Cotton is the most popular fabric used to make sheets and other bedding, and for good reason. It’s durable, breathable, soft, easy to care for, and generally quite affordable. You’ll find several different types of cotton, however. Some terms refer to the origin of the cotton fibers themselves, while other terms refer to the style of weaving or methods of treating cotton fabric.
Microfiber vs. Cotton
Sheets made of microfiber — fabric composed of extremely fine fibers of polyester — are affordable and soft, and they resist pilling more than traditional polyester fabric does. However, polyester is less breathable than cotton and is probably not the best choice for those with sensitive skin.
Cotton jersey sheets are also reasonably priced and very breathable because they're knit rather than woven. Jersey is basically t-shirt fabric, so jersey sheets may appeal to you if you like sleeping in a soft old shirt.
Microfiber and jersey don't have the cool crispness of woven cotton, so if you like to flip your pillows to the cool side all night long, you're better off looking at an inexpensive cotton percale instead.
Different Types of Cotton
The highest-quality, softest sheets use cotton with extra-long fibers (called long-staple fibers) that can be spun into fine, strong yarns. Certified long-staple cotton includes Egyptian, Pima, and Supima. That doesn't mean that other types of cotton don't make nice sheet. A fabric that is finished nicely with a high thread count can be made of non-certified cotton and still be very comfortable.
Thread Count Matters (But Highest Isn't Always Best)
Thread count refers to the number of horizontal and vertical threads per square inch. Generally, the higher the thread count, the softer the cotton sheet, and the more likely it will wear well — or even soften — over time. Good cotton sheets range anywhere from 200 to 800, although you'll occasionally see numbers over 1,000. Astronomical thread counts don't necessarily mean the sheet is better — there are even tricks to inflating the thread count (such as using multiple yarns twisted together) that don't actually improve the hand of the fabric and may even detract from its quality.
Don't assume a low thread count means low-quality sheets. "There are 200-count cotton sheets out there that are finished very nicely and actually feel like they have a higher thread count," Symmes says. "Fewer chemicals and more mechanical finishings are used these days, giving a nice hand and performance." If you're watching pennies, try 200-count combed cotton sets from a well-known brand; name brands are likely to have high certification standards for their finishing processes.
Usually, the fabric weave and the manufacturing processes used won't be a big factor in your decision; often they don't even appear on the packaging. But there are a few terms you should know:
- Sateen is a cotton cloth made with a satin weave, a weave that produces a very soft, lustrous feel but can be somewhat less durable than a tighter weave.
- Percale is the crisp, durable plain weave fabric typically used for sheets; it has a thread count of at least 180.
- Combed cotton has been combed to remove the short fibers and leave the long ones, which makes for a strong, soft fabric.
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