You might suspect thread count is simply a marketing ploy to make Egyptian cotton sheets sound more luxurious. But it's really a scientific term, with strict federal standards on how those threads are counted.
Technically, thread count means the number of threads woven together in a square inch. You count both lengthwise (warp) and widthwise (weft) threads. So 100 lengthwise threads woven with 100 widthwise threads produce a thread count of 200.
Thread count has become a buzz word for marketing luxury sheets, shirts and other woven fabric goods. The idea is the finer threads you can weave together, the softer and finer the fabric.
But that's not always the case. According to Consumer Reports, a thread count of 200 is fine; 400 may be softer. But anything above 400 will likely only provide a higher price tag [source: Consumer Reports].
To get a sense of the type of fabric various thread counts produce, consider that a thread count of 150 (75 threads one way, 75 the other) produces muslin, which feels a little rough, certainly not silken. Good-quality sheets come in at 180, and anything above 200 is considered better quality [source: Linenplace]
So how are counts such as 800 or 1,200, which some manufacturers claim, even possible? How could you fit that many threads into a single inch? The short answer is you can't. "Some manufacturers use creative math to boost thread count," explains Consumer Reports [source: Consumer Reports].
In the spirit of free enterprise and competition, manufacturers battle to calculate their tread counts high, higher and highest. They count not just each thread, but each fiber (called plies) that make up each thread. So a single thread might be four plies twisted together; one manufacturer will call that one thread, while another manufacturer will call that four threads.
To untangle this inconsistency, Consumer Reports hired an independent textile lab to count threads in a $280 queen sheet set with a manufacturer-stated thread count of 1,200. The lab counted 416 threads per inch, just 35 percent of what was claimed [source: Consumer Reports].
The Federal Trade Commission even got involved in the fracas, thanks to a request made by the Textile Bedding Committee of the National Textile Association. Bed, Bath & Beyond got sued for misrepresenting thread count and, without admitting any wrongdoing, settled the suit on July 26, 2008, by offering refunds, gift cards and discounts [source: Bed, Bath & Beyond Court Settlement].
But thread count is really only part of the puzzle as to whether or not you'll enjoy your nap (are you getting sleepy?) on your sheets. What about quality of threads and not just quantity? And what's the big deal with Egyptian cotton anyway?