, counting each strand to boost thread count. But unlike toilet paper, one ply thread count is softer than two.
Finishes refer to the number of threads (between one and four) and the patterns used to bind them together during construction (ranging from one thread crossing over one thread, to four threads over one thread). This process will determine your sheet’s overall tightness and durability. For consumers, that tightness translates into how soft or stiff your sheets feel, while the durability signals its potential to withstand washes and any nightly wear and tear. When it comes to sheets, some of the most common finishing patterns include percale, twill and sateen.
Ultimately, the overall impact of a finish will depend on the material. For example, “bamboo sheets are generally made with a twill finish, but when they are given a sateen finish, they tend to feel slimy and slick,” Decesare says. “Cotton is the most flexible for finishing options, as it can withstand whatever techniques best suit your preference.”
Here’s a primer on the most common types of sheet finishes:
Percale – Offers the tightest weave (one-over-one), making it the most durable—and the stiffest. However, that stiff feeling will loosen over time, growing softer with every wash.
Twill – With a two-over-one or three-over-one weaving, this is a medium option between percale and sateen for softness and durability.
Sateen – Gives the loosest feel, with a four-over-one weave. Most people immediately reach for a sateen finish because of the softness, but note that it will become less durable over time.
Textile treatments fall into two main categories: functional and aesthetic. Aesthetic treatments are applied for design purposes while functional treatments use chemical processes to, essentially, shield them from the impact of nature and constant contact with humans. Think of it like this: treatments make upkeep a bit easier for the user. There is an array of options you can choose from when it comes to sheet treatments, but some of the most common include anti-wrinkle, anti-microbial and stain-resistance.
The Pros and Cons of Different Fabric Types
Here’s a quick chart to help you get familiar with all the fabrics, down to the last wrinkle:
What to Know About Cotton Sheets
Cotton is one of the most common fabrics used for bedding because it’s easy to render as soft, breathable and easy to care for. Of course, cotton wrinkles, but if you grab those sheets fresh out of the dryer, you’ll be a smooth operator. And some cotton sheets, like ones with a percale finish, will have a perfectly crinkled look you wouldn’t want any other way.
- Supima: extra-long staple (2-inch fibers); Supima is the name for American-grown Pima cotton; luxurious feel and excellent quality
- Egyptian: same variety as Supima, but grown in Nile River Valley of North Africa; extra-long staple (2-inch fibers); excellent quality and luxurious feel
- Upland: shorter staple length than Egyptian or Supima; grown in the U.S. and elsewhere; an affordable choice
- Jersey: knit rather than woven for that soft T-shirt feel; not as durable as other styles, but like sleeping in a favorite old concert tee
- Flannel: cotton that’s been combed or brushed to produce a napped or fuzzy feel; best for colder weather use; affordable unless buying from a high-end brand
Pick cotton if you...
Cotton is a stellar choice for anyone who prefers natural fabrics. If you also sleep hot, cotton offers a breathable bed layer. However, it can trap moisture.
And although you should always follow care instructions from the manufacturer, you can typically wash cotton bedding on high heat—a must for post-cold and allergy nights when you need dust mites gone.
Shop Cotton Sheets
What to Know About Linen Sheets
Whether it’s Elton John’s linen song or that the fabric is one of the oldest textiles, many people think of bedding as being made of this material. It has a natural, warm, rustic, lived-in look, making it one of the staples of the cottage core trend.
Linen is derived from the strong fibers of the flax plant. It’s often soft and even more breathable than cotton, yet it’s durable in that it doesn’t stretch and wear out. Linen is also a super sustainable and kind-to-the-earth fabric since growing flax requires few resources, like water, and no pesticides or herbicides.
The two downsides are that linen wrinkles (but in an aesthetic, oil painting way) and can sometimes cost a pretty penny.
Pick Linen if You...
Linen is a must for the conservationist. But, thankfully, it also looks so classic. And like a good wine, it gets better (meaning softer) with age.
But linen is also perfect for anyone who gets a little lackadaisical about doing the wash—hey, we’re not judging—because linen is naturally antimicrobial and hypoallergenic.
Looking for Eco-friendly Sheets? Try Bamboo
Bamboo bedding has become popular in recent years. Because of its name, it sounds like a plant-based, eco-friendly product. And it can be quite soft, durable, breathable and wrinkle-resistant. But hold the phone.
Almost all “bamboo fibers” used in the production of textiles aren’t actually bamboo in the end. The textile industry considers them to be regenerated fibers. The production process involves using the natural building blocks of the plant’s cellulose to ultimately make a synthetic textile. The cellulose along with chemicals create a pulp that is turned into fibers that you may know as viscose/rayon.
Bamboo is sometimes also championed for being antibacterial and antifungal and therefore hypoallergenic. But one study shows this to be false. However, bamboo won’t trap moisture, which is nice if you want to feel comfortable in humid areas.
Pick Bamboo if You...
If you sleep sweaty or like super-soft, smooth sheets, bamboo might be your bestie. And if you don’t mind separating your sheets for cold-water washing. But avoid this material if dust mites are your sworn enemy.
What to Know About TENCEL Sheets
TENCEL is a brand name that can refer to either lyocell or modal. It’s created like rayon and bamboo fibers, except with wood pulp. The wood pulp is mixed with a solvent, then formed into threads that are chemically treated and spun into yarn that’s used to create a textile.
The difference with the company that makes TENCEL is that they reuse the solvents so they don’t end up in the ecosystem. TENCEL lyocell is sourced from sustainably managed eucalyptus trees while modal is sourced from beech wood trees. Both fabrics are soft, durable, breathable, cooling and wrinkle-resistant.
The moisture-wicking efforts of TENCEL can help keep dust mites at bay, but this fabric prefers a cold-water wash. So it’s not ideal if you like running your laundry on warm or hot.
Pick TENCEL if You...
TENCEL will tickle your fancy if you want a sustainable synthetic that wicks away the night sweats.
What to Know About Luxury Silk Sheets
Silk is, well, silky soft; however, it’s not a vegan product since the fiber is produced by silkworms. You’ll often see bedding described as “mulberry silk,” which refers to the mulberry leaves the silkworms of the Bombyx mori moth have been munching on.
The thin threads make silk breathable. (Though cotton and linen still win there.) But they also make silk super delicate, so silk bedding needs a little extra TLC when washing.
Pick Silk if You...
Hot sleepers, allergy sufferers and divas of all kinds will love the luxury. Silk is one of the priciest options for bedding, but you know you’re worth it. P.S.: Dust mites hate silk. Let ’em weep while you sleep.
What to Know About Polyester and Microfiber Sheets
If you’re looking for natural fibers, polyester is not it. Polyester itself is a plastic made from a chemical reaction that involves water, air and petroleum. When melted down for textiles, it initially starts out rough, but polyester is often part of a blend, like with cotton, in bedding.
Microfiber is polyester that’s two times thinner, and thus much softer.
But one benefit of polyester is that it wicks away moisture if you tend to wake up damp. But it can still lack the same breathability as linen or cotton. Poly sheets run the gamut when it comes to pricing, with poly-cotton blends on the cheaper end and microfiber options on the higher end. One thing to note: Synthetic bedding is not considered a dust mite buster.
Pick Polyester or Microfiber if You...
Love your comfy active wear? Then you’ll feel right at home by bringing the poly microfiber option to your bedroom.
Microfiber bedding means the fibers have been finely woven for a much cuddlier feel. This approach makes polyester sheets more affordable, wrinkle-resistant and easy to clean. On that note, we should mention it can be prone to piling, though—especially satiny versions.
How to Decide Which Sheets Are Best for You
Your decision really comes down to what factors are important to you when it comes to the fabrics you wrap yourself in at night.
- If you’re aiming for the most natural fibers possible, stick to linen or cotton.
- When sustainability is the key, linen is one of the most eco-friendly choices.
- If wrinkles create a wrinkle in your life, aim for TENCEL or microfiber.
- If you’re vegan or easy care means the most, skip the silk.
- Want warmth? Flannel is your game.
- Going for cooling? Percale cotton or a TENCEL choice will keep you chill.
What goes where? That might be your next big bedding question. Really, all the textiles mentioned are used for all forms of bedding, be it duvet cover, fitted sheet or extra blanket for cozy, layered luxury. The choice is yours, but remember, it’s sort of like dressing yourself too. Sometimes aiming for comfort is better than color or design.
And since it’s where you’re tucked in for a good eight hours every night—hopefully—going to a store to get a real feel (or asking for fabric samples) shouldn’t be out of the question.