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Shopping for Sheets

Kathy McCleary sorts out the thread counts, learns about different weaves and gets the lowdown on dust mite pads.

You sleep what, seven or eight hours per night? Good bedding is worth the investment.

Several years ago I inherited two sets of beautiful white sheets from my grandmother. They were pure cotton, of unknown thread count, and unbelievably soft and smooth after years of repeated washings and dryings. Now, after even more years on my bed and more rounds through the washer and dryer, my treasured sheets are literally falling apart. So just when they’ve reached an absolute peak of wonderful worn-in softness, I’ve got to throw them out or consign them to the rag bin.

And replacing them isn’t easy. I just want basic cotton sheets that feel good and will feel even better after each washing. But would that be a 250-thread count percale, or a 200-thread count Egyptian sateen? I also want to protect my investment in my recently purchased mattress, so I need a good mattress cover or pad, and I’d love to know what combination of blankets/quilts/comforter really works best.

Mattress Pads and Covers
I decided to start from the bottom up. First, do I need to encase my new mattress in a cover designed to keep out dust mites and their detritus? According to a 2003 article in the New England Journal of Medicine, probably not. Two well-controlled studies in England and the Netherlands found that dust mite covers did little to ease the symptoms of those suffering from asthma and allergies. And they cost roughly $100 for a queen size mattress cover. Still, "it’s another layer of protection for the mattress," says Cheryl Mendelson, author of Home Comforts (Scribner, 1999) and the upcoming Laundry (Scribner, 2005). "Mattresses are really hard to clean, so two covers for the mattress [a dust mite cover and a mattress pad] is not a bad idea."

The next layer is the mattress pad or cover, which serves the dual function of protecting the mattress from sweat and stains, and providing an extra layer of padding on top of the mattress. Mendelson prefers pure cotton mattress pads, meaning both the cover and the fill are made of cotton. "It’s my delusion that I can feel the difference if it’s polyester," Mendelson says. More padding means more protection for the mattress. Buy whatever level of plushness feels best to you. Very thick padding may compress and develop dips over time, but at a cost of $100-$200, it’s much cheaper to replace a mattress cover than it is to replace a pillow-top mattress.

Selecting Sheets
Sheets are the area in which bedding gets very confusing, particularly now when you can buy anything from jersey sheets to linen sheets, at thread counts ranging from 150 to more than 1,000. The first thing to consider is the weave, says Susan Tosches, senior buyer for The Company Store, a La Crosse, Wisc., based retailer. A percale is a plain or balanced weave, meaning the vertical and horizontal threads, the "warp" and "weft," cross each other one at a time. Percale can be all cotton, or a blend of cotton and polyester. Usually percales are about 180 thread count, referring to the number of threads woven per inch. "It’s a very sturdy sheet and it’s a little bit crisper," says Tosches.

A sateen weave means one vertical thread is woven over four or more horizontal threads, and then under one horizontal thread. "It has more threads on the surface and so it reflects more light, has more shine," Tosches says. Sateen sheets are often made with "low twist" threads. When cotton is made into threads the fibers are twisted so they don’t come unraveled, Mendelson says. Sateen fibers are twisted fewer times, making for a smoother surface, but it can also make the fiber less durable. "Sateen wears holes sooner," Mendelson says.

Other weaves include jersey, a stretchier knit fabric ("it’s like sleeping in your t-shirt," Tosches says), and flannel, in which the surface is brushed, creating a warmer feel to the fabric.

What it all means is that you need to decide feels good against your personal skin. Percale will be crisp and cool, sateen will be softer and clingier, and jersey and flannel will be soft and warm. One way to figure it out is to buy a set of pillowcases in one particular weave and sleep on them for a few days to get an idea of what you like. It’s a much cheaper investment than an entire set of sheets.

After weave, the next consideration is thread count. A higher thread count means more threads per square inch of fabric, which requires a tighter weave. And a tighter weave often means a finer, softer, sturdier fabric. But higher thread count doesn’t always correspond to higher quality. "It can be very misleading," says Susan Tosches. "Thread count is not the end of the story." A high thread count sheet may be made with lower quality fibers, for instance, or have an inferior weave.

Check out the kind of fiber used as well as thread count. Egyptian, supima and pima cottons are long fibers, Tosches says, and "when you have longer fibers to weave with you get a silkier, smoother touch." If the cotton is "combed" it’s gone through a process in which the shorter fibers are removed from the yarn and all the fibers are put in the same alignment, making for a softer fabric. Some sheets are blends of cotton and polyester. They wrinkle less and are easy to wash, but the polyester can pill over time, which can be irritating to sleep on. Mendelson prefers pure cotton plain weave percale sheets with a 200-250 thread count. She looks for untreated cotton, which means the sheets have not received a resin treatment that makes them resist wrinkling.

"Untreated cotton wrinkles miserably and no one wants to iron sheets," Mendelson says. "But if you haven’t had the percales without any resin treatment, it’s surprising what a nice feeling it is. You just have to take them right out of the dryer and fold them immediately and stack them on top of each other while they’re still warm." And sheets dried on a clothesline are virtually wrinkle-free, Mendelson points out.

Blankets and Comforters
The next layer is a quilt, blanket, comforter, or some combination. The choice is based on both personal preference and climate. Some people like the feel of heavy quilts and blankets; others prefer comforters of down or another fill, which offer warmth without the weight. Mendelson prefers "a very thin, slightly padded quilt. "People overuse their comforters," she says. "They look lovely on the bed, but if you’re in a moderate climate a comforter starts to be way too warm at this time of year."

If you have a limited budget in putting together your bedding, spend more on sheets and pay less for your mattress pad, blankets and comforter, the experts say. "What’s next to your skin is what matters most," says Mendelson. Whether those sheets are crisp percales or warm brushed flannels is a very personal preference. My new mattress (with mattress pad) now sports a set of white, well-washed 220 thread count pure cotton percale sheets, and it feels like heaven to me.

"You sleep what, seven or eight hours per night?" asks Tosches. "Good bedding is worth the investment."

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