We went to the Puyallup Spring Fair last weekend, and while browsing the vendor building we passed a few tables selling sheets. Not just any sheets, these were “1600 thread-count Egyptian Cotton sheets”, for the low low price of just $29.99.
It’s also a load of horse pucky.
This, my friends, is deceptive marketing at its best (or worst). Manufacturers are playing on two common legends: that Egyptians grow and spin the finest quality cotton in the world, and that the higher the thread count the more luxurious the sheets. When you see sheets for sale like the ones I mentioned above, there is a big ol’ invisible “SUCKERS!” sign plastered all over it.
Allow me to explain.
Thread count is the number of threads that are woven in a square inch of fabric. From a 1-inch square, the threads are counted horizontally and vertically – so 100 threads tall by 100 threads wide equals 200 thread-count. Muslin fabric, which is sturdy but not all that soft, has a thread count of around 150.
The reason this is such a big deal is that higher thread counts are supposed to mean thinner threads, which are supposed to be softer and more supple.
What happens in reality is that manufactures bend the rules. In order to fool you into thinking those sheets are of higher quality, they are not counting threads, they are counting each ply of each thread and adding them all up as if they are woven individually (threads are commercially made of 2-4 individual plies which are then twisted together). Or, they are sticking additional, short pieces of cotton into the weaving between the threads. Or both.
Ok, so what’s the big deal?
Once upon a time, when thread was spun by hand, it was a mark of true craftsmanship to be able to spin a thin, strong, even thread of cotton. Spinners were judged on the quality of these threads, and it took great skill to create thread fine enough to be woven into soft yet durable fabrics. The best cotton for spinning has a long staple, or fiber length. Each region had its own native cotton plants, and of course the quality of fabrics would vary accordingly. People around the world spun cotton, along with other fibers.
In the 1800’s, during the industrial revolution, the invention of the cotton gin forced cotton growers to come up with varieties that would withstand the rigours of machine processing. The native cotton plants of Egypt were not up to the task, so an Ethiopian variety was introduced to Egypt. One man saw the potential and single-handedly made Egypt a single-crop cash cow of cotton. For a time, Egyptian cotton was world-renowned and in high demand, for it was truly amongst the highest-quality cotton available in the world.
History intervened and the marketplace became global. Competition drives prices down, and unfortunately, quality often follows. Consumers drive this process relentlessly, insisting on lower prices. And lower prices. And lower prices.
To meet this demand, consumers have seen an influx of knock-offs, cheap versions of products that used to stand for quality. Cotton is a just one example. While there is certainly a thriving cotton industry still going on in Egypt, the cheap sheets you see advertised are complete frauds.
Quality costs money. Period.
In order to sell you cheap sheets, manufacturers have to cut corners. They can add binding agents to the cotton to make the fibers stick together, which allows them to use inferior cotton, or varieties with short staple, and to disguise this they ply several weak threads together to make a stronger thread. The problem with short staple cotton and weak inner plies, or with adding short pieces of cotton between the threads, is that as the fabric is used and washed the short fibers poke out. These fibers are more easily abraded off, which leads to the fabric wearing out faster. The reason those inexpensive sheets feel soft after laundering is because during the manufacturing process the fibers were coated or treated to create a smooth surface. You wash that stuff off, and sure – it’s softer. For awhile. And then the fabric begins to pill and wear quickly because the short cotton fibers are not strong at all.
It is physically impossible to have more than about 400 threads per inch of fabric. More than that and the threads are too fine to weave together. A fabric that claims to have more than 400 thread-count is counting the plies in the threads, which is misleading and does not allow you to do an apples-to-apples comparison. Sheets that have 250 thread count are quite nice and perfectly fine. 300 is really great, and what is usually found in actual Egyptian stores selling their own cotton products.
Frequently, true 250 thread-count sheets are softer, more durable, and have a longer lifespan than the so-called 600 thread-count sheets, because to get to 600 there is some slight-of-hand going on. The challenge is sorting through the advertising bullpucky and accepting that quality costs money.
Or, not caring and buying those $29.99 sheets because you like the color.