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Sheets 101: How to buy bedding

Not all sheets are created equal. Before you take out a second mortgage and buy 400 thread count Egyptian cotton sheets at $500 a pop, check out this quick glossary of sheet terms.

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Thread Count

Simply put, this is the number of threads per square inch. Hold the sheet up to the light. If you can see through the fabric and make out the actual weave, you’ve got a low thread count on your hands.

“Ideal thread count is between 200 and 400,” says Huddy, busting the myth that high thread count equals high quality. The reason? Looms are limited to working with 400 threads. Very high-end sheets achieve bona fide thread counts over 400 by using very, very fine yarns. On the other hand, less expensive sheets create a thread count higher than 400 by adding shorter, thinner pieces of yarn to longer pieces or counting the plys within a yarn and not the yarn itself. While this can double or even triple the actual thread count, it does little to improve softness or wear.

If you’re confused, here’s what you really need to know: Truly luxurious sheets have thread counts lower than 400. Consider Westin Hotel’s Heavenly Bed. It is made with polyester/cotton blend sheets that range from 200-250 thread count! Surprised? “That’s because thread count isn’t the only barometer,” adds Huddy. There’s lots more to consider.

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Type of fabric

While cotton is the best fiber for sheets, not all cotton is created equal. Here's what to know about each type:

Muslin: Considered to be low end of the cotton spectrum, you may want to steer clear of these as they tend to be one rough and tough sheet. They are generally used in children’s character theme bedding. Thread counts here range from 128 to 140.

Percale: A smooth, flat, closely woven and combed fabric that comes in 100 percent cotton or 50/50 cotton/poly blends. Finer than muslin, expect thread counts here to range from 180 to 200.

Pima or Supima: A high-quality cotton whose long fiber staple is somewhat similar to that of Egyptian cotton. The differences are geographical only. Pima is grown in the Southwestern part of the U.S. and Egyptian is grown along the Nile River. Supima is made from extra-long staple Pima. The soft feel of Pima and Supima make them very desirable in bedding. Expect to find thread counts here from 200 to 300.

Organic cotton: People who choose organic cotton do so because they hope to avoid contact with cotton that has been raised using chemicals. The problem is that even organic cotton can be processed with chemicals to create a textile. To assure that you’re getting cotton that’s been processed using the least amount of chemicals, look for the GOTTS or OEKO-TEX seal.

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Polyester/cotton vs. 100-percent cotton sheets: “Poly/cotton sheets are a good choice for those on a budget and for those who don't sleep ‘hot,” explains Huddy. “They also stand up to washings well and don't wrinkle like some 100-percent cotton sheets.” There are negatives, however.

“Depending on how the polyester is blended with the cotton at the yarn stage, the product can pill — polyester is known for pilling,” she adds. “Poly/cotton sheets are also not as breathable as cotton sheets, but most consumers won't notice that.”

Weave

The weave of the fabric determines the feel. Here’s a breakdown:

  • If you’re looking for soft sheets, opt for a sateen finish.
  • Choose percale sheets is you like a crisp feel.
  • For warmth, you can't beat flannel or jersey sheets. "When choosing jersey, select a hefty knit," advises Huddy. "And make sure to look for no nubs in the fabric."

Extras

  • Before buying a fitted bottom sheet, make sure it has elastic all the way around the sheet and not just on the corners. The extra elastic is what keeps sheets from coming off.
  • Deep mattresses need fitted sheets with deep pockets, but so do regular mattresses if you’re using a topper or a pad with a topper.

Beware of tricks of the trade

  • Silicon coating: Manufacturers coat sheetswith silicon to produce that irresistibly soft feel. If after a few washings, the sheets or towels are still scratchy or rough, return them for a refund.
  • Bamboo = Rayon: Bamboo cutting boards do have antimicrobial properties but bamboo sheets and towels are NOT antimicrobial or antibacterial. And they are not bamboo. Technically, they’re rayon made from bamboo. “The process of making bamboo into yarn for sheets is chemically intensive,” Huddy explains. Bamboo is placed into a boiling vat of chemicals and extruded as rayon. All the properties inherent in bamboo are gone. So retailers and manufacturers cannot make those claims of natural, antimicrobial or antibacterial.”

A version of this story originally appeared on iVillage.

This article was originally published Feb. 16, 2016.

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