Bed Sheets & Linens Buying Guide

Most of us buy sheets for our beds with two considerations in mind: how they look and how they feel. Some people only care about the appearance, while others focus on the feel. Though shopping for sheets seems simple, other factors do clamor for attention. What does thread count mean? What is percale? When did sheets get deep pockets?

Types of Bed Sheets & Linens

Types of Bed Sheets & Linens

There are basically two ways to judge sheets, how they look and how they feel. Those characteristics can be evaluated by a few factors. How sheets look depends on their color, pattern, and fit. How sheets feel depends on their fiber content, thread count, weave, and finish. Let’s break down the details.

Color and Pattern

When you shop for sheets, you’ll find that companies offer “solid” sheets and those with patterns. All one color, solid sheets are made from dyed threads. Patterned sheets feature an allover pattern printed edge to edge on the fitted and flat sheets, or they may sport a smaller printed or embroidered pattern just on the flat sheet hem. Patterns are most often printed on a plain sheet after it has been woven. Very expensive sheets feature woven patterns of dyed threads.


Sheets come in sizes to fit standard-size mattresses: twin, extra-long twin, double or full, queen, king, and California king, which is slightly longer than a king-size mattress. How sheets fit a mattress depends on the sheet fabric. A percale or sateen woven sheet fits snugly. Flannel sheets loosen up over time. Jersey knit sheets, which feel much like t-shirts, are the loosest of all.

Fiber Content

Starting at the less-expensive end of the spectrum, polyester-blend sheets meld cotton fibers with poly fibers for sheets that are crisp and warm. All-cotton and all-linen fibers cost a little more, but they create a softer, more durable sheet. Natural fibers are also more breathable than polyester. Finally, specialty fibers, such as hemp or silk, are pricey but have certain eco-friendly or supple qualities you might desire.

Thread Count

About 20 years ago, manufacturers began to disclose the thread counts of their sheets. This term refers to the number of fiber threads per square inch. Threads are woven horizontally and vertically, so 100 threads woven crosswise with another 100 lengthwise threads yield a thread count of 200. The higher the count, the more threads get woven tightly together. Most sheets start at about a 200-thread count, and they go up dramatically from there. Thread count does not take into consideration the thickness of the fibers, though it’s safe to assume a higher thread count means the fibers are thinner.


In the construction of sheets, long threads of polyester, cotton, or linen fibers are woven under and over each other in a crosswise manner. Percale sheets are woven with an equal number of threads running horizontally and vertically. Sateen sheets are woven with more vertical threads. Specialty weaves, such as for damask fabric, produce a woven pattern.


After a sheet has been woven, it must be finished in some way. Most sheets are treated with chemicals or singed so fibers lie smoothly and consistently. The finishing process results in soft sheets that won’t shrink and, with the right chemical process, will be wrinkle-resistant.

Purchase Considerations

Purchase Considerations

Read a package label to determine the quality of sheet. A mid- to high-range thread count of all-cotton fibers woven into a sateen sheet will surely be soft. But to know how it feels to you, the best test is to try it against your skin.

Color and Pattern

Judging sheets on color and pattern revolves around personal preference. But you can determine quality by examining how consistently the color appears throughout the sheet and whether a pattern shows any imperfections. Dyes used to produce colors can make sheets stiff until you’ve washed them a few times. Dark-color sheets, such as navy or black, may include washing instructions to keep color loss to a minimum.


If you have an uncommon mattress size, such as an extra-long twin or a California king, you’ll find fewer sheet options. Deep-pocket sheets refer to the length of a fitted sheet sides in relation to the thickness of your mattress. A standard mattress thickness is less than 16 inches, which most fitted sheets accommodate and cover. For thicker mattresses, you need sheets labeled “deep pocket.”

Fiber Content

Polyester fibers woven into sheets bring down the price, but the sheets won’t be as breathable as all-cotton ones. All-linen sheets start with a nubby feel but soften gradually over time. Silk, a luxurious fiber that makes for a dreamlike bed, is also extremely fragile and difficult to launder. Other fibers, such as hemp, form a small subclass of bedding options that you may not find at a big-box retailer.

Thread Count

Contrary to most people’s beliefs, thread count is not an indicator of softness. It can mean a good quality sheet that lasts a long time (logically, the more threads, the longer it takes to wear them out). But many coarse threads woven together still yield a coarse sheet. Most experts agree that a 180-thread-count sheet feels rough and a suppler feel begins at 200. Once a sheet gets above 400 in thread count, you may not notice a difference that is worth the price tag.


The weave contributes to the “hand,” or the feel, of a sheet. Sheets labeled “percale” contain the same number of woven threads horizontally and vertically. This results in a crisp, smooth sheet that is also durable because of the balanced cross weave. A “sateen” sheet contains more vertical threads. The hand of a sateen sheet is much softer and suppler than that of a percale sheet, but more stress gets put on the horizontal threads, so sateen sheets tend to eventually pill, thin, and tear.


If you have particular chemical sensitivities, you may want to look for no-finish sheets, also called “pure” sheets. Organic cotton sheets also are not processed.

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