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Choosing Cotton Sheets

Martha Stewart Living Television

Could you review the different types of cotton sheets and thread counts? There are so many types of cotton -- some like sandpaper and others like silk. What is the difference between combed cotton, Egyptian, percale, supima, and sateen? --Donna Coppola, Basking Ridge, NJ

Shopping for bed linens means being confronted with a maze of options: Egyptian or Pima? Percale or sateen? Learning to decipher these terms will help you choose the sheet that makes you the most comfortable. There are three factors that determine the quality and feel of a sheet: The fiber from which it is made, how the fabric is woven, and the thread count.

The most common fiber for bedsheets is cotton, and there are three main varieties: American Upland, Pima, and Egyptian. American Upland is the most widely used cotton and can be short- to long-staple ("staple" refers to the length of the individual fibers). If a label only reads "100 percent cotton," it is likely to be American Upland. Pima is a fine, long-staple cotton that yields a very soft weave. The word "Supima" often appears on the labels of Pima sheets as a trademark of the Supima Association, which promotes Pima cotton. Egyptian cotton is the finest, longest-staple of all. Grown in the Nile River Valley, Egyptian cotton produces an extremely soft and supple weave.

Other fibers commonly used for bed linens are linen and silk. These are more luxurious and considerably more expensive than cotton and require special care in cleaning, but can be a worthwhile investment. High-quality linen sheets are durable enough to last for decades and are cooler than cotton, so they are especially popular in warm climates. Silk sheets, when properly cared for, are also durable and ideal for keeping warm in the winter.

Words such as oxford, percale and sateen on sheet labels refer to the way the fabric is woven. Each weave has different characteristics. Oxford, a weave first produced in nineteenth-century Scotland, is soft and heavy. It has twice as many warp threads -- threads that run lengthwise -- as weft threads -- those that run widthwise. Commonly used to make men's dress shirts, oxford cloth stands up very well to laundering. Percale is a plain-weave fabric, meaning that the warp and the weft threads cross over and under each other one at a time. The threads are tightly woven, which results in a fine texture and finish. The wordpercaleis derived from pargalal , a centuries-old cloth from Persia. Sateen sheets have a luxurious look and feel. The fabric is made in a satin weave, in which warp threads interlace with filling threads, resulting in a lustrous, smooth-faced, durable fabric.

After determining the fiber and weave, you should always check the thread count, which refers to the number of threads woven per inch. In general, a sheet with a higher thread count will be more durable and feel softer. A thread count of 200 is a good standard; a count of 300 will be noticeably softer.

While all of these factors should be taken into account when choosing sheets, ultimately, your personal preference is most important. The best test will come when you take your sheets home, wash them, and sleep on them for a while.

Comments (7)

  • Amy Thompson 4 Feb, 2015

    Hi Martha, I was just wondering if you could recommend a sheet that has little pilling, for some reason this seems to be a problem with our sheets. I don't buy expensive sheets, and launder them just like my clothing. But if I had to pay more money for sheets that didn't pill or had less chance of pilling, I would gladly pay it. Thanks Amy

  • gwood6666 2 Feb, 2015

    I like crisp sturdy hard sheets. I purchased Marta Stewart percile 250 sheets from Macy's i don't like the fee tood soft not a tight enough weave. I like to dry sheets on the line. I remember these sheets from when I was younger. What sheets do I buy?

  • tekerrigan 18 Aug, 2014

    Did the original question get answered?

    What makes combed cotton different from other cotton sheets?

  • techdoodle 19 Sep, 2014

    Try this site for a technical explanation: The short, non-technical answer they feel softer, imho.

  • Tennessee Country Gal 12 Aug, 2014

    I have some sheets from Hampton House which I love. I have had them for at least ten years and would like to purchase some more but cannot find them on stores or online. They say "100% combed cotton" made in India #113585 and are 600 thread count. What would you suggest that is comparable? Is 100% combed cotton the same as Percale? Thank you.

  • Shelley Beagan Spratlin 30 Jul, 2014

    @ n_smyly. JC Penney offers Liz Claiborne liquid cotton 100% pima cotton sheets. I haven't tried them but just yesterday (7/29/14) received an ad in the mail advertising them. Full size $49.99. Queen and King upward of that. Hope this helps.

    P.S. Ad states prices run through August 2.

  • n_smyly 28 Jun, 2014

    Can you please tell me how I can purchase sheets/cases equivalent to the pima sateen sheets you had in kmart stores about 12 years ago. I bought several sets because I loved them so much but have been unable to ever find anything even close to the comfort of those. Mine are threadbare and repeatedly mended because we love them so much!!!