Sheet buying guide

Last updated: June 2013

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Getting started

Consider this a wake-up call to bedding makers: Very few of the queen-size sheets we tested performed well enough for us to recommend, and two of those were expensive enough that we suggest using coupons or waiting until they go on sale before buying. As for the others, our tests and reporting revealed a litany of problems:

  • Some fitted sheets easily ripped or came apart at the seams in our strength tests, and some could tear from just a heavy cat's claws.
  • Other sets had fitted sheets that popped off the corners of mattresses they claimed to fit or flat sheets that fell short on the sides of the bed.
  • Some wrinkle-free sheets didn't live up to their name.
  • One company's sets had mismatched colors.
  • Environmental claims were sometimes dubious. The Federal Trade Commission has told retailers to stop labeling and advertising rayon textiles as eco-friendly bamboo. Once the plant fiber is processed, it's rayon, not bamboo. Plus the processing uses toxic chemicals that emit hazardous air pollutants during manufacturing. Three sheet sets we tested claim to be bamboo but should be labeled as rayon or a rayon/cotton blend.

The sheets in our tests were made of 100 percent cotton, rayon, or a rayon blend with claimed thread counts ranging from 200 to 1,000. Thread count is the number of vertical and horizontal threads per square inch. Our latest tests again confirmed that higher thread count doesn't guarantee better sheets. In fact the top-scoring percale sheets, which had a claimed thread count of only 280, were strong, shrank very little, and easily fit mattresses up to 17 inches high, even after we washed and dried them five times.

How to choose

Sheets are hardly a new or complicated product. So we think companies should be able to make sheets that fit well, don't shrink, are strong, and don't cost hundreds of dollars. But for now you'll need to shop carefully.

Learn the lingo

Usually long-fiber cottons, such as pima, Supima, and Egyptian, are stronger and less likely to pill. Combed cotton has short fibers and debris removed, resulting in a smoother fabric. Usually cotton/polyester blends don't wrinkle as much as 100 percent cotton sheets, but they aren't as soft or as porous, so you may feel warmer while sleeping.

Choose crisp or soft

Feeling new sheets in the store won't help you figure out how the sheets will feel once they're washed. That's because sheets are usually treated with fabric enhancers and softeners to improve hand feel. To help you choose, our trained sensory panelists judged the sheets' softness and crispness after five washings. Weave also affects how the sheets feel. Percale is closely woven and feels crisper, while sateen has a softer feel and a glossier look. Twill weaves create a heavier fabric that can feel soft or crisp.

Get the right fit

Measure your mattress' height, including mattress pads. Remember that padding settles, so measure in at least two spots away from the corners. Buy sheets that are a couple of inches deeper to allow for normal shrinkage.

Keep your receipt

Before using sheets, wash them to remove finishes or excess dye. If the sheets shrink or fade, or if you don't like how they feel once they're washed, you'll need the receipt to return them. Ditto if the sheets are mislabeled or if sets are missing pieces.

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