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What does thread count really mean?


Thread Quantity or Quality?
The longer the fibers, the sturdier fabric.
The longer the fibers, the sturdier fabric.
Cris Bouroncle/AFP/Getty Images

­High thread count doesn't mean much if the threads being counted aren't high quality. Actually, the quality of cotton sheets depends on several factors, including fiber quality, yarn size, finishing, thread count and construction.

A fabric with a thread count of 200 high-quality fibers can have a better hand, or feeling to the touch, than a thread count of 400 inferior-quality fibers or twisted threads.

In the world of cotton, the length of the fiber is an indication of quality. In Egyptian cotton, the fibers -- also called staples -- are longer than in other types of cotton. Longer staples equal a stronger thread and more durable fabric. At one time, Egyptian cotton was grown primarily in Egypt, but now it's grown­ all over [source: Yves Delorme].

A process called carding, where smaller fibers get worked out, leaving the longer fibers behind, further increases the quality of raw cotton fibers [source: Yves Delorme]. And combing, another process, removes even more small fibers. After that, the clean cotton fibers get spun into threads and woven into fabrics.

The fabric then goes through two processes: singeing and mercerizing. The singeing process burns off fuzz that might develop later into piling on sheets, and take away the smooth feel. Mercerizing is a process done under pressure to increase strength and to help it accept dye.

With increased consumer awareness, the halcyon days of bloated thread counts may be coming to an end. In choosing sheets, Consumer Reports makes this recommendation: "Pick a sheet between 200 and 400 thread count that meets your other criteria. Paying more for higher thread count is wasting money" [source: Consumer Reports].

To learn more about thread count, bedding and related topics, see the links on the next page.

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