How to Read a Sheet Label

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image of woman buying sheets in store

What makes you love a particular piece of clothing: Is it comfort, or durability, or the fact that the material just feels great on your body? Maybe it’s all three. But even your favorite outfit doesn’t come close to getting as much direct, sustained contact with your skin as the bedding you sleep on every night. Sheets are like a garment you wear eight hours a day, every day, for a year or more. And risking a wardrobe malfunction means potentially sacrificing quality shuteye.

In fact, one survey by the National Sleep Foundation found that more than three-quarters of Americans felt that comfortable sheets and bedding were important to getting good rest. “It’s all about the experience,” says Terry Cralle, RN, a clinical sleep educator and Saatva sleep consultant. “We’re so much more focused on healthy sleep than we were even 10 years ago. People want to know more than just thread counts—they want to know if the material was sustainably made, whether it will wick away moisture and keep them cool at night, how many washes it will stand up to.”

How to buy sheets: common terms to know

If you’re looking for sheets you’ll love to curl up with night after night, these are the common label terms you need to know.

Thread count

This number, signifying how many horizontal and vertical threads a sheet has per square inch, used to be king when it came to textile quality. No longer: Once manufacturers caught on to the power of thread count as a marketing tool, some began to artificially inflate those numbers. These days, thread count is just one of many considerations, including the quality of the yarn and the type of weave. For optimal comfort and coolness, the National Sleep Foundation recommends a thread count between 200 and 400. Too high a thread count, and the fabric doesn’t breathe as well, trapping body heat and making for a hotter sleep.

(Not sure what to do with your worn-out sheets? Here are 15 creative ways to use old sheets.)

Long-staple cotton

Cotton is the most common material for bed sheets. Staple refers to the length of the cotton fiber. There are two main kinds of cotton: short staple (or American Upland) and long staple (Egyptian and Supima/Pima cotton are two kinds of long-staple cotton). Longer fibers tend to make a smoother, stronger, more durable fabric that is less prone to fraying and wrinkling. They’re also harder to grow and so command a higher price.

Egyptian cotton

The longest staple cotton of the three main varieties (American Upland and Pima being the two others), it is grown exclusively in the Nile River Valley and processed according to specific stipulations. This extra-long-staple cotton has become synonymous with a soft, supple weave and high quality and sheds very little lint. Beware blends, though—some products labeled Egyptian cotton may, in fact, have a small amount of cotton mixed with lesser quality materials.

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Pima cotton

A long-staple cotton that is grown in parts of the southwestern U.S., Australia, and Peru, it yields a very soft fabric with thread counts in the 200-300 range. “Supima” is usually found on the labels of Pima sheets as a trademark of the Supima Association.

Organic cotton

Cotton that’s grown without the use of pesticides and made without synthetic pigments or allergens is known as organic. This can be helpful if you have allergies to dyes and chemicals, says Cralle. Many people also like buying organic because it means they are supporting more sustainable agriculture.

(For more information on sheet materials, read our definitive guide to buying sheets.)

Weave

The way threads are stitched together, weave determines a lot about sheets: the feel of the fabric, how well it stands up to washing, how it looks, even how much it costs. In bedding, percale and sateen are the two most common weaves.

Percale

A weave where the warp (vertical) and weft (horizontal) threads cross over each other in an alternating pattern. It’s a simple but tight weave that provides a fine, crisp “hand,” or feeling against the skin. Very low thread count percale sheets (in the 100s) are referred to as muslin and have a coarser texture.

Sateen

A weave in which the horizontal threads overlap several vertical threads at a time. Sateen weave yields a glossier, smoother, and softer fabric.

Finish

Some sheets are treated with chemicals such as formaldehyde, chlorine, and silicon to prevent shrinking, fading, and wrinkling while others are finish-free (organic). Finishing can make sheets slightly stiff, though that usually subsides after a few washings (along with, in some cases, the ability to withstand wrinkles or fading).

Fitted sheet

Most bedding sets have a flat sheet (also referred to as a top sheet) and a fitted sheet. The fitted goes directly over the mattress and contains elastic to stay in place at the corners. If you have a plush-top mattress or thick mattress pad, Cralle says, make sure your fitted sheet has deep pockets to accommodate the extra depth. (Measure before you shop: standard depth is 7-9 inches, deep is up to 15 inches, extra-deep is 16-22 inches). Another trend she’s noticed is that many people are skipping the flat sheet and only getting a fitted.

Buying tip: If you are exploring unfamiliar materials and thread counts, you may want to purchase/try out a pillowcase before buying a complete set of sheets.

How do you feel about flat sheets? Take our top sheet poll to let us know.