5 Things to Know Before Buying Sheets

CR's experts share what they discovered when testing sheets in the lab—and how you can apply these rules when you shop for a new set

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Sheets Photo: iStock

It’s easy to find good-looking sheets, but it’s tough to judge the quality of a new set in the store, let alone when shopping online. At Consumer Reports, we tested sheet sets ranging from $44 to $725 and found an extremely wide range of performance unrelated to price. Or thread count.

“We could not find any correlation between manufacturer claims of materials or thread count and sheet performance,” says Enrique de Paz, the CR engineer who tests sheets. “And from sheet set to sheet set, things like corner seam distance or the elastic bands on the underside of the sheet can vary widely, making it difficult to tell what’s useful or not when shopping.”

How CR Tests Sheets

We test the most popular size of sheets: queen. And we consider fit to be the most important standard. If a fitted sheet (no matter how soft) shrinks so much that you can’t get it over your mattress, all other attributes are moot.

More on Bedding

In our tests, we wash fitted sheets according to the manufacturer’s directions 25 times, equivalent to about a year’s worth of washing if you launder your linens every two weeks. After each washing, our testers stretch each fitted sheet over an 8-, 10-, 14-, and 18-inch-deep mattress to see whether the corners and sides still fit and tuck underneath. (A 14-inch mattress is standard.)

After drying, we look at how much they wrinkle by comparing the sheets with a separate set of industry standard sheets from the American Association of Textile Chemists and Colorists. Our engineers also assess the strength of the fibers with a machine that clamps both ends of the sheet sample and pulls it with increasing force until it tears. We measure shrinkage, and a panel of sensory testers compares each sheet with reference samples for softness.

In our sheets ratings, you’ll find sets from Amazon, Boll & Branch, Casper, Frette, and L.L.Bean, among others. Below, we outline some of the key findings that came out of our lab—and how you can use them to help you shop.

1. Sheets Can Shrink Significantly

Cotton sheets we tested shrank up to 6 percent, and some no longer fit on even the thinnest mattress—an 8-inch-tall foam model—after just 15 washes.

Our testers noted that initially, all cotton sheets could fit the depth of the queen-size mattress as marked on their packaging (though not all packages carry such an indication). But after 25 wash cycles, only a few could fit a 14-inch mattress, and only the Matouk Sierra set could fit an 18-inch mattress (even though it shrank a fair amount). That’s something to keep in mind if you have a particularly thick pillow-top mattress.

CR members can check out the ratings of the Matouk Sierra sheets below:

The sheet set that shrank the least in our tests was the L.L.Bean Pima Percale. But it didn’t fit an 18-inch mattress after a year’s worth of washings, which our testers attribute more to the design of the sheets than to shrinkage.

2. Materials Make a Big Difference

The most common materials used for sheets, such as cotton, cotton blends, rayon, and polyester, have different properties. While we’ve only rated cotton sheets so far, our engineers have evaluated other common materials in the lab.

The sheets tested made of bamboo viscose were highly absorbent (so expect long drying times) and shrank by more than 15 percent after our fit test. One fitted bamboo sheet couldn’t even fit an 8-inch mattress after a mere 10 washes.

Cotton sheets, on the other hand, shrank less—but still, only the top sheets in our ratings could fit a 14-inch mattress after a year’s worth of washing.

The polyester sheet we tested hardly shrank at all, and fit an 18-inch mattress after a year’s worth of washing—though some might find sweating on a polyester sheet to be uncomfortable because the material doesn’t absorb water.

3. Thread Count Does Not Indicate Performance

One of our top-rated sheet sets, the Matouk Sierra, has a claimed thread count (the number of vertical and horizontal threads that go into each square inch of material) of 350.

Compare that with the Wamsutta Dream Zone 1000TC, with its claimed thread count of, yep, 1,000. The Wamsutta sits near the bottom of our ratings. The package for these sheets claims that it could fit up to a 20-inch-deep mattress, but in our testing, de Paz and crew found that the Wamsutta didn’t fit even an 18-inch mattress after less than 20 washes.

4. Price Doesn’t Indicate Performance

At $725, the Frette Porto sheet set is the most expensive in our ratings, but it isn’t the best. The sheets from L.L.Bean performed better than the Frette sheets in our ratings, and they cost about $150.

Toward the bottom? Casper’s Cool Supima sheets, which cost about $140 a set and don’t fit even an 8-inch mattress after a year’s worth of washing. All three brands’ sheets are made from the same material, but the difference in performance suggests a lot of variation in how sheets are manufactured.

5. The Feel of Cotton Remains Consistent

We handled sheets before and after washing for our sensory perception test. A panel of staffers compared each sheet set with three reference fabrics, then rated each set on a scale of soft, softer, and softest.

Of the sheets we tested, our panelists didn’t notice a significant difference in softness before and after a year’s worth of wash cycles. That means that if you’re feeling a set of sheets in a store, you can expect them to feel the same even after laundering them for about a year.