What Makes a Great Bedsheet?, New York magazine asked in their most recent issue. Apparently the answer is not depending on the publication for the answer.
In a three-page feature in its April 25-May 8 print issue, a version of which also appeared online, the fabled magazine provided some guidance on the characteristics of sheets and then presented eight “ Best” choices. It all seemed to be based on a group of panelists that featured interior designers, online writers, PR executives and even a chef, but curiously did not include anyone with a technical background in textiles nor insiders in the home textiles field.
That might help explain the assorted pieces of misinformation and the odd product choices that leaned heavily towards direct-to-consumer brands and obscure offerings rather than products most sheet shoppers would encounter in their regular shopping habits.
Even if they were to go looking for these products, the advice doled out by New York would no doubt send them off in many wrong directions:
Material: The magazine states “there are two types of cotton most often used to make sheets: percale (light and crisp) and sateen (silky and warm).” OK, that’s pretty much totally wrong. Percale and sateen refer to the way a fiber – cotton, polyester, etc. – is woven and has no relationship to the cotton itself. There are two types of cotton, but not the two the magazine states. There is upland – basic cotton of a lesser quality that is correspondingly less expensive – and ELS, or extra-long staple, which obviously have longer threads and tend to be of a higher quality.
The New York article specifically mentions Supima cotton and that is indeed made from ELS, but so too is unbranded pima, Egyptian cotton (at least when it’s really Egyptian) and a few other obscure types of cotton. It also describes Supima as “made in the U.S.” when in fact sheets made with Supima are made outside the U.S. of cotton that is grown in the U.S. About 15% of the world’s cotton is grown in this country, but both China and India grow far more cotton and other countries, like Uzbekistan, Pakistan and Turkey all also grow cotton. Virtually no sheeting fabric is actually manufactured in the United States.
Other materials mentioned in the article include linen, bamboo and silk, but there is no mention of Modal, a natural cellulose fiber that is often blended with cotton and is gaining in popularity, especially in better quality bedding.
All-in-all, the advice is material is pretty much worthless
Thread count: New York provides an accurate explanation of what thread count refers to – “the number of horizontal and vertical threads in a square inch of fabric” – but then writes that it used to be considered a good gauge on product quality but no longer is, recommending something in the 200-600-count range. The fact of the matter is that people who know sheets always knew thread count was at best just one of several variables to look for when making a selection. Yes, 200 is the threshold – that’s just over the minimum number needed to quality for percale – but any relevance thread count ever had has been bastardized by manufacturers using two-ply threads that essentially double the thread counts without the residual benefit. The market now has products claiming 1,000 or even higher counts when in fact they are doubled. It is not a good system anymore.
Experts in the field (as opposed to chefs and design bloggers) recommend you look for premium fibers and cotton that has been combed – an extra manufacturing step that makes for a higher quality cloth – rather than thread count. Thread counts count…but not for everything.
Style: The third characteristic New York magazine cites is a rather nebulous one since everyone, almost by definition, has their own style and whether you like muted solid colors, bright primaries or assorted patterns and prints is really a personal choice. You can get really ugly sheets that are of high quality… and vice versa, so what’s the point?
It’s what left out that makes this feature far from helpful. Where are the mentions about the depth of the sheet drop that allow them to fit extra-deep mattresses? Where are details on the new technologies emerging that provide cooler sleeping surfaces or moisture wicking capabilities through various add-on treatments and finishes? Is there even any mention at all that buying products made in countries like Portugal and Turkey give you a better shot at quality than ones made in Asia? Not a hard and fast rule by any means but another guideline worth looking for.
What’s most odd is that the magazine in its guidelines makes no mention of organic cotton, a hot trend right now that unfortunately is producing a fair amount of deceptive claims. In truth, the amount of organic cotton grown around the world is infinitesimal compared to the overall cotton crop and there is no way that all the product claiming to be organic can possibly be so based on the global supply.
There is also no mention of certification or monitoring organizations that are working to provide some sort of modern-day version of the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval to home textiles products. There are many such organizations out there and it’s hard to recognize which ones are more credible than others. OEKO-TEX may be the most widely recognized such organization and they do some good work.
But the sad fact of the matter is that the manufacturing process to make sheets is a long and twisted one: from the seeds used to grow cotton and other fibers, the actual growing process, the multiple steps it takes to convert cotton and other fibers into finished products and even how that product travels from mills in Asia to your local store shelf has so many steps and no single organization really monitors the entire cycle.
New York magazine readers would have been so much better served to get educated on all of this than to be told one brand features sheets in “washed orchid pink.”
Recommendations: Finally there are the recommendations themselves, singled out largely by the individual choices of the chosen panelists. It’s impossible to judge how “great” these sheets are although there is no doubt someone on the panel likes them. As said before, it’s an odd group of choices given the literally hundreds of products that are available in the marketplace today. Who knew that a category like “Best Heavy Linen” or “Best Looking” were even a thing?
These may be good choices — at least they were good choices for these panelists – but to call them “Best Bets” is just plain wrong. To label the people making these choices “experts” is about the same thing.
Most people buy sheets every three to five years, either replacing the ones on their own beds or purchasing them for their kids, guest rooms or second homes. It can be a big purchase – some luxury sets of sheets can run into four figures – or a throwaway you add to your shopping basket…real or virtual. But it’s one most shoppers remain woefully uneducated about.
Sadly, New York magazine did little to remedy that.
Writer’s note: And if you’re wondering what the hell this writer knows about sheets, I should note I was the editor and editorial director of the business magazine for this industry for more than 20 years and over the course of my career visited dozens of textiles mills on three continents around the world getting educated.
I also sleep on them every night.
Great article Warrenâ¦ Is is amazing how many âexpertsâ that have not expertise there are our thereâ¦
Joel M. Shaw President, JMS, inc. Manufacturers Representatives Est. 1979. 617-510-0439 M 617-254-1116 O firstname.lastname@example.org
Give ‘em hell, Harry! I mean Warren.
Boiling this down for a lowly shopper and Warren fan who doesn’t want to spend $1,000+++ for sheets, I gleaned that I should look for “premium fibers and cotton that has been combed”–and not be fooled by a thread count in the four figures. And if my choice has the OEKO-TEX’s stamp of approval so much the better.
Is there a price range you can divulge I should expect to pay?
Can you tell me what the finish might be on sheets from a once trusty brand that makes the sheets feel stiff no matter how hot the water or times washed so as to avoid it in future?
Hey Jeanne, Thanks for the kind words. Hard to give you a definitive answer on price. For queen size, $100 is a nice round number, give or take 15 percent.
As for the finish, I know they add some nasty chemicals in the manufacturing process but it usually washes out pretty easily. Not sure what you are getting. I switched to linen from cotton a number of years ago and have been quite pleased with how soft they get pretty quickly. Just a thought.
Hope you are well, thx for being a loyal reader…