Conventional wisdom dictates that when shopping for bedding, the higher the thread count, the nicer the sheet. We’ve been trained to equate large numbers with luxury and have mostly accepted this as fact — after all, we need some way to measure quality. But float this logic by any textile expert, and you’re bound to get a skeptically raised eyebrow because this assumption is wrong. As linen expert Julian Tomchin told The New York Times, “once you get beyond 400 threads per square inch, be suspicious.”
By definition, thread count is simple: It's the number of threads woven into one square inch of fabric — add the vertical ones (technically, the “warp”) to the horizontal ones (the “filling”). But in reality, it’s not nearly that straightforward. Think about it: Only so many pieces of thread can fit into a specific space. With bedding, that number maxes out around 400. That means manufacturers have to employ some creative counting to land those 1,000-plus numbers.
One of the most common ways to do this is to factor in a fabric’s ply. (A note about fabric construction: Each thread in a piece of fabric is made up of single strands twisted together. This is called ply. When two strands are twisted together, it’s two-ply fabric; with three strands, it’s three-ply; etc.).
Some manufacturers might decide to count each of the strands individually, making it easy to double or triple the thread count — and therefore, the price. But this has little effect on the actual quality of the linens. Other manufacturers might use thinner threads to increase the thread count, which can shorten the linen’s lifespan without increasing comfort.
The very idea of thread count is a new construct. The first 1,000-plus thread count sheets hit the shelves in the early 2000s as a way for manufacturers to differentiate themselves from the competition. These sheets used very fine cotton, which resulted in a higher-ply — and higher thread count — material. The competition followed suit, even though labeling thread count prior to this was virtually unheard of. There’s actually no FTC mandate on how to determine thread count, just a voluntary standard that only threads are counted, regardless of ply. Manufacturers aren’t forced to comply. In fact, the Good Housekeeping Research Institute found a startling stat in their 2002 study:
But besides being deceptive, inflating thread count is just silly. All leading authorities have determined that thread count alone is not an indicator of quality. As Consumer Reports states, “Our latest tests again confirmed that higher thread count doesn’t guarantee better sheets.” Some of these practices are actually a detriment to quality, resulting in heavy sheets that don’t breathe well or feel stiff and uncomfortable.