What Is The Best Percale Sheets To Buy In 2020?
We spend up to a third of our lives sleeping, so the comfort and performance of your bed sheets should be just as important as (or greater than) that of the clothes you wear everyday. 280-thread-count Pima Cotton Percale Sheets combine superior sweat wicking, heat retention, and durability to make the best sheets I’ve ever slept on.
If you prefer the smooth, silky texture of higher thread-count sateen sheets, we recommend Royal Velvet’s 400-thread-count Wrinkle-Guard sheets. They outperformed all the other sateen sheets we looked at when it came to wash testing. And while there’s no such thing as truly wrinkle-free sheets, these come pretty close.
HOW WE PICKED
We spent over 80 hours researching and testing all of the best-rated sheets on the market, a range from department store splurges to big-box budget buys.
After establishing what to look for in a good set of sheets, I focused my efforts on finding sheets made of extra long staple cotton (ELS). It is softer and lasts longer than traditional short staple cotton, and it has a thread count in the 200-500 range (which offers a good compromise between softness and breathability).
Weave was also considered, but we ultimately decided to cover both crisp percale and silky sateen sheets. Despite the fact that percale sheets tend to last longer and be more breathable, some people just prefer the satiny smoothness of high-quality sateen sheets.
Finally, we chose to focus only on solid sheets that offer multiple color options, ignoring striped, patterned, and printed sheets because solids tend to work more easily with any decor.
With that in mind, I turned to recommendations from reliable sources like Consumer Reports (subscription required) and Sleep Like The Dead. Recommendation lists from sites like Real Simple Magazine and Huffington Post are interesting, but they’re best taken with a grain of salt since there’s no way of telling how much their authors really know about their subject from the short word counts of their pieces.
From there, we checked the top-selling and top-rated items on Amazon, Overstock, Bed Bath and Beyond, and top department stores. While user reviews don’t mean much individually, when taken as a whole, you can get workable data on things like long term durability and feel, which aren’t easy to determine without using them yourself. Sleep Like the Dead is an entire website dedicated to doing just that. User reviews can also alert you to abrupt changes in quality due to revised production methods. For example, Wamsutta’s 1000 and Dream Zone sheets were once good enough to earn first and second place in Consumer Reports’ testing in the sateen weave category. But according to user reviews, they have a nasty habit of pilling and tearing not long after purchase.
After eliminating any sheets with middling or worse user reviews (i.e. 3.5 stars or fewer) or no review or editorial support, we wound up with a list of about 30 viable contenders that fit our criteria7. After debating with our team of researchers and editors over details like how many user reviews is “enough,” what constitutes a useful 1-star review versus a bogus complaint, and how much attention should be given to each price point, we managed to reduce our list down to 13 that showed the most promise:
These sheets spanned the best range of cotton type, thread count, weave, and density within an acceptable price range, which can go from under $50 to nearly $200 a set. We also focused on models that are clearly loved online and by the reviewers who have tested them. They were the best semifinalists we could find, considering our research and existing data.
We put these thirteen sheets under the microscope to analyze their composition and check their thread count. Then we sleep- and stress-tested them with multiple washes to find the best intersection of fiber, construction, density, and overall performance. In the end, the L.L.Bean sheets won. They also happened to be the favorite of Consumer Reports, which has the best compilation of sheet reviews and recommendations on the internet so far.
OUR PICK FOR CRISP PERCALE
After testing thirteen of the best sheets on the market, L.L.Bean’s 280-thread-count Pima Percale sheets are the ones I’m keeping on my bed. A dream to sleep on, they outpaced every other sheet in all of our tests. They are made of Pima cotton, which is a variety of extra long staple Egyptian cotton commonly grown in the US and Peru; while the thread count may seem low to those of you familiar with sheet shopping, these are quality sheets. I found them to be super comfortable, very breathable, easy to care for, and durable, too. They’re the best all-around sheets I’ve ever owned.
Not surprisingly, these sheets are also the Consumer Reports top pick (membership required). Their research cites excellent construction and very good strength, fit, and shrink resistance. User reviews on L.L.Bean’s website frequently refer to their excellent shrink-resistance and breathability, and many reviewers even mention that they have purchased multiple sets of the same sheets over the years, which indicates great longterm satisfaction and quality.
These sheets made a good first impression—there was no chemical smell upon opening the bag, which is alarmingly common in home linens, and the fabric felt similar to the way it did after the first washing. Some user reviews complained that they’re too deep, but it’s more likely that their mattresses are thinner than normal because these sheets are sized to fit most bed configurations. I have a standard spring mattress with a memory foam topper, and these sheets fit wonderfully.
Let’s talk about comfort. These sheets are soft out of the bag and only get softer over time. They are also breathable, remaining comfortable to sleep on even when humidity spikes. I never felt too hot or too cold sleeping on these, and, remarkably, I didn’t wake up with any part of the sheet sticking to any part of my sleep-sweaty body, which may be a first in my eight years living in San Francisco.
The sleep test was proof in my book that higher-quality cotton in a lower thread count is the best bet when it comes to sheets. The L.L.Bean sheets were definitely the most breathable sheets I tested, standing up admirably to my body heat, the heat of my cat and that of the 200-pound man I share a bed with. Not only did they breathe well, they also kept me nice and warm all night without feeling heavy or clingy.
Similarly, our tests showed that the simpler percale weave was more durable than sateen as well.
First let’s talk about the awesome finishing job. After five washings, the L.L.Bean sheets had no visible edge damage, none of the stitching came unraveled, and there were no infuriatingly loose threads to throw me into a Joan Crawford-like Mommie Dearest frenzy. Compare that to the denser sateen sheets, which all had various degrees of fuzzing along the hems.
These sheets also did not shrink much. While over two-thirds of the sheets I tested lost from 6% to 13% of their total surface area after laundering, these sheets shrank very minimally, losing only 2.5% of their surface area. That’s impressive, considering that shrinkage is a well-known characteristic in cottons. One of the reasons the percale sheet may have shrunk less is because of its weave. The floating warp threads in sateens are stretched quite tightly to achieve a smooth, satiny finish. With these L.L.Bean sheets, what you see is what you get. Besides their size, the same soft, smooth (but not satiny) hand you feel out of the bag won’t change after multiple washings.
I was also impressed with how little lint these sheets created. These sheets left very little in my lint trap, which is a sign that they’re well made. Loss of mass is another problem that plagues sheets, leading to performance and durability issues, but these sheets only lost 1.6% of their mass over 5 washings, which was the least out of all the sheets we tested regardless of weave.( Compare that to the 3.7% of mass lost by the Pottery Barn Classic Percale sheets.) Because of their extra long staple cotton and snug, even weave, there’s nothing to indicate that the L.L.Bean sheets will lose much more mass over future washings. None of the sheets I tested lost more than 3% of their mass over 5 washings, but over time that loss can add up, leading to weak and threadbare spots.
After five wash cycles, the L.L. Bean sheets exhibited zero signs of pilling or snagging. They didn’t even show any signs of the loosening fibers that might lead to pilling or snagging. Because there were no loose fibers to begin with, we have no reason to believe that these sheets will pill or snag going forward.
Comparatively, all of the sateen sheets all exhibited some level of snagging. Furthermore, the L.L.Bean sheets possessed solid stitching which held up beautifully through the wash test, compared to loose threads in the other sheets, notably the Tribeca Living sheets from Overstock, in which entire rows of stitching came undone.
As you can see in the photo above, the handsome hemstitching of the Tribeca Living sheets (still semi-visible on the left) completely unraveled, revealing the unfinished underside of the hem and creating a gaping flap along the entire right side of this sheet.
Our pick is also a cinch to maintain. The sheets excelled at drying without wrinkling. All cottons wrinkle in the dryer to some extent (except those that are marketed as “wrinkle-free” actually have a semi-permanent coating on them to prevent wrinkles, which we discuss in detail later on), but these sheets were perfectly good to go straight on the bed, even after cooling down in the dryer. No bound-to-fade treatments necessary. Of course, you could iron them if you’d like, but that’s not something you have to worry about. And if you do fancy an air fluff, just add a few sprays of water to your dry sheets and tumble them on the lowest setting for a few minutes before making your bed.
Lastly, the sample I tested was light blue, and it took five doses of color safe oxygen bleach with absolutely no problem. What I love most about these sheets is knowing that this one set will do its job well, saving me from buying (and trashing) a new set every year and saving the landfill from unnecessary textile waste.
If it sounds like I love these, it’s because I do. I’m not the only one. Consumer Reports named it their top pick for Percale sheets, giving it a score of 71/100, an “excellent” in build quality, and a “very good” rating for shrinkage, fit, crispness, and strength.
There are some reviews indicating that these can tear from time to time, but this is likely due to receiving a lemon that snuck by quality control as opposed to the sheets being a bad product. We wouldn’t worry about it too much because if you do receive a lemon (or if you just don’t like the feel, which is subjective), L.L.Bean has been honoring their founding satisfaction guarantee policy for over a century. They don’t call it a warranty, but they call it a 100% satisfaction guarantee where you can return anything at any time. Some user reviews of the sheets confirm that they’ll replace sets that develop problems, even when they’re old
FLAWS BUT NOT DEALBREAKERS
Of the negative reviews that these sheets have received on L.L.Bean’s website, most are easily addressable. One common complaint is that these sheets are too big (deep, actually), which depends on your mattress. The queen fitted sheet measures exactly 60” x 80” (the standard for queen mattresses) after shrinking because the folks at L.L.Bean presumably allotted for the correct amount of shrinkage.
The issue these folks are complaining about is the depth of the fitted sheet, which is something to consider before buying a set of sheets. These sheets are 15” deep, which is deeper than many old mattresses, but perfect for most new mattresses with either memory foam or pillow tops. As deeper mattresses tend to be the trend these days (many even deeper than 15”, which can make finding sheets harder than usual), this isn’t an issue for most folks.
Another popular complaint is that these sheets are too soft. Yeah. As it turns out, much of L.L. Bean’s customer base is older and prefer the crispy cool sheets of the good ol’ days. Not only is this not a problem for most people, but you’d actually be hard-pressed to find sheets crisper than these that are anywhere near as durable.
Again, none of these things are dealbreakers for most people.
OUR PICK FOR SMOOTH SATEEN
As a sheeting traditionalist, I could wax poetic about our main pick for days, but some people just plain don’t like percale. Percale was long the industry standard, and is by far more snag resistant than sateen, but sateen sheets boast a smoothness (and high thread counts that are easily marketable) that has made them wildly popular. If it’s drapey, satiny smooth sheets you’re after, get a set of Royal Velvet 400-thread-count Wrinkle-Guard sheets, which are available at a handful of retailers, most notably JC. If you’re feeling thrifty, just wait for one of JC Penney’s semi-annual sales to get a good discount.
These sheets performed similarly to our main pick in technical testing. They lost 1.7% of their mass in the wash and shrunk 2.2% over five washings and dryings, which exceeded the combined shrinkage performance of all other sateen sheets we tested. And despite my personal preference for crisp percale, I found these sateen sheets to be surprisingly comfortable to sleep in.
Many sateens can prove clingy because of their smooth drape, but these sheets remained light and breathable throughout the night. They’re also incredibly soft and almost slippery both out of the bag and after washing.
The other perk these sheets offer is a trademarked Wrinkle-Guard feature. Nothing is truly wrinkle-free, but these sheets come surprisingly close. A self professed hippie and lover of all things natural, I was skeptical about this feature at first. Most “no-iron” finishes, including those in cotton dress shirts, are achieved by coating the cotton fibers in a small amount of formaldehyde resin. The resin is absorbed by the cotton molecules, forming a “memory” so that they dry wrinkle free when allowed to lay flat.
This still won’t prevent them from wrinkling if you leave them to languish in the dryer for extended periods of time. But if you can manage to remove these sheets from the dryer and fold them or make your bed right away, it’s pretty impressive. In fact, many user reviews discuss their impressive wrinkle resistance, both out of the dryer and after a night of sleep.
It’s worth noting that formaldehyde is a known human carcinogen when exposed to the skin for prolonged periods of time according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer, although the EPA only lists it as “probable,” despite a rather convincing body of evidence. But—and this is important—most of those studies looked at undertakers, who use formaldehyde as an embalming chemical on a regular basis. It’s highly unlikely that there’s a high enough concentration of the chemical in these, or any other sheets, to make a difference. That is, unless you have a skin allergy. Those can be triggered by concentrations as dilute as 30 parts per million (that’s pretty much nothing). So if you buy these sheets and experience itchiness, you should definitely return them.
As far as durability goes, many user reviewers specifically mention how well these sheets wash. One reviewer (BBOwner) even boasts using them at their bed and breakfast all the way in Germany, saying “We have really enjoyed these sheets and just ordered more! We run a small B&B Hotel so these sheets get plenty of use and a lot of laundry time.” Many other reviews cite purchasing more than one set after being so pleased with the first, which is high praise in the sheeting business.
In my own experience, these sheets did show a noticeable-but-acceptable amount of edge wear after wash testing, but all sateens do. They certainly won’t hold up against pilling as well as an extra-long staple cotton percale, but if it’s satin smooth sheets you’re after, these are an attractive and reliable choice. Just wash them alone in cool water to prolong their smooth weave.
A LESS EXPENSIVE PICK FOR THE KIDS AND GUEST ROOM
I really recommend our main picks. The cost is mitigated, with proper care, by the longevity of the sheets, and they’re just the best performing sheets I’ve tested.
That being said, there are some reasons to opt for a step down. Cheaper sheets are a good choice for guest rooms, vacation homes, rental properties and the like. If you’re really shopping on the cheap, 400-thread-count Hemstitch Sateen sheets are the way to go.
The negative reviews of these sheets pretty much all mention pilling or feeling rough, but as one reviewer smartly mentions, “When you wash higher thread count sheets in hot water, they will pill! You have to use cold water if you want quality sheets to last.” I wash my sheets on my washer’s “eco warm” setting, but I still have to agree—whatever you do, never wash or dry your sheets on the hottest setting, as the heat can warp and wear down the materials at a faster rate than lower temperatures. Admittedly, these sheets are not as smooth as any of the extra-long staple cotton sheets I tested, but they are more breathable and sturdier than either of the other budget samples from Target or Ikea.
Despite boasting a higher thread count, they’re lighter than our main pick by 9%. Nevertheless, they performed admirably and provide decent overall value. While they shrunk considerably more at 10%, they’re still roomy enough to fit a standard mattress without slipping up in the night, although I wouldn’t recommend them for extra thick TempurPedic mattresses.
Surprisingly, while some of our more expensive luxury test sets came unstitched, these sheets stayed solid through all five wash cycles. All in all, if you’re looking for the best value in a 100% cotton sheet under $50, these are where it’s at.
HOW WE TESTED
Anyone can go to Bed Bath and Beyond and feel some sheets, but that really doesn’t give you a complete picture of what it’s like to actually live with and sleep in a set of sheets.
To complete the picture, we set up a rigorous series of testing criteria to assess the sheets right out of the bag, after a couple of night’s sleep, and after five wash cycles, simulating a few months of regular use and wear. These tests were designed to evaluate the true hand (feel) of the sheets after any factory finishes were washed off, overall comfort when sleeping with them (including breathability), and durability over time.
All tests were conducted on a queen-sized bed with a spring mattress and memory foam topper. In the photo below, you can see that my mattress with memory foam topper clock in just under 13” thick. Held together with a padded mattress topper, 15” deep fitted sheets are just about perfect for my bed. Since most folks use thicker mattresses these days, 15” is a relatively standard fitted sheet depth.
After evaluating fit and feel out of the bag, each set of sheets was washed in warm water with ¼ cup of white vinegar to remove any finishes and dried on low heat before the sleep test. Not surprisingly, almost every single sheet felt noticeably different after the first wash compared to how it felt right out of the bag. (Textile factories often coat fabrics with finishes to protect them and enhance their hand.)
After the initial sleep test, every set of sheets was washed in warm water with non-toxic oxygen bleach (which is actually a harmless solid form of hydrogen peroxide called sodium percarbonate) and dried on low heat four additional times to simulate the first few months of use. Of course, every sheet manufacturer is going to provide different care instructions, but if your sheets can’t hold up to warm washing with the occasional dose of oxygen bleach and low tumble drying, they’re not worth your money in the first place.
All of the sleep tests were conducted in a house with a nightly temperature between 68-70 degrees Fahrenheit, with an average outdoor humidity of 96% (San Francisco’s fog creates pretty humid evenings and early mornings year round). I’m a hot sleeper, and with San Francisco’s average relative humidity as moderate to high as it is, my sleep tests provided a standard-but-not-overwhelming scenario for wicking and breathability. Furthermore, in an attempt to get the best idea of hand (or body, as the case may be) and to make the test more true to how most people sleep, all tests were done without pajamas (who actually wears them, amiright?).
The durability of the sheets I tested was measured in a number of ways: edge damage, thread damage, shrinkage, weight loss, and pilling and snagging.
Thread damage is about construction at times. One of my biggest pet peeves with regards to quality is when long thread ends are lazily tucked into the hems of an otherwise nice sheet. The long threads begin to slip out of their folded hems after a few washes, and while this may not have any effect on the strength of the hems, it looks crappy and saddles the customer with the task of trimming loose ends that the factory was too lazy to trim.
Weight loss was measured during the drying cycle. More lint means looser fibers in the threads, and looser fibers usually means shorter fibers. Pima cotton, like what’s found in our pick, is an extra long staple fiber, which makes for strong, soft threads that are less likely to shed mass in the dryer. Decreased mass leads to threadbare sheets; threadbare sheets lead to tears. We measured this with a scale, and by checking the lint trap after dryings.
Pilling is one of the most frequent complaints I’ve heard from people when talking about sheets. Pilling occurs when loose fibers disengage from the cloth and abrasion causes the loose fibers to form balls of fuzz that are attached to the surface of the fabric. This abrasion can come in the form of agitation from washing and drying, or from bodies rubbing against the sheets in bed. The constant in all cases of pilling is that shorter fibers and looser weaves are more prone to pilling than long staple fibers that are more tightly spun and woven. Because pilling is created by loose fibers, textiles are more likely to pill early on and plateau once the majority of the loose fibers have worked their way out of the fabric. Pilling doesn’t usually diminish the performance characteristics of a fabric outside of negatively affecting its hand, but it is ugly, uncomfortable to sleep on, and a dealbreaker for most folks.
Some fabrics, sateen especially, snag rather than pill. That’s because the long floats that make sateen so smooth also expose it to easier snagging. More evident in traditional satins, this snagging may diminish the fabric’s strength, ruin the hand, or just prove to be a minor annoyance. Either way, it’s not a good quality in a sheet. All of our sateen sheets snagged to some extent after the first five washes. Snagging is diminished by tighter weave, but that makes for a hotter, more stifling sheet.
The sheets were also measured out of the bag. We assessed how closely they matched the manufacturer’s stated sizing and established a base size in square inches in order to measure subsequent shrinkage. After five washes, each sheet was remeasured to establish shrinkage. By comparing the measurements and square inch total of each flat sheet, fitted sheet and pillowcase, I was able to calculate shrinkage for each sheet set as a percentage of surface area lost. A little shrinkage is expected, but excessive shrinkage of more than a few percentage points is indicative of lower-quality cotton.
So what about the other sheets we tested?
Next to L.L.Bean, Garnet Hill was the most talked-about brand in the high quality percale market, so we tested three of Garnet Hill’s top cotton sheets—two percale and one sateen.
The Garnet Hill Fiesta Percale have over 4 out of 5 stars across nearly 300 reviews and similar specs to our L.L.Bean pick at ⅔ of the price. Unfortunately, they just weren’t anywhere near as soft as our pick. The main difference in hand and skin comfort here likely stems from the fact that these sheets are made with shorter staple cottons that are less smooth and more likely to pill. Despite the positive reviews, some users describe these sheets as “stiff and scratchy” while others remark that the fabric seems thinner than it was in the past.
In the search for a better percale pick, we also tested Garnet Hill’s Hemstitch Supima Percale. Made of 100% Supima cotton, just like our top pick, I had high hopes for this sheet. Supima cotton is the trade name of Pima cottons grown in the US, and it possesses the same extra long fiber characteristics as Pima and Egyptian cottons. Despite boasting an average 4-star review across over a hundred users, I found this sheet impossibly stiff and stuffy. The weave of this cotton is so tight that it becomes stiff when wet and doesn’t breathe well at all when dry. It also shrunk an astounding 13.9%—more than any other sheet tested—making the percale even tighter and less breathable. The performance differences between this sheet and our top pick just go to show how different two sheets can be, despite sharing identical materials and similar thread counts.
We also wanted to test a sateen from Garnet Hill, so we chose their Signature Wrinkle-Resistant Solid Sateen. This sheet shares similar qualities with our Royal Velvet sateen pick: a thread count of 400 and claims of wrinkle resistance. Made of 100% Egyptian cotton. these sheets outperformed the other Garnet Hill sets we tested but just slightly underperformed their Royal Velvet counterparts in stitch quality and wicking. Combined with their cost, these sateen sheets just don’t cut it.
While I avoided testing most high-end department store brands due to inflated prices relative to quality, Pottery Barn is a relentlessly popular purveyor of fine-ish home linens, so I gave their Classic 400-thread-count sheets a whirl. Boy, was I disappointed. Reviewers in online forums with names like Garden Web and Two Peas in a Bucket describe these sheets as “Fabulous… Crisp and cool,” and “super super soft,” but I kind of have to question their judgment because these were sweaty and a little rough, not to mention shoddily put together. Maybe my set slipped by quality control, but these sheets had stitches of uneven length and tension meandering down the flat sheet hems and loose overlocking.
We tested Cuddledown’s 400-thread-count Cotton Sateen because of its excellent reviews and high Good Housekeeping Research Institute rating (A-).These sheets were incredibly soft but absolutely huge. Like, over a foot longer than almost every other flat sheet with pillowcases 20% longer than average standard cases. Unfortunately, sheeting is not an arena where bigger is better, and I ended up constantly tangled in a sea of sweaty sheets with these.
Amazon’s Pinzon 400-thread-count Egyptian Cotton Sateen were tested because of their ELS cotton and popularity; at Price not available . Pinzon’s home linens are generally well-reviewed for their quality cottons, so it seemed logical that these sheets should perform decently. With good reviews and a marginally higher thread count, these seemed like the “affordable luxury” pick of the lot. But they were a little disappointing.
Amazon’s Pinzon 160-gram flannel was tested despite its different material because of overall popularity and user reviews. Maybe it’s a California thing, but I’ve never owned flannel sheets. We just had to see how soft and durable these sheets were in person, and figure out what kind of value they provide at a fairly affordable $54.99 a set, even though they’re not the best all-purpose sheet.
The Pinzon flannel sheets were remarkably soft out of the bag, but they began to pill within a few washes, as is the nature of napped fabrics like flannel. They also shrunk a considerable 10.5% in surface area, although they lost only 2.5% of their weight, which is surprising given how much lint they shed in the dryer. Now, we were 99.99% sure that flannel sheets were not going to be the best overall pick for most folks, but they’re still one of the online retail giant’s most popular sellers and a surprisingly good buy despite the pilling. Flannels pill. That’s just the way of the world.
If you live somewhere with great seasonal temperature differences, or you’re looking for winter cabin bedding, though, these are a good choice. For $80 they offer a warm, but surprisingly breathable night’s sleep, and the Portuguese cotton construction is soft and durable. I certainly wouldn’t use these sheets regularly in my home, but I took them to Burning Man and was quite happy with their performance throughout a week of cold, dry desert nights.
We also tried the 500-thread-count Egyptian Cotton Sateen because of its ELS cotton and user reviews: These sheets are slightly more expensive than the Pinzon sateen at $42.99 a set, but they’re also slightly fancier, boasting a 500-thread-count construction. Compared to traditional department store and luxury brand buys, $42.99 is a great deal for 100% Egyptian cotton sateen of this weight, making this our most luxurious pick, but it was too good to be true.
While they claimed a thread count of 500, I counted closer to 290, which leads me to believe that their reported thread count is based on two-ply threads. While this may seem devious (and it kind of is), these sheets were more breathable as their threads weren’t as densely packed into each square inch of fabric. Even though they boasted a higher thread count than the Pinzon sheets (500 compared to 400), they were actually 14% lighter overall (again, probably because of two-ply thread count). Admirably, they lost only 1% of their mass in the wash, and shrunk only 6.5% (second only to the L.L.Bean sheets). Unfortunately, their loose stitching disintegrated in the wash test. It’s unfortunate and really a dealbreaker in the bedding game.
Finally, I tested two other budget picks: Target’s Threshold Ultra Soft 300-thread-count sheets, and Ikea’s Gäspa sheets, which are the most affordable set I tested . I’ve always gone to Ikea for cheap sheets in the past, but compared to our Overstock pick, which the company confirms will remain, Ikea’s sheets just don’t compare. They’re noticeably thinner, 8.6% lighter than our budget pick, and they cling like Saran wrap, which left me alternately hot and sweaty or cold and damp.
The Target sheets were alright and would have been my budget pick if not for Overstock’s impressive price on their higher-quality sheets. But in this case, brick and mortar stores just can’t compete with budget prices at the same level of quality. These sheets performed solidly and held up in the wash, but they just weren’t as soft or breathable as our Overstock budget pick and possess weirdly deep pockets with auxiliary fitted sheet elastic that’s kind of bunchy and excessive. Unless you have an unreasonably deep mattress, there’s no reason to get these sheets compared to our budget pick.
Just as important as the sheets we tested are the sheets we didn’t test and why we didn’t test them. We looked at a lot of microfiber sheets, and I mean a lot of them.
Microfiber sheets are the kind that’ll try to sway you with slick marketing phrases like “Luxury Egyptian Quality” and “1500 Thread Count.” These are phrases that mean essentially nothing. Take a deeper look at Amazon’s top seller in sheeting: for 89% off(!) you can get a set of “1500 Thread Count Egyptian Quality” sheets. In actuality, a thread-count of 1500 means nothing when it comes to microfiber, as these synthetic fibers regularly clock in at 1/100th the width of a human hair. We won’t even discuss the “Egyptian Quality” bit because we both know you’re smarter than that. You can definitely spend a couple hundred dollars on microfiber sheets, but considering the fact that they’re regularly selling for a tenth of that price, it’s not hard to deduce their actual value. Plus, at the end of the day, microfiber is synthetic, which is more likely to make you feel sweaty. Microfiber is actually commonly used in cloth diaper pads, and many mothers warn against placing it next to babies’ skin as it causes irritation and rashes compared to cotton or hemp. Now, most of us no longer possess skin as soft and sensitive as a baby’s, but with tried-and-true cotton options with more impressive fiber characteristics we didn’t waste any time testing microfiber sheets here.
Department store sheets are another tough category. Department stores have nice things, and they’re nicely displayed, but does that make them a good value for your money? Before online shopping came and turned the retail game on its head, department stores were often the only resource people had for buying home linens. These days, department stores are trying harder than ever to class up their offerings.
One look inside the bedding department of any Macy’s, Nordstrom, Bloomingdale’s, Neiman Marcus, or Saks Fifth Avenue will leave your head swimming with lines about luxury cottons, designer names, and astronomical thread counts (see my earlier tirade about the whole thread count debacle). It’s not that these sheets are bad, per se, but brick and mortar retailers have higher overhead and thus more inflated pricing structures, which means they’re hardly ever the best bang for your buck at regular price. In fact, many department stores don’t even display lower-thread-count sheets, which ended up being our top pick. So while we did consider many extra long staple luxury sheets across a variety of thread counts and weaves, we stayed away for brand names that provide similar products at twice the price.
On a related note, let’s talk about hotel bedding: Did you know that the W Hotel sells their signature 400-thread-count cotton sateen sheets online? The other thing about why hotel bedding is so damn comfortable? There’s an army of wonderful folks cleaning, pressing, fluffing and remaking the bed in your air-conditioned room everyday.
That said, there were still some sheets we came across that were popular and well-reviewed, but we ended up passing on them for other reasons.
Wamsutta Dream Zone and 1000 sheets were an unfortunate story—it appears that they were once raved about and even earned Consumer Reports’ top picks in the Sateen weave category, but manufacturing changes have now disappointed many of their former devotees. It’s a considerable issue, putting out a different product under the same name, and online reviews are really the only way to tell if such a thing has happened. We listened to the people and went ahead without these formerly-admired sheets.
Land’s End 400TC Supima Percale sheets came in second place in Consumer Reports’ tests but are sadly no longer available.
Land’s End Solid Oxford Bedding was another contender that was nixed due to the heavy drape of oxford cloth, which is well suited to shirting but a little heavy for bedding.
We also considered a number of rayon from bamboo and tencel (a similar regenerated cellulosic fiber) sheets initially, including sets from Home Source International, Malouf (whose bamboo sheets are also currently out of stock) and Eucalyptus Origins before determining that these fibers simple do not perform as well as cottons.
Our blanket dismissal of rayons from bamboo and tencel across the board is due to the fact that they underperform cottons and are regularly priced at or above our main cotton pick. Regardless of how they are marketed, bamboo from rayon is not bamboo, but a regenerated cellulose fiber made from chemical tree soup that’s less than half as strong as cotton when wet, which means it’s almost guaranteed to fall apart faster than a solid set of cotton sheets.
There’s also linen and silk sheets that you can splurge on, but these aren’t even worth considering unless you’re paying over $200, so it’s a bit too cost prohibitive for most people.
As with all textiles, a lot of poor online reviews stem from improper care. It’s akin to buying a high performance sports car, never changing the oil, and complaining when the engine seizes. Everything from shrinkage to wrinkling can be mitigated with proper care, and it can add years of life to your sheets, so it’s worth making a few small changes to extend the life of all of your clothing, sheets, and towels.
First of all: how should you wash your sheets? Every set of sheets comes with manufacturer’s guidelines, but just because the label may say it’s okay to wash them hot with bleach and dry them on high doesn’t mean that you should.
The best way to maintain good-looking white sheets without boiling them in the wash is to wash them every couple of weeks on the lowest possible setting. Sometimes the cool setting will do just fine. The more regularly you wash them, the less likely dirt is to build up over time and become dingy. For an extra whitening boost, wash them on a warmer (but never hot) setting with color safe bleach occasionally. Only use color safe bleach, even on whites, as regular bleach has a tendency of turning whites slightly yellow. Even better, eschew regular bleach for oxygen bleach, which is a non-toxic version of hydrogen peroxide that works wonders on whites. You can also try a bluing agent like Mrs. Stewart’s Liquid Bluing (which I can personally recommend). Liquid bluing is a non-toxic, biodegradable optical brightener that renews the “brand new” bright white effect that textile manufacturers achieve by tinting white linens and garments with a tiny amount of blue. Slightly blue whites reflect more light and appear “whiter” to the naked eye.
As for drying, one of the most common ways that people damage (and shorten the lifespan of) their home linens is by overheating them in the dryer. If there’s one thing you can do to preserve your clothing, towels, and sheets, it is to dry them on the lowest setting possible. It’s much better to dry your sheets for 45 minutes on low than it is to scorch them on high for 15. You can literally smell the difference upon pulling them out of the dryer. Hell, if you have the space, hang your sheets outside to dry. There’s something magical about the crisp smell of air-dried sheets, I think, but I digress.
As discussed in the towel guide, fabric softener is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it can make certain fabrics softer and more fragrant, but on the other hand, it does so by leaving a slick residue on the surface that repels water. This is admittedly less of a problem with sheets than towels, but be forewarned that using liquid fabric softener or dryer sheets is likely to give your sheets a slippery coating that will decrease their breathability and wicking characteristics. If you’re trying to break down the factory finishes that most linens are sold with, add ¼ cup of white vinegar to the wash cycle. Not only does it soften fabric without leaving residue, it’ll help kill mildew that can grow in damp washers.
If you have sateen sheets, which are snag happy, the best way to prevent snagging is to make sure that sheets are washed alone, without anything that could snag them in the wash, on the lowest agitation setting. Sitting on your bed with rough clothing on can also snag sheets, so make the bed a pajamas-only zone. It’ll also help keep your sheets cleaner by preventing stains from crocking (dry transfer of colors from one material to another) and reducing the amount of dirt carried into your bed from the outside world (gross, right?).
WHAT MAKES FOR GREAT SHEETS ANYWAY?
Buying guides from places like Overstock.com, About.com and Good Housekeeping’s Research Institute offer semi-helpful advice and are a good place to start, but they’re not terribly detailed. They did all offer consistent advice on what to look for but very little specific guidance as to what works for most people. We took their advice and used research to fill in the blanks.
Materials should be your first consideration; cotton is what you want to look for. More specifically, you want extra long staple cotton, commonly known as Egyptian, Turkish and Pima cotton (or gossypium barbadense for the botanists among us). The best way to know that you’re getting ELS cotton is to check the materials tag—you can bet that any sheet with a tag that simply says “100% cotton” is shorter staple American Upland Cotton and that ELS cottons will be listed by name.
Good sheets should be comfortable, durable, easy to care for, and affordable. Cotton excels on all three fronts, especially when compared to the alternatives. Quality cotton breathes well and won’t pill over time, unlike synthetic fibers such as polyester and microfiber. It can also be had for under $200 a set, unlike nice linens and silks, which run north of $300. Cotton is also a breeze to launder.
Rayon made from bamboo is your other option (and an increasingly popular one), but it was shown to be inferior by Jennifer Kohler, an Agricultural Systems Technology student at Utah State University who wrote her master’s thesis on exactly that in 2012. Her 85-page thesis found that while cotton and Rayon had similar initial comfort levels, cotton got softer and more comfortable through successive washings whereas Rayon only got worse.
Thread counts matter as well, but higher is not always better. In fact, it’s mostly a marketing ploy designed to dupe people who don’t know any better.4 “Thread count is a red herring,” says Tricia Rose, proprietress of luxury bedding company Rough Linen, “A high thread count can mean that the fabric feels smooth, but not that it will wear better… [it’s] a bit of a gimmick.” In fact, sheets with too high a thread count can end up feeling slippery instead of soft and comfy.
My research found that between 200 and 500 is ideal for cotton. I also tested the sheets to make sure their claims were accurate by counting threads using a textile loupe.5 But in general, thread counts are misleading and not a good indicator of a sheet’s ability to resist wear and be comfortable to sleep on. Don’t be fooled. There are other factors at play, like the material itself and the type of weave used to construct the sheets.
The type of weave actually affects the feel of your sheets more than the thread count. There are three popular types of weave when it comes to cotton sheets:
- Percale is a simple one-over weave that results in “plain” sheets. While this weave cannot get as smooth as others, it is very durable and can still be very soft.
- Sateen is a four-over weave, similar to silk satin, which means that every warp yarn floats over four weft yarns before going under one and repeating. Sateen is notable for its smooth, satiny finish because of the “floats” of exposed thread, but it is also heavier and more prone to snagging and pilling.
- Flannel isn’t really a weave, but it is made from cotton and many people like it as a bedding material. However, it’s too warm to use year-round, so it’s not the most versatile material.
Fit is probably a non-issue unless you have an exceptionally tall mattress and mattress topper/pad, but it’s worth checking just in case. Sheets, like mattresses, duvet covers, comforters, towels, and pretty much every other conceivable home linen vary in size, even within standards like “king” and “queen,” so always be sure to check the measurement of your mattress against any sheets you’re planning on buying.
WRAPPING IT UP
L.L.Bean’s 280-thread-count Pima Cotton Percale Sheets pretty much blew every other sheet I tested out of the water. They were the most comfortable, the most durable, and the best combination of fiber and construction for the job. Cared for properly, these sheets should last for years of regular use. Plus, the icing on the cake is that L.L.Bean has a great return policy and quality guarantee. They take returns through the mail or in stores and will replace flawed items, as evidenced by the few poor reviews of these sheets online, where the company has responded and replaced them. Also great is the fact that they sell these sheets separately instead of in sets, which makes it easy to pick up an extra set of pillowcases or forgo the flat sheet if you’re a hot sleeper.