Of all the things we’re passionate about here at Home52 (wiping the sink every day, flipping the toilet paper over the top of the roll, sourcing vintage rugs, etc.), possibly the most fiercely debated topic? Bedsheet material.
We’ve been around the home editor block for a bit, which means we’ve had the chance to test, try, feel, smell, and wash just about all the bedding you can imagine. Given that the average American spends a third of their lifetime in bed (!), quality sheets are tantamount to a healthy sleep routine. Just think about it—would you get a more restful sleep in crisp, white hotel sheets, or the polyester blend that still plagues your childhood bed?
That said, sheets can be a daunting investment, and there’s a bit of background information to know before you take the plunge.
Firstly, to be blunt—thread count is kind of a scam. What used to be an indicator of quality is now largely a packaging ploy to get consumers to spend more. Anything with a thread count higher than 500 starts to get suspicious, and may be composed of multi-ply threads of cotton (counted as individual threads), instead of single ply threads. This is an indicator of lower quality cotton or materials, as the multiple-ply threads strengthen lower-grade cotton. Instead of thread count, look for threads made of long-staple fibers and thin, single ply threads.
Secondly, another thing you’ll see a lot about are weaves. The most common cotton weaves (yup, like a basket) you’ll see are percale and sateen. Percale is a one-over, one-under weave that feels cool and crisp, looks matte, and gets softer with every wash. Sateen is a three-over, one-under weave that’s super soft and smooth and looks slightly shiny. Sateen is usually a bit pricier than percale, since the fabric is close in feel to satin, and ultra wrinkle-resistant.
Linen has a whole other set of standards, which are fuzzier than the ones governing cotton. Thread counts are much lower for linen, as the flax fibers are thicker, and the weave is usually visible, whereas with cotton it’s difficult to see the tiny individual fibers. Linen is also commonly advertised as “stone-washed” or “enzyme-washed” which usually means the breaking-in and multiple washing process is mostly done for you—i.e. the linen comes to you soft, not still stiff.
Read on for our (passionate) pros and cons for each bedding material.
Caroline, the Cotton Fiend:
So let’s preface: I grew up in a house of polar bears. My parents kept the thermostat at 64 degrees at night, so my adapted sleep preference is for the room to be so cold that if my hand were to slip out, it might go a little numb. I know I’m not the only one who likes to be cold while sleeping, so for all of you who run hot out there, I’m here to preach the percale sheet gospel.
If you’ve ever luxuriated in a crisp, white hotel bed, it was probably a set of percale cotton sheets. The other kind of cotton sheets (my second favorite weave) is sateen, which is more tightly woven, buttery soft, and less likely to wrinkle. Percale is always my go-to, though, because it’s got that satisfying flip-the-pillow-over-in-the-night freshness. If I’m even the slightest bit overheated in the night, I toss and turn and have trouble falling back asleep, but with percale sheets, I can always roll over to a new, cold spot and snuggle in.
The refrain with linen sheets is that they’re great for summer and hot climates because they’re breathable, but I personally would rather have 100% cotton (also a breathable fabric!) that not only lets heat out, but also stays cool to the touch. My other main gripes with linen? They take a bit to break in (mine were super scratchy for a good five-ten washes) and they release so much dust. I find myself wiping down all the surfaces in my bedroom constantly when the linen is on my bed.
Arati, Linen's Biggest Fan:
Linen sheets have taught me an important life lesson—to embrace the imperfect. It didn’t happen overnight: I mean, I have been known to even iron my undergarments, so when I washed my very first set of linen sheets, my body reacted violently to its crumples/rumples/crinkles (all of the above). Over time though, I began to embrace each crease; linen wrinkles—it’s what the fabric is supposed to. Don't love the all-out crumpled look on your bed? Mix up the two—linen sheets and pillow cases, cotton duvet cover...boom!
I also love linen’s breathability, despite its weightiness. (Yep—that extra weight means it's also extra durable.) The airflow through the sheets leaves them cool and dry no matter how long they are in use. We all sweat in our sleep and I find that linen just dries up quicker than cotton.
Oh, and can I just say saturated colors just work so much better on linen? Mustard, terracotta, artichoke...gimme all the jewel tones! OK, prints don’t quite catch on linen, but I was never a printed sheet gal.
Cotton may be my favorite to sleep in, but aesthetically, linen sure is beautiful. The casual crinkles, the marled fibers, the effortless-ness it exudes—it’s why I often actually have a linen duvet cover. I love how durable and weighty it is, so long as I have a cotton top sheet to protect me. Linen also looks beautiful with a casual wrinkle, but cotton just looks messy when it’s not pressed.
The other major drawback to cotton sheets is that they don’t last nearly as long as linen sheets. Cotton sheets usually max out at about two years of use, but linen sheets can last through actual generations, making them a really great investment.
So, I’ll be the first to admit that linen sheets aren't the softest when they arrive—you’ve got to give ‘em time to shine (like...multiple washes—even with the "broken-in" kind), so I understand that this can be off-putting to some. Be warned that even over time they are never going to be the same kind of smooth-soft as cotton, so don’t even expect that—they break in differently.
Linen is also heavier than cotton, so it might not suit someone who doesn't like extra weight on them while they sleep. I have an extra set of cotton bedding for any guests that might run too hot at night, and prefer to use them. To linen’s defense, they do absorb perspiration better though.
And finally, yes, linen can be expensive, because the quality of linen matters. Purchasing a softer, more weighty linen sheet set could run your budget up, and it’s important to know if it works for you before you invest. However, because linen is so durable (and the better the quality, the more durable), it can last years and years. Belgian linen, in particular, is thought to be among the highest quality types of linen, and is virtually an heirloom. (Tip: look for a tighter weave if you want it your linen to last.)
1. Brooklinen Classic Percale, from $99
I have several sets of the percale bedding from Brooklinen, and it's truly reliable, durable, and always crisp. I recommend Brooklinen for anyone looking to invest in their sleep and bedding, they've got a range of colors and patterns, as well as the ability to buy pieces a la cart, so if you want to start with just a duvet or just a few pillowcases, you can surely do so.
2. L.L.Bean Pima Cotton Percale Sheet Set, from $109
I know, it seems wild that one of my favorite percale sheet sets is from an outdoor retailer, but I swear, these are some of the coolest sheets I've ever slept on. They're soft without losing crispness, and cool without being made of ice somehow? I don't know how they do it.
3. Parachute Linen Sheet Set, from $149
Crafted in Portugal with 100 percent European flax, these sheets just feel both incredibly comfortable from the get-go—and durable (that weight we spoke of!). They also wash incredibly well—and trust us, not all linen sheets are created equal that way.
4. Hawkins New York Stonewashed Linen Bedding, from $78
Hawkins does colored linen like no one else (I've been looking for an excuse to treat myself to that gorgeous rust!). In the end though, no matter what color you get, you're assured supple, breathable linen that lasts and lasts.