Cheat Sheets?

Thread count indicates the number of vertical and horizontal threads in a one-inch square of fabric.
Thread count indicates the number of vertical and horizontal threads in a one-inch square of fabric. (Istockphoto)
By Patricia Kime
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, May 15, 2008

I n February 2003, massage therapist April White of Clermont, Fla., decided to splurge on her customers, buying luxurious 800-thread-count sheets for her massage table. She spent $169.99 for a queen set at Bed Bath & Beyond, but when she got the linens home and washed them, she found them anything but magnificent.

Rather than write off the expensive purchase as a life lesson, White shipped the textiles to a lab, which found that they were roughly 400-count, by U.S. standards, instead of 800. Then she took her indignation to the next step: She filed a class-action suit against Bed Bath & Beyond and the manufacturer on behalf of all those who bought high-thread-count sheets at the retailer from August 2000 to November 2007.

"They just didn't feel like I expected luxurious sheets to feel," she told the New Yorker magazine, which carried a small story about the suit in January.

In challenging the weave of sheets, White inadvertently stepped in a hornet's nest that has bedeviled the textile industry for years: How, actually, is thread count defined? And as consumers, how much should we care?

"It's just gotten ridiculous," said one local shopper, Susan Van Hemel of Fairfax. "It's become so hard to figure out what to buy. And sheets now are so expensive, you can make a costly mistake."

Three decades ago, most sheets purchased in this country came from familiar, made-in-America companies such as Cannon and Fieldcrest. These durable linens (usually white, cotton-polyester blends with a thread count of 100 to 180) wore like iron and felt like Teflon; in fact, if any are still in your linen closet, they probably still feel as firm as a frying pan yet remain perfectly serviceable.

But in the late 1970s and early '80s, consumers woke up to designer labels, the U.S. textile industry went into a tailspin and manufacturing moved largely overseas. All-cotton became the gold standard for bed linens, and thread counts crept higher as loom technology advanced and manufacturers found that the higher numbers translated into red-hot sales.

Today, sheets come in countless colors, patterns, sizes, textures and thread counts -- the last sometimes zooming beyond 1,000 per square inch. But this choice comes at a cost: Consumers face confounding labels, wide price variations and sometimes questionable quality control.

"I have empathy for the consumer. . . . It's hard to tell, given the current labeling system, what you're going to get," said Paul Hooker, president of New Jersey-based Sferra Bros., a luxury linens company.

Some within the industry hope White's lawsuit will compel manufacturers to improve labeling and respect strict definitions of thread count. But in the meantime, textile experts say, consumers can help themselves by relying on their own senses and by letting go of the one industry measure to which they still cling: their thread-count fixation.

Currently, manufacturers have no agreed-upon standard for counting the number of vertical and horizontal threads in a one-inch square of fabric -- the definition of thread count. The American Society for Testing and Materials International (ASTM) established guidelines saying all threads, including multi-ply yarns, can only be counted once. U.S. manufacturers adhere to the rule, but many foreign manufacturers do not, according to Norma Keyes, director of fiber quality research at Cotton Inc., an industry trade group based in Cary, N.C.

Thread count "was seen as a way to differentiate one product from another, and by inference, convey to a consumer that more is better. But in fact, higher thread count doesn't always mean you have a higher-quality sheet," Keyes said.

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