When we decided to purchase new sheets last year, it was only after our favorite ones had ripped in multiple places and our limbs would poke through and get tangled up in the various holes throughout the night. This did not make for the most restful night of sleep.
The old sheets were a “1,200 thread count” (that thread count number is actually BS as I’ll explain below) set we’d purchased 10+ years ago at a bargain store, and we’d broken them in to a supreme level of buttery-soft perfection–sort of like your favorite t-shirt that is so soft and thin it’s almost see through.
As it became more clear that we’d need to replace our old sheets, I experienced equal parts trauma and panic. “I don’t know anything about sheets.” “I don’t want to spend a fortune, but we’ve got a responsibility to vote with our dollars.” “I can’t take a two week vacation to learn everything there is to know about bed sheets in order to make an informed purchase decision.”
All of these thoughts went running through my head, since I knew that the research and purchase decision would largely fall on my shoulders. (Aaron, my husband, would have happily continued sleeping on the old sheets for years until there was only a single frayed thread left on top of an otherwise bare mattress.)
Thus began my education in linen buying. What to do with all the info I learned (other than buy our new sheets)? Share it with you, of course!
Hopefully, if you’re looking for new bed sheets, you care about their quality and you especially care about where they came from. What does “where they came from” mean? How the fiber was farmed, how the materials were processed and what chemical additives went into them during manufacturing, and how the workers were treated at each step in the process (many textile workers in other countries are children working in sweatshops). If you care about those issues too, I hope you’ll find this article helpful!
Three Key Criteria to Evaluating Bed Sheets (and Organic Bed Sheets)
In order of priority, these are the three things I cared most about in evaluating which bed sheets to buy:
- Certifications - What are the different types of certifications, what do they mean, and are they stringent in their evaluations? There are plenty of games companies play on food labels (for instance, labels like “natural” which means absolutely nothing), so I wanted to make sure any certifications or labels on our new sheets actually carried weight.
- Thread Count, Cotton Types, Ply - These criteria are probably the most important for picking comfortable sheets. This was such an interesting learning experience for me, since I found out there are LOTS of games that bed sheet manufacturers play in order to manipulate their thread count numbers in order to sell inferior quality sheets at a premium price.
- Weave Type - Cooler, warmer, heavier, stiffer, etc – the weave type influences these characteristics and is really important for different seasons or if you live in a really warm or really cool environment.
If you just want the quick take-aways from this article, the infographic below provides what you need:
Now, let’s dive deeper into what you need to know about these three criteria when selecting your bed sheets.
What are the different certifications and what do they mean? Before diving in, you should know that cotton is considered the world’s “dirtiest crop,” due to the quantity and variety of pesticides used to grow it, not to mention all the synthetic nitrogen fertilizer it uses. While cotton is grown on 2.5% of the world’s farmland, it uses a whopping 16% of the world’s pesticides. Even on US cotton farms, the majority of the common pesticides used on cotton are considered moderately to highly hazardous to human and environmental health by the World Healthy Organization (WHO).
Cotton isn’t just something you wear on your skin, its byproducts are also used in your food and in animal feed. The pesticides used to grow it don’t just stay on the crops, they end up in the soil, air, and water that we all share.
These things matter to us, so we vote with our dollars. Thankfully, there are certifying agencies out there to help you figure out how the cotton in your bed sheets was grown, and I wanted to be sure to support organic cotton farmers who focus on things like soil health and using bio-based integrated pest management practices rather than synthetic insecticides. Organic farmers are also not allowed to use synthetic pesticides or fertilizers on their crops.
- Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) Certified - This certification is the most stringent certification on clothing, sheets, and other consumer fabrics. What’s not allowed? Any flame retardants, dyes using heavy metals, formaldehyde, pesticides, phthalates, PVC, PFCs, NPEs, chlorine bleach, and more. I also like that there is a big social responsibility component to the certification as well: employees must have safe working conditions and be paid a fair wage. In my opinion, GOTS is the best certification out there. Pretty much all GOTS certified fabrics will have a logo on the inside of the tag or product label stating it is GOTS certified. An interesting thing to note: you can have GOTS certified organic cotton, but if the final product wasn’t produced in a GOTS certified factory, then that company is not allowed to use the GOTS logo on the final product. We like seeing a certification with teeth and one that pays attention to all stages of the supply chain (we have a USDA certified organic garden seed company, so we have firsthand experience how important this is). When you see the GOTS logo, you can rest assured that the entire product is GOTS certified.
- OEKO-TEX Certified - OEKO-TEX is a certification that doesn’t allow hundreds of toxic chemicals to be used in the manufacture of clothing or sheets. The fabric does NOT need to be certified organic to receive this certification, however. Yes, pesticides are allowed to be present on clothing/sheets to pass this certification. Also, some chemicals, like flame retardants that are deemed to be the least toxic, are allowed to be used. If you are buying OEKO-TEX clothing, sheets, or baby products, check to see if they are using flame retardants as these are increasingly being considered a serious environmental and human health concern–especially for infants and young children.
2. Thread Count, Cotton Types, and Ply
A. Thread Count
What if I told you that it’s physically impossible to fit more than 500 cotton threads into a square inch? Yes, that means the highest possible “thread count” on your sheets is actually 500, despite the fact that we (and maybe you too) own sheets marketed as over 1,000 tc (thread count).
Turns out, this is a marketing deception that comes down to companies counting “invisible threads.” If you want to take a deeper dive into this topic, here’s a really informative article from Vila Mourisca, a Portugese linen company, that provides lots of helpful visualizations and explains how this game is played. As the article also explains, advertising a HIGHER thread count is a great way to sell LOWER quality cotton and/or multi-ply fiber.Key Finding: Higher thread count does NOT necessarily equate to higher quality, more comfortable sheets. In fact, if other quality factors are in place, a 200+ thread count sheet is awesome and will probably be far more comfortable and longer-lasting than a falsely labelled 1,200 thread count sheet.
B. Cotton Types
Not all cotton is the same. Cotton generally falls into one of three categories depending on the length of the individual fiber and each type has different uses and attributes:
- Short staple cotton: A short staple fiber is up to 1 1/8″ long.
- Long staple cotton: A long staple fiber is 1 1/8″ – 1 1/4″ long.
- Extra long staple: An extra-long staple fiber is between 1 3/8″and 2″ long. Egyptian cotton typically has the longest staple length of the ELS cottons, with Pima being the next longest.
As a general rule, longer staple cotton is going to make a better sheet. Why? It can be spun into longer, finer yarns that feel softer against your skin because they have less fiber ends exposed. They are also much less prone to pilling.Key Finding: I wanted sheets made from a longer staple cotton since that makes a better, more comfortable bed sheet.
“Ply” refers to the number of fibers that are twisted around one another to make a single thread.
- Single-ply yarn: Single ply means one fiber is used is used per thread. Longer staple cotton is required to make single-ply yarn. Since it can be spun into stronger, thinner, finer yarns, quality single-ply sheets have a very smooth, silky feeling.
- Double-ply yarn and multi-ply yarns: Two fibers makes a double-ply yarn. Three or more fibers makes a multi-ply yarn. These tend to make thicker, courser sheets that won’t last as long as single-ply sheets because each time you use them, wash them, and dry them, the exposed fibers fray a little bit more.
A good analogy for weave can be found in your kitchen. You can have really high quality organic ingredients, but if you don’t put them together well, you won’t get a great meal. The same thing applies to weave. The best cotton in the world can be woven in such a way as to make very poor quality, uncomfortable bed sheets.
And just as you prefer different types of food in the summer versus the winter (you probably don’t eat hot soup in July), you’ll likely prefer a different weave of sheet depending on the season. While other weaves (like twill) can be found in bed linens, the two most common I found among companies offering GOTs and/or Okeo-Tex certifications are these:
- Percale weave - Percale sheets are more loosely woven and ideal for the warm months. They’re woven to be lighter and more breathable. Note: they may feel really crisp at first until you break them in.
- Sateen weave - Sateen sheets are more tightly woven and ideal for cooler months. They’re woven to be silky smooth and soft, conforming to your body and keeping you cozy.
What Sheets Did I Decide to Get?
After spending far more hours than I’d care to publicly acknowledge reading about organic cotton farming and sheets and fabric during my non-working hours, then visiting countless websites to comparison shop, I was able to finally make a buying decision that I felt really good about. We look at these sorts of purchase decisions as an investment in the type of economy/companies we want to support. Also, if we buy something that will last 10x longer than a “cheap” alternative, it also saves us money in the long run.
Here are the sheets I got:
- Sateen sheets from SOL Organic for cool months. These are the softest, most comfortable sheets we’ve ever experienced. It’s like going to sleep in the soft white underbelly of a kitten. The company and sheets are GOTS certified (the most important certification, in my opinion) and Fair Trade Certified. The ultra soft long staple cotton is from certified organic farms. It’s got a 300 thread count and a 60s yarn count and are easily as soft as our well-loved “1200 tc” sheets. You can get these sheets here.
- Percale sheets from Brooklinen for warm months. These sheets are made from 100% long staple cotton and single-ply yarn. Brooklinen offers a 60 day trial period and a lifetime warranty (yes, our sheets will probably actually outlive us, which is a bit scary to think about). They’re OEKO-TEX certified, although they’re not GOTS certified. As mentioned earlier, these sheets were super crisp when we got them, but they broke in amazingly well after several rounds of use, washing, and drying. If you’re interested in getting Brooklinen sheets, click my refer-a-friend link to get $25 off your purchase.
I hope this information was helpful and informative! If you have any questions, ask away in the comments section below.