There’s a new kind of “short-sheeting,” and instead of a practical joke, this kind is an international crime. In March, the U.S. International Trade Commission found that foreign sheet manufacturers were shorting consumers on thread counts. In response, the ITC issued a general exclusion order banning companies from importing sheets with inflated thread counts.
The ITC found a “widespread pattern” of sheets made in India, Pakistan and China with “grossly inflated” thread counts. For example, its investigators found that some sheets labeled 800-thread count were just 250-thread count.
Thread count is a measure of threads per square inch in a fabric, and higher thread counts have long been associated with softer sheets. But in recent years, manufacturers have slapped ever-higher thread count claims on their packaging in a sort of bedding arms race that defied believability. Now, thanks to the ITC order, Customs and Border Protection agents are empowered to test and seize suspicious sheets at the border instead of letting them into the United States.
The case was brought before the ITC by AAVN, a textile maker that says other manufacturers were competing unfairly. “The pervasiveness of falsely advertised sheets hurts the entire industry,” said Ajay Mago of the Culhane Meadows law firm. “Once AAVN realized what some suppliers were doing to mislead consumers, it felt a moral obligation to do something about it.” Mago is the lawyer who aired the textile industry’s dirty linens before the ITC on AAVN’s behalf.
So, from here on out, can consumers rest easy on sheets they’re confident contain the correct number of threads? That depends. “Hopefully, Customs will do a good job enforcing the general exclusion order,” Mago said. “It’s a big step in the right direction . . . a victory both for consumers and suppliers who play by the rules.”
Meanwhile, with many of the mislabeled sheets of yore still on store shelves, shopping for bedding continues to be one of the most daunting household quests. “Finding the right sheets is overwhelming due to the labels and claims being made by the brands,” said Lexie Sachs, senior textiles analyst at the Good Housekeeping Institute (GHI). “Deciphering the packaging is difficult because you don’t know whether they indicate good quality or if they’re, in fact, accurate.”
To make matters worse, some manufacturers coat their sheets with silicon so they feel soft and smooth in the package. After a few washings, however, that coating comes off, leaving sheets that can feel like burlap. Adding insult to injury, some stores don’t allow returns once an item has been laundered. It may as well be called the “you made your bed, now lie in it” policy.
So how do you shop for sheets? The GHI buys and tests dozens of sheet sets a year to make recommendations and has this advice:
• Thread count: Despite the hype that led to all of this international sheet skulduggery, thread count is just one factor to consider, according to the GHI. And higher is not always better. “Our tests have shown that the sweet spot is often 300-500,” GHI says. “Anything over 500 isn’t necessarily better.” Thread count is also a personal preference. Sheets with a 500-thread count might be soft, but they could also be too heavy for someone who tends to heat up while sleeping.
• Fiber length: In addition to the number of threads, another factor is the length of those threads. The GHI explains that “extra-long staple (ELS) fibers are softer and stronger than traditional cotton.” You may not see sheets labeled “ELS” but could instead see the words “Egyptian,” “Pima” or “Supima” cotton. Just be advised that these terms are also misused by some unscrupulous sheet manufacturers. Investigators have done DNA testing on sheets labeled “Egyptian cotton” and found that they contained no Egyptian cotton at all.
• Weave: There are two basic kinds of weaves: sateen and percale. Sateen has a smoother, silkier feel. Percale feels light and crisp. Neither is better than the other. It’s personal preference, although the GHI says, “In our testing, consumers tend to favor sateen weaves.” Two less common weaves can be great for warmth in the winter: flannel and jersey.
• Processing: If your mission is to find extra-soft sheets, two terms to look for are “brushed” and “combed” cotton. This processing removes nubs and debris from the surface of the fabric, making it softer.
• Wrinkles: If wrinkles make you as restless as a princess sleeping on a pea, there are wrinkle-resistant sheets. Some have polyester blended into the cotton to reduce wrinkling. Beware that those can pill or cause you to sleep hot. Others are treated with chemicals to prevent wrinkles. The GHI says, “We’ve tested some that performed well and were Oeko-Tex certified, so you don’t have to worry about unsafe levels of chemicals.”
More from The Washington Post: