Bed linen buying guide
Not sure what kind of bed linen to buy? Here’s what to consider.
Not sure what kind of bed linen to buy? Here’s what to consider.
Picking the best buy from the rows and rows of bed sheets at the shops can almost be enough to keep you up at night. Along with price, you have to consider a range of other factors from thread count to fabric type.
To help you sleep easy, we take you through the lingo you need to know when shopping for sheets. We also sent five sheets to the lab to see how different thread count sheets perform for durability and pilling (those annoying little balls of fibre caused by wear that can make your sheets feel a bit like sandpaper).
Go prepared: know the size of your bed and measure your mattress to be doubly sure of the right fit. The depth of mattresses can vary and if yours has a pillow-top, you’ll want to make sure the sheets fit.
If the sheets aren’t on display at the store, take them out of the pack and see how they feel. Bear in mind that once sheets are washed a few times they’ll soften up.
Check the stitching on the wide hem of the top sheet and on the pillowcases. Stitches should be small, tight and free of loose ends.
Check the label for the thread count and the ply of the yarn. If it’s not stated, ask. You can also ask whether the sheet has been tested for pilling and durability, and what the results showed.
If you want to splash out on some pricey sheets but are unsure if you’re choosing the right ones, buy the pillowcases first and see how you like them.
Sheets made from natural fibres will breathe better. Cotton is the obvious choice. If you like wrinkle-free sheets, 100 percent sateen cotton sheets are less prone to creases.
On the front of the pack, you’ll usually find the sheet’s thread count. It tells you the number of threads (both vertical and horizontal) in a square of fabric. It’s either shown per 10cm2 or per square inch.
We found thread count can range from 180 to 1000.
A decent sheet should have a reasonable thread count. But here’s the rub: a higher thread count doesn’t always mean better quality. For example, sheets made with a thinner yarn will have a higher thread count because there will be more threads per 10cm2. However, thin yarn may mean the sheet won’t wear as well.
As well as thread count, the quality of the fibre, ply, weight and weave all influence how well your sheets will stand up over time.
When you’re shopping for sheets, you might spot products with organic or other environmental certifications. What do they tell you?
The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) logo and the Organic Content Standard (OCS) were the main marks we found.
There are two GOTS certifications: GOTS Organic certification requires a product to have at least 95 percent organic fibres, while the GOTS Made with X% organic label requires at least 70 percent.
The OCS also has two logos. The OCS 100 logo means the product has at least 95 percent organic material while OCS Blended only requires a minimum of five percent.
You might find the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) logo. It signals the manufacturer is using at least 10 percent sustainably sourced cotton, with a plan to use 50 percent within five years.
Some manufacturers also opt for Bluesign or Oeko-Tex certification. These schemes set health and environmental standards relating to chemical use in textile manufacturing.
Thread count simply means the number of threads (both vertical and horizontal) in a square of fabric – either per 10cm² or per square inch. Bed linen made and sold in New Zealand usually displays thread count per 10cm².
A reasonably high thread count (over 180 threads per 10cm²) is good, as closely woven fabric wears well and shrinks less. However – and this is where it gets confusing – a higher thread count doesn’t always mean better quality or greater durability.
A thinner yarn produces a higher thread count as more threads can fit into each 10cm² of fabric. The fabric will be soft and smooth, but it’s also more delicate and may not last as long. Durability depends on the strength and quality of the fibre and the quality of the weave.
This refers to how many yarns are wrapped together into a single thread – single-ply fabrics use threads made from 1 yarn, while 2-ply fabrics are created using 2 yarns twisted together to make 1 thread.
Fabric that’s 2-ply (or more) is heavier, stronger and more durable than single-ply. The trade-off is that the fabric may not have the soft, silky feel of a high-thread-count, single-ply sheet.
It’s standard practice to count each individual yarn when calculating thread count. So a sheet labelled “1000 thread count” could technically be 250 threads per 10cm², woven with 4-ply thread.
When you’re buying bed linen, check for the thread count and the ply of the yarn. If it’s not specified, ask.
Fibres are combed and the short ones are removed to make a smoother fabric.
Varieties that grow unusually long fibres (27-29mm).
A closely woven (at least 225 threads per 10cm²) plain-weave fabric (100 percent cotton or a polyester-cotton blend) with an equal or similar number of vertical and horizontal threads.
The simplest weave structure: single vertical and horizontal threads woven under and over.
A weave that has more threads on the surface of the fabric – usually 4 threads woven over 1 thread. It has a smoother, silkier feel than plain weave fabric.
True Egyptian cotton is grown along the banks of the Nile River. Its long, fine fibres make a uniform, strong and smooth thread when twisted into yarn.
The words “Egyptian cotton” can simply be used as a marketing ploy. Much of what is labelled “Egyptian cotton” also contains cotton grown in other parts of the world.
So check the fine print. Unless the label says “100% Egyptian cotton” it may contain only a shred.
Gabrielle Hoffman, bed linen buyer for Christchurch department store Ballantynes, advises: “Price is usually a good indicator – genuine Egyptian cotton sheets will be more expensive”.
But you don’t have to rely solely on price to make sure you are getting the real thing – look for the Egyptian cotton “Authentic Seal of the Egyptian Government” on the packaging.
Cotton grown in Egypt isn’t the only high-quality cotton. Long-staple cotton grown elsewhere under similar climatic and geographic conditions is arguably of equal quality. For instance, pima cotton grown in the south-west states of the US.
And cotton seems to be shoppers’ current fibre of choice. Gabrielle’s noticed a trend away from synthetic threads towards natural fibres: “Although we always try to keep polycottons on the shelf, the trend is more towards 100% cotton.”
The Observer Magazine in the UK has reported that child labour is rife in the cotton plantations of the Nile Valley. Children as young as 7 are paid a pittance to work long days exposed to harmful pesticides, to satisfy the rest of the world’s demand for luxury bed linen.
Combed cotton has the short fibre removed, which creates a more regular and less hairy yarn, and therefore a smoother fabric.
Egyptian cotton doesn’t necessarily come from the banks of the Nile. It may just mean the bed linen is made from long-staple cotton. An Egyptian Cotton “gold seal” on the pack tells you the fibre was grown in Egypt (although the sheets may have been manufactured somewhere else). The logo is the trademark of the Egyptian Ministry of Industry and Foreign Trade and the Alexandria Cotton Exporters’ Association.
Fabric-finishing is applied to some sheets to reduce pilling and creasing. Generally, this improves the durability of the sheets. Sheets are singed (burning the tiny fuzz from the surface of the fabric) to reduce pilling or may be mercerised with caustic soda (sodium hydroxide) to increase the lustre and strength of the fabric. Mercerising also makes the fabric more receptive to dyes.
Flannelette sheets are generally made from cotton but are brushed to create a softer and warmer feel.
Long-staple cotton comes from varieties of the plant that grow long fibres. Percale and Egyptian cotton sheets are typically made from long-staple cotton.
Percale, or plain weave, means the yarns are closely woven in an over-under pattern (much like lattice on a pie). Percale sheets are more likely to have a lower thread count (200 to 300) and their texture is crisp and cool.
Sateen sheets (or satin weave) have fewer interlacings to give a smoother and silkier feel than percale. Because the weave is prone to snags, manufacturers may put more threads in to compensate, which makes the sheets stronger, but also heavier and warmer.
We sent five sheets to the lab to see how different thread count sheets perform for durability and pilling. Our lab test showed how performance can vary, even when comparing sheets with the same thread count.
The cheapest sheet with the lowest thread count (180) performed the worst for pilling: it was a $19 polyester/cotton BH Brampton House sheet from Spotlight.
A $49 Home Co cotton sheet from Bed Bath & Beyond, also with a 180 thread count, did better.
To test for pilling, the sheet is rubbed against itself 7000 times. After 2000 “rubs”, this sheet showed obvious pilling. However, at 7000 rubs the pills had disappeared (though whether you’d be prepared to put up with the early pilling is another matter).
Bed Bath & Beyond said it tested the Home Co sheet using a different test method, which found it showed “slight pilling” at 1000 rubs.
The sheet in our test with the highest thread count (400) – a Briscoes’ Gracious Living sateen cotton sheet – showed moderate pilling at 7000 rubs. Distributor NZ Merchants said it had tested the sheet to 2000 rubs. Its results were similar to our findings at 2000 cycles.
We got mixed results for the organic cotton $72 Royal Doulton sheet, bought at Briscoes. It passed the pilling test but didn’t perform as well for durability, starting to show wear before any of the others. Caprice NZ, which manufactures Royal Doulton, said its sheets are tested for performance but didn’t provide the results.
Just one product, a percale $49 Solace cotton/polyester sheet, sold at Bed Bath & Beyond, performed consistently well in both our pilling and durability tests. It had a thread count of 250.
We tested five sheets with a thread count ranging from 180 to 400 for durability and pilling.
Testing was carried out by the New Zealand Wool Testing Authority (NZWTA). Samples were sent to the lab “blind”.
To assess durability, the lab used the Australian standard for abrasion resistance: AS 2001.2.25.1-2006 Methods of test for textiles - Determination of the abrasion resistance of fabrics by the Martindale Method.
Durability was measured by rubbing the textile 20,000 times. While the standard doesn’t set a minimum “pass” mark for bed linen, the NZWTA used 20,000 abrasions as the benchmark.
The pilling test used ISO 12945-2:2000 Determination of fabric propensity to surface fuzzing and to pilling (part 2 modified Martindale method).
In this test, the fabric is rubbed against itself 7000 times and graded on a scale from one to five. A measure of five at 7000 cycles shows no change in fabric, four indicates slight fuzz, and three or below shows moderate to dense pilling.