Sheets Buying Guide

Anyone who has slept on sheets that bunch up or that are scratchy knows that they can be the difference between a sound night’s slumber and a tossing-and-turning nightmare.  

So which sheets fit well after a bunch of washes and are still a dream to sleep on? You may be surprised to find out that several of the queen-size cotton sheets in our tests perform so poorly that they won’t even cover a 10-inch mattress after less than a year’s worth of washes, let alone a 12¼-inch mattress, which is the average height. That means these sheets are rendered no longer functional for most people. And some sheets are so expensive that we suggest using coupons or waiting until they go on sale before buying. Our sheet tests reveal some real differences among various brands of sheets. 

How We Test Sheets

All the sheets in our tests are 100 percent cotton. Although the material is the same, strength and quality differ considerably according to our tests. We measure shrinkage by marking an initial set of four points in the center of a sheet pane about 20x20 inches and remeasuring after each round of washing and drying. 

To test the strength of a sheet’s fibers, we clamp both ends of a small strip of the sheet in a machine that pulls it with increasing force until it tears. We use the same machine to measure the strength of the seams at the corners of a fitted sheet. In our tests, none were weak enough to be a concern under normal usage.

As for thread count, don’t believe the hype. The products we test have claimed thread counts ranging from 280 to 1,000. Thread count is the number of vertical and horizontal threads per square inch. Our latest tests confirm that a higher thread count doesn’t guarantee better sheets. In fact, one of the best sheet sets we tested has a claimed thread count of only 280. These sheets are strong, shrink very little, and still fit mattresses up to 14 inches high after a simulated year’s worth of washing.

How to Choose

Sheets are hardly a new or complicated product. So we think companies should be able to make sheets that are strong, fit well, retain their shape, and don’t cost hundreds of dollars per set. Here’s advice from our experts on what to look for when you shop for sheets.

Learn the Lingo
Along with thread count, you may see terms such as long-fiber, pima, Supima, and Egyptian cotton. (Supima is a brand trademarked by the Supima Association of America; it’s pima cotton grown in America.) Typically, long-fiber cottons are stronger and less likely to pill.

Terms like percale, sateen, and twill are used to indicate how the fabric is woven. 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.

You may also see the term “cotton rich” to indicate that the sheet is made from more than 50 percent cotton, with the rest from other fibers. In some cases the word “cotton” will be in large type, with “rich” in much smaller print, so you might miss the distinction.

Despite the claimed benefits of all these attributes, as with thread count, our testing doesn’t show any correlation between these attributes and sheet performance.

Speaking of claims, you should be dubious of environmental claims. The Federal Trade Commission has ordered retailers to stop labeling and advertising rayon textiles as eco-friendly bamboo. Once the plant fiber has been processed, it’s rayon, not bamboo. (You may also see this labeled as bamboo viscose, but it’s the same fiber.) In addition, the processing uses toxic chemicals that emit hazardous air pollutants during manufacturing.

Size Matters
Measure your mattress’s height, including mattress pads. Remember that padding settles, so measure in at least two spots away from the corners. While you should buy sheets that have a deeper pocket than the thickness of your mattress, doing so doesn’t always mean they’ll continue to fit after you wash them numerous times.

In our tests, we wash fitted sheets according to the manufacturer’s directions up to 25 times—the equivalent of about a year’s worth of washing if you change your sheets every two weeks. After every five wash/dry cycles, we restretch the sheet over the mattress to see whether it fits. We saw shrinkage of up to 6 percent in all the cotton sheets we tested. In almost half the samples, there was so much shrinkage that the sheet no longer fit the mattress. Only one cotton sheet we tested lived up to the claim of “deep pocket sheets”; few fit mattresses that were 18 inches tall. 

Keep Your Receipt
You should wash your sheets before sleeping on them to remove finishes or excess dye. If the fitted sheet shrinks so much that it’s difficult to put on your mattress, or if you don’t like how the sheets feel once they’re washed, return them. 

Sheet Brands

Boll & Branch was founded in 2014 and sells sheets directly to consumers through its website.
Brooklinen was launched in 2014 by a husband-and-wife team. It sells its sheets directly to consumers through its website.
Casper, the mattress-in-a-box mattress brand, introduced cotton sheets in 2015.
Frette is an Italian luxury linen brand established in 1860. Its services include monograms, custom color combinations and embroidery, and a made-to-measure service if requested.
L.L.Bean is an American retail company that offers clothing, home and kitchen products, and outdoor recreation equipment.
Matouk is an American textile company known for its luxury linens since 1929.
Pinzon is Amazon’s private label brand, which launched in 2009.
Threshold is a house brand of the department store Target.
Wamsutta is an American textile company that has been manufacturing linens since 1846.
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