Counting threads in sheets used to be considered aberrant behavior, practiced mainly in hotels by spoiled starlets, the kind who wash their hair in Evian.
But now suburban shoppers are playing the numbers game, too. Bedding stores report that many customers have a very definite idea of how many threads per inch they want in their sheets.
And it s not a laughable 180, barely higher than muslin; 200 is highly suspect; 250 is at least acceptable; and 400 is where the money is at. Manufacturers have jumped on the more-is-better bandwagon, too, trumpeting thread-count information on packages of even the cheapest lines.
The problem is, thread count is not the most important quality measure in a sheet. Experts say several factors have a far greater effect on comfort and durability: the quality of the cotton or other natural fiber used in a sheet, the skill of the manufacturer and the finish. And even in woven percales and sateens, where threads are most definitely counted, more isn t always better. People who sleep hot, for example, might prefer a crisp 200-thread-count percale to a brawny 800-count jacquard, said Betty Payne, co-owner of Annabelles Fine Linens and Gifts in Overland Park, Kan.
So forget about thread count for a minute, and let s talk cotton. The quality of the cotton, experts agree, is absolutely the most important factor in sheets.
If a sheet contains a high-quality cotton, sellers will usually tell you all about it, right on the package or in the catalog description. The words Egyptian cotton or Supima are very good signs.
Both terms denote top-quality, extra-long-staple, or ELS, cottons, which means they have fibers at least 1-inch long. (Pima is the generic term for ELS cotton grown in the United States, Australia, Israel and Peru; Supima is a licensed trademark for products made with 100 percent American pima.)
Yarn spun from long-fiber cotton has fewer connecting points, so sheets made from it are smoother and stronger.
Experts agree that pima is a very high-quality product. I don t know that I would be able to tell the difference by touch between Egyptian and pima, said senior buyer Susan Tosches of the Company Store, a bedding catalog based in Lacrosse, Wis.
Market statistics show the quality of Supima may be more appreciated abroad than at home: Switzerland and Italy, two countries famous for producing fine textiles, are major buyers of U.S.-grown Supima, said Jesse Curlee, president of Supima Association of America.
It isn t just the quality of cotton that affects how a sheet feels and performs: How the cotton is woven or finished makes a big difference, too.
Percale is the classic over one, under one weave you remember from kindergarten potholders. That gives you a crisp feel and flat, non-shiny finish.
Silky sateen floats three threads over one, which creates sheen and softness.
Comfy jersey knit sheets have a distinctive feel because they aren t woven at all but knitted. For fans, they feel like sleeping in your favorite T-shirt, said Kimberly Aylward, public relations manager of Garnet Hill, a natural-fiber bedding and clothing catalog based in Franconia, N.H. But detractors don t like the way jersey bunches on a mattress and gets twisted out of shape in the laundry.
Also, people who sleep hot may find jersey too warm for their liking. But Aylward said some customers like it as a year-round choice since it s warmer than percale but cooler than flannel.
Cozy flannel gets its softness from a technique called brushing that raises the nap of the yarns. The fluffed-up fibers trap body heat but also wick moisture away, Aylward said.
Martha Eyman, director of home merchandising at Garnet Hill, said American manufacturers, such as Fieldcrest and Wamsutta, are getting better. They have had to increase quality in order to compete, she said. U.S. customers are getting more savvy.
Buyers and store owners say they have seen a major shift toward all-natural fibers and away from cotton-polyester blends. Those easy-care polyester sheets that felt slick as a scorch mark are a thing of the past. And as for those horrible nylon satin sheets from the 70s -- may they rest in peace.
Some cotton-synthetic blends are still out there, so if you want 100 percent cotton, make sure it says that on the label. Rayon, nylon and polyester are synthetics often used in blends.
Customers today are less concerned with wrinkles than they were a generation ago.
People expect that in cotton there is a little bit of wrinkling, Tosches said. They don t mind because they are getting a softer sheet.
The same is even more true of linen, Payne said: It s an attitude. Linen is wrinkled when you wear it, and people don t get upset by that.
Good-quality fitted sheets generally come with 12-inch-deep pockets, even if the description doesn t say so. That depth will fit most mattresses -- unless you have a serious princess-and-the-pea-type stack of mattress toppers going on. And if that s the case, wouldn t you rather shed a layer than do that hospital-corners thing?
In the realm of superexpensive sheets, different fashion rules apply. Deep sheens and neutral hues reign in high-dollar jacquards and linens, while bold colors and fun patterns dominate mid-price percales and flannels.
Looks are secondary, of course.
What really counts is being able to slip into something comfortable at the end of the day.