What Does Thread Count Mean?
We can be bamboozled by salespeople who tell us how good bath linen and bedsheets are based on their thread count... Naturally, you may think then that thread count is a term that is indicative of the quality and superiority of a fabric. Well, I'm afraid to say that you would be wrong! So, if it doesn't indicate the superiority, what is the relevance of this term? Does higher thread count imply higher quality?
I wanted to take a closer look...
Definition and meaning of thread count
Technically, thread count or "TC" refers to the total number of threads in every square inch of a fabric. As we learned in the Understanding Weaving article, cloth is created by the weaving of horizontal and vertical threads called the warp and weft. Counting the number of both warp and weft threads in a square inch of fabric gives you the thread count.
Why Thread Count Doesn't Mean Quality - A Great Tip!
It is commonly understood that the higher the thread count, the finer the fabric. Textile industry standards consider cotton with a thread count of 150 to be normal quality, while good quality sheets have a count of at least 180. Percale is much higher quality, with thread counts of 200 or more.
Based on these standards, is it safe to assume that as the thread count increases, so does the quality of fabric? Not entirely! Sometimes, extra threads called “picks” are woven into the weft threads, which increase the count. And similarly, "ends" can be woven into the warp threads. This is the reason we come across fabric with counts in the range 500 to 1000's.
In such cases, the concept of quality being related to thread count is misleading. Here's a great tip: On an average, the maximum number of threads you can get on a loom is around 400. So, anything above that number is usually created by jamming in extra picks or ends to increase the count. If you really want to get to the bottom of it, ask the manufacturer what the ply of the fabric is!
How To Tell If A Fabric Is Good Quality
So, if thread count isn't an accurate measure, what can we look for when buying our fabrics or sheets?
There are four things I'd suggest when deciphering how good the quality of a fabric is, firstly, what the raw material is - is it cotton, linen, polyester (yuck). Secondly, what country the raw material comes from - cotton from Egypt or Pima, for example, would certainly get you off on the right foot. Thirdly, where it's woven - Italians are the master weavers of the world remember. Lastly, I'd take a look at the thread count, for sheets I'd recommend 200 plus.
It's up to you to balance the combination of these factors. For example, fabric of lower thread count but with strong and high quality fibres, such as Egyptian cotton and pima cotton, often feels and washes better than fabric with a higher TC but created from lower quality threads.
Here's a good example: Cotton and linen are two fabrics that serve similar purposes, but their properties are entirely different. Pure linen is created from thick, flax fibres. The thread count may be as low as 50-140, but still be a high quality fabric and with incredible strength. Linen which is stiff when constructed, softens with use and lasts decades. On the other hand, good quality cotton with a higher thread count of 180 or more, won't last as long. So although linen has a lower thread count, because of the inherent properties of the fibre, it is superior to cotton.
Even if high thread counts result in better sheets, thread quality matters too. Our recommendation is that if the sheet has a count between 200 and 400, and meets your other selection criteria, it should be good enough to serve you a long time.
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Examples Of Thread Count for Different Fabrics
Here is something to bear in mind: The effect of thread count will be different depending on the type of fabric it is.
50 - 140 TC: Linen
Pure linen fabric is purposefully woven with a low thread count to achieve its looser, open weave. It is an extremely high quality fabric, but can have a thread count as low as 50. Due to the thickness of the flax fibres, the number of threads within its weave cannot be as high as those of finer Egyptian cottons, but the strength of linen is far superior to most cottons.
150 - 200 TC: Cotton Flannel
Cotton flannel usually has a thread count of 150 and the softness that we feel when we touch it is a result of a mechanical brushing process. The best cotton flannel incorporates quality combed cotton yarn and a durable, plain weave which prevent the fabric from pilling. It is gently brushed on both sides until the perfect level of softness is achieved and it will not ball and shed excessively.
350 - 750 TC: Sateen & Percale
Higher thread counts in the range of 350-750 are found in sateen. Sateen has a glossy look and silky feel due to the unique weaving style of one vertical thread for four horizontal threads. Its weave cleverly places more yarns facing the front of the fabric which makes the fabric smooth and silky to the touch. Sateen bed linen is made from high quality, long staple, combed cotton and has a thread count of 300 or higher. While sateen fabrics are not as durable as tighter percale weaves, they are extremely luxurious to sleep under. Percale, like sateen, also has a higher thread count, matte finish and feels crisp to the touch. It is an excellent choice for bed linen.
Myth Busting: Is It Possible to Have a Thread Count of 800-1200?
So, is it always creative math that is used to generate high thread counts? Apparently not! I found a couple of exceptions, which would suggest there are actually high quality fabrics that are supremely fine. These are spun extremely thinly and woven using the best quality threads on special looms. Manufacturers include Sheridan, who produce sheetings with 1000 to 1200 thread count cotton with a sateen weave and luxurious finish. I've sent across an email to find out a bit more about their manufacturing process, so will let you know as soon as I've heard back. In the meantime, if anyone has any further information on these super TC fabrics, please do leave a comment here - I'd be delighted to know!
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