Sheet Thread Counts Don’t Matter

What price a soft night's sleep?

I remember standing in Bed, Bath & Beyond, looking at a set of king-size sheets, debating whether or not the $89.99 price tag meant that I’d be sleeping on the equivalent of a scratchy brick. But then I saw it emblazoned across the packaging—that undeniable beacon of luxury, good taste and impeccable quality: 600 thread count. Sold.

I felt like my strip-mall sheets were the world’s best-kept secret. Why all this fuss over Frette and Pratesi and sheets that cost more than my monthly mortgage payment? I scored 600-thread-count sheets for under a hundred bucks. Suckers.

Don’t tell me you haven’t thought it, too. “Yes, I know it’s Kathy Ireland for Wal-Mart, and I see that it’s $19.98 for a king-size set, but it’s 1,450 thread count!” Somewhere, someone declared Thread Count to be the barometer of bedding quality, and we’ve all fallen for it. Turns out, there’s a whole lot more to the story.

“Americans are obsessed with it,” says Pamela Diaconis, co-owner of luxe linen boutique Kellijane. “Somebody decided about 10 years ago that thread count mattered, and it’s been abused in this country.” She went on to tell me about one of her former clients—a smart, wealthy woman who wanted good sheets. When Pamela presented her the best of the best, she pooh-poohed them: The number was all wrong. Not the price—the thread count.

“I fought with her, telling her thread count doesn’t matter,” Diaconis says. “She refused. She wouldn’t get the best sheet simply because it didn’t have the right thread count.”

Sferra’s “Lose Count” campaign urges shoppers to forget the number (kind of like Weight Watchers—forget the number on the scale; focus on what’s going into your body). And then there was that New Yorker story years ago about April White, the Florida massage therapist who, in extraordinarily dramatic fashion, announced her very brave stand against the Thread Count Hoax:

“Enough is enough. More people need to be willing to step up and say, ‘Let’s do something about this.’ That’s how change will get made.”

White ended up settling for $2,500 with Bed, Bath & Beyond after textile forensic testing (yes, I’m serious) concluded that her purported 800-thread-count sheets were actually only 408 thread count. Gasp. But there was a problem way before the situation got all CSI-serious: The blind reliance on thread counts is, simply, stupid.

Thread count is the number of threads in a square inch. The more threads, the stronger and softer the fabric. “If you scale that up, if you’re using yarn versus rope, it’s going to be a softer fabric once you’re doing weaving it,” says Abby Lutz of the Fabric Workshop and Museum. “If you’re starting with cheap thread, the thread count doesn’t really matter.”

In other words, “There’s a reason that you’re paying $50 for a set of sheets,” says Diaconis. “[Thread count] is not apples to apples. It’s a matter of who weaved it, who finished it, how they washed it.”

So now what? Are we doomed to be like some of Diaconis’s clients, who work with her for more than a year to find the perfect set?

No, Diaconis says. But you’ve got to decide what you want in a sheet. Do you need something cool and lightweight (linen is a great, surprisingly soft choice), or warm and super-lush (flannel cotton is your best bet)? Will you change out your sheets every season, or do you need a year-round set? And then get back to what we’ve all forgotten about in this time of thread counts and lawsuits: Feel the darned things. Are they soft? Is the brand reputable? (Sheets may feel cozy at first, but those cheap-o sets will lose their soft finish after one washing.) You don’t need to spend a million dollars, but don’t fall for high-thread counts with low prices.

Because, really, thread count ain’t nothing but a number.