The Ultimate Guide to Bedding and Bath Material
Did you know that the average person spends about 26 years, or one third of his or her life, sleeping? That’s a lot of time in one place, reliant on the comfort of the fabrics and textiles that make up our bedding arrangement. And while we certainly spend less time drying off than we do asleep, bathroom rituals are important parts of our lives, and are often the setting in which we plan for the day ahead or reflect on the one behind. Selecting just the right soft towels and inviting bedding can have a profound impact on our rest, our mood, and ultimately, our quality of life.
If you’re shopping for bed or bath essentials, don’t wing it: armed with a little background knowledge about textiles, value, durability and overall benefits, you’ll be equipped to choose the material that best serves your lifestyle and your family.
Understanding Bedding Material & Fabric
How often you need to buy or replace your sheets and bedding depends on a number of factors, like what material your sheets are made of, how often you launder them, and even how much you sweat when you sleep. The good news is that quality sheets can last for several years, which means the shopping and selection process is critical to arriving at bed linens that suit your needs. Below, we’ve outlined everything you need to know make an informed choice.
Shopping for Bed Sheets: What to Consider
When selecting sheets for your own bed, it’s important to know the basics about the materials that will have a direct effect on your comfort as you rest. You’ll probably want the color and pattern to match your bedspread or the aesthetic of your bedroom. But more importantly still, you’ll want to understand how sheet fabric works and what the buzzwords indicate.
The weave, or the way the fabric is woven, has an effect on the feel of the material and is a matter of personal preference. Some people opt for a flat, plain weave, while others might prefer a silkier feel. We’ll get further into that below.
Fabric finish refers to the finishing process applied to the fabric after it has been woven and affects how the fabric feels initially as well as throughout its lifespan. The finishing process serves a few purposes: it helps maintain the luster and feel of the bed sheet fabric, preserves the color brightness, gives the fabric a smooth, silky finish, and may even reduce the amount of wrinkling that occurs. It’s an important feature of the final product.
Breathability indicates the extent to which the fabric allows air to pass through the fibers, leading to a cooling effect that will save you from overheating while you sleep. Being too warm can interfere with both REM sleep and slow-wave sleep, so it’s important to choose the right level of breathability for your bed sheets.
What do you want your skin to touch when you lay down to sleep? Feel simply speaks to the way a fabric feels against your skin and is a matter if preference.
Thread Count: What It Is and Why It Matters
Thread count is a measure of the density of threads, or the number of threads woven into one square inch of fabric. Essentially, it’s an indicator of how tightly woven a fabric is. To calculate thread count, add together the numbers of lengthwise (warp) and widthwise (weft) threads within a certain space. For example, a cotton sheet with 100 warp threads and 100 weft threads in each square inch of fabric would have a listed thread count of 200.
Thread count is used as a rough measure of the softness and feel of a fabric. It’s also used heavily in marketing to suggest that a specific product is of a higher quality than other sheets. While this is true to a certain extent, thread count is in no way the only consideration when it comes to the overall quality of a set of sheets.
When considering the best thread count for sheets, it’s important to prioritize quality over quantity. The quality of the yarns or threads used in the weave is often more important than the quantity of threads, or thread count. Quality, comfortable sheets can be found with thread counts ranging from 200 to 800 or more. There’s no magic number denoting the perfect thread count, but there are generally acceptable ranges for various types of quality sheets. At a minimum, look for sheets with an advertised thread count of 200. Anything lower probably won’t feel as soft, which may result in a less comfortable sleeping experience.
The quality of the yarns, the manufacturer’s production process, the weave type, and many other factors all combine to establish the performance of a set of bed sheets.
The Most Common Bed Sheet Materials and Their Characteristics
Bed sheets are constructed from a host of materials and fabrics, and not all are created equal. Every type of textile fiber comes with its own unique characteristics, making each one varyingly suited to different types of sleepers. The most common materials for sheets are as follows:
100% cotton is a natural material made from the cotton plant that’s also one of the most loved fabrics for bedding thanks to its softness, durability, and stain-resistance. Cotton sheets are the hardiest of bedding materials, making them ideal for kids’ rooms where they might be required to undergo frequent washes. The superior breathability of cotton fibers also means they’re well-suited to a cool night’s sleep, but 100% cotton sheets may also come with a higher price tag. Recommended thread count range: 200-400.
Polyester is a synthetic, cost-efficient material that is lightweight, soft, smooth to the touch, easy to launder, and wrinkle-resistant. However, its breathability and durability depend on the weave; some polyester sheets trap in heat released by the body during the night, making it less than ideal for those who tend to “sleep hot.” When checking labels, keep in mind that polyester products don’t have a thread count, but are instead marked with “GSM,” or grams per square meter, which measures the weight of the fabric. Recommended GSM range: 90-120.
Microfiber, a fabric composed of extremely fine fibers of polyester, are affordable and soft, and they resist pilling better than traditional polyester fabric does. However, the polyester component is less breathable than cotton and is probably not the best choice for those with sensitive skin. Some sheets that are 100% polyester are labeled as “microfiber.” But not all sheets labeled as microfiber are 100% polyester. A blend of polyester and nylon can also be considered “microfiber,” so if you’re looking for pure polyester sheets, be sure to read the material details. Recommended GSM range: 90-120.
Tencel® is the brand name for lyocell fabric, which is a type of rayon fiber sourced from natural materials that are converted into fibers. This means they are neither natural like cotton, nor artificial synthesized fibers like polyester. Tencel® is considered semi-synthetic, as its rayon fibers come from the wood cellulose of eucalyptus trees. This smooth fabric feels silky soft and has a sheen to it. The fibers are hypoallergenic, durable, super absorbent and wick away sweat, making them a good choice for hot sleepers, even in warm weather. Tencel® sheets are also made with low environmental impact. Recommended thread count: 300 or over.
Made with fibers derived with bamboo, this material is a versatile textile that can be woven to have a lustrous, matte, or textured feel. The lightweight fabric wicks away moisture and prevents heat retention. Bamboo-derived sheets are durable but can be pricey, and special care should be taken to preserve the feel of the soft fabric. When shopping for these sheets, pay special attention to certifications on the label to ensure they are sustainably made. Recommended thread count range: 300-500.
Modal is a soft, semi-synthetic fabric made from beech tree pulp, making it breathable, cool, durable and resistant to pilling. However, modal sheets can be hard to care for, as they must be washed on a cool setting and dried on low. If not treated gently, they can be prone to tearing. Recommended thread count: 300 or over.
Made from the flax plant, linen has been used as bedding for centuries. Many people find its distinctive rustic appearance very appealing, and its natural color means it doesn’t need to be dyed. Linen sheets are soft, and soften further with every wash. They also offer cooling properties and are antimicrobial. However, the non-elastic plant fibers mean these sheets are prone to wrinkling. Avoid higher thread counts when shopping for linen sheets; 80-140 is perfectly suitable.
While most sateens are made from cotton, sateen technically refers to the weave (three or four yarn over, one under pattern) rather than the material. Sateen sheets have a reputation for luxury thanks to their silky feel, beautiful drape, and luminous sheen. They’re also breathable and wrinkle-resistant but prone to snagging. Recommended thread count range: 300-600.
Percale sheets have a tight, flat cotton weave with a crisp feel that resembles a dress shirt. The fabric is characterized by a matte finish and a crisp hand. Its breathability and light weight make it perfect for “hot sleepers” or warm climates. Recommended thread count range: 200-400.
Flannel is a super soft, medium-weight fabric measured in GSM rather than thread count. Most sheets are made from cotton fiber, but you can find them in wool or synthetic fiber too. The material can be brushed or unbrushed – a mechanical process where a fine brush rubs across the fabric to create extra softness and a napped finish. Flannel sheets come in a range of prices, depending on the quality of the fabric. They’re durable, wrinkle-resistant, and incredibly cozy for winter. They do lock in heat, which means they’re not a great option for those who run hot at night. Recommended GSM: 170+ for heavy, durable sheets; less for lighter, more breathable but less durable quality.
Made from a combination of silk and another material (usually polyester), satin sheets are smooth and sophisticated. They don’t retain moisture, are cool to the touch, and are often recommended for those with sensitive skin due to their hypoallergic properties. Recommended thread count range: 200-400.
Silk is a natural, more luxurious fiber compared to satin, although the two have a similarly smooth look and feel. Silk is cool, naturally temperature-regulating and moisture-wicking, which is ideal for sweaty sleepers. Mulberry silk is considered the highest quality because the fibers are longer and more uniform, making the fabric smoother and more durable. Silk material is measured in momme, which indicates the number of pounds in a piece of silk that is 45 inches by 100 yards. Because silk sheets can be quite expensive, you’ll want to make sure you’re getting a high-quality product. Recommended momme range: 17-22.
When shopping for bedding, you’ll notice that product labels mention textile certifications that refer to the origins, processing and quality of all elements of the material.
- Oeko-Tex represents the certifications provided by the International Association for Research and Testing in the Field of Textile and Leather Ecology and confirms the safety of textile products across all stages of production, from raw materials and fibers to yarns and fabrics to dyes, finishes, and finally, ready-to-use end products. In other words, Oeko-Tex textiles and fabrics are certified free of harmful chemicals and are safe for human use. It’s a global standard, so it’s the same in every country.
- Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) is the textile processing standard for organic fibers that stipulates requirements throughout the supply chain for both ecology and labor conditions in textile manufacturing using organically produced raw materials. It begins by certifying the non-GMO (genetically modified) status of the seed and goes all the way to the finished product, including packaging, which is why it’s one of the most difficult certifications to achieve in the field of textiles.
- Global Organic Latex Standard (GOLS) is a materials and processing standard for organic latex and finished latex foam, which is particularly relevant in mattresses. GOLS guarantees the finished product contains at least 95% natural latex which, in turn, contains few, if any, potentially harmful chemicals. The certification also assures you a quality product that’s made using eco-friendly, sustainable methods.
Shopping for Heavy Bedding: Blankets and Comforters
If sheets are the basics of bedding, blankets, comforters and quilts are the topping that not only guide a bedroom’s aesthetic, but also make it the place you want to crash! Here are the most common comforter materials and what you can expect from each of them.
Down comforters are made from the light, fluffy clusters and plumules beneath the feathers of ducks and geese. The quality of down is determined by the fill power, or loft, which is defined as the amount of down per ounce. The more fill power, the greater the fluff and the better the insulating ability of the comforter (and, most likely, the greater the price). A fill power of 600 or more is recommended to keep warm on cold nights.
Down alternative comforters are great options for those who are allergic to down feathers or those on a tighter budget. The alternative fill can be made from rayon, polyester or cotton, and although these synthetic options do not regulate temperatures as well as 100% down, they are much easier to clean and maintain. In general, down is warmer than down alternative fills because it is more expansive and takes less material to keep sleepers warm.
A duvet consists of a soft flat bag filled with either down, feathers, wool, cotton, silk, or a synthetic alternative, and is protected with a decorative removable cover (exactly like a pillowcase but for the whole bedspread). This makes it easy to clean, and duvets come at a much lower cost than down.
Sourced from sheep’s wool, natural wool comforters are water-resistant, thermo-regulating, and hypoallergenic. They’re also breathable, odor-resistant, and easy to care for, provided you select a washable wool comforter with treated fibers. Costs can vary, but a higher price typically means a greater percentage of the comforter is pure wool, making it warmer and more durable.
Smooth and soft to the touch, cotton is viewed as one of the most comfortable materials for a comforter. 100% cotton is effective at absorbing sweat and moisture, and helps to keep the body cool and comfortable by balancing warmth and breathability. To find a high-quality cotton comforter and not a scratchy, cheaper alternative, however, you might have to spend a little more.
As is the case with sheets, a polyester comforter is made from synthetic fiber that doesn’t absorb water, which can lead it to trap moisture and heat. This can make for a sweaty night. Polyester can also be irritating to sensitive skin. On the other hand, the comforter will be highly durable, and can survive years of washing and use. It’s also cheaper than 100% cotton options.
Made from synthetic acrylic fibers, an acrylic fleece blanket is soft and cozy. It’s not as heavy as a wool comforter but is warmer than cotton, boasting moisture-wicking properties, and creating a cocoon of warm, dry air as your sleep. This comforter is light-weight, durable, and available at a variety of price points.
Understanding Towel Material
Bathing and hygiene rituals are an essential part of anyone’s day, and using just the right towel can elevate your self-care routine as well as your family’s. So before picking out your new towel set, take a moment to familiarize yourself with the terminology, measurements, and materials that will inform your choice.
Towel Materials and Fabrics
Most towels are primarily made of cotton fibers, but the look and feel varies based on what specific type of cotton is used.
Considered the cream of the crop of towel fabrics, Egyptian cotton has long, fibrous threads that make it ultra-soft, super fluffy, and extra absorbent. It’s a strong and heavy towel, which also means it takes a long time to dry and is on the expensive side.
Pima or Supima® Cotton
Pima cotton (or the name brand Supima®) is the American-grown version of Egyptian cotton and offers a similarly high-end look and feel. It has high absorbency, fast-drying breathability, and durability, while still remaining within an affordable price range. When shopping for towels, check the label for the Supima® trademark, which guarantees 100% American pima cotton.
This premium cotton provides a high level of comfort, absorbency, and durability. Much like Egyptian cotton, the long fibers yield stronger and smoother threads than regular cotton, becoming even softer over time. Turkish cotton provides a balance between absorbance and softness, resulting in a lightweight fabric with high absorbency and efficient quick drying.
Towels made from this super-fine synthetic polyester material are lighter and thinner than cotton towels, but remain exorbent and dry extremely quickly. They make ideal towels for the gym or swimming pool, but are also suitable for use at home.
MicroCotton is the trademarked name of a manufacturing process in which cotton yarn is laced into long loops that lend the towels a luxury feel and extra absorbency. Although lighter than Egyptian cotton, towels made from MicroCotton are voluminous and soft, and absorb up to 300% more than a standard ring-spun towel.
This material is made from 100% fair-trade certified organic cotton grown without the use of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. This material has the strictest social and environmental standards. These soft towels generally range from light to medium weight and dry fairly quickly; they’re considered mid-weight absorbent towels.
Eco-Conscious Towel Fabrics
Other types of natural materials are making their way into bath towels these days, including the super-absorbent Modal, made of cellulose from beech trees, organic cotton towels, and towels made from bamboo, which have a velvety-soft texture. Fibers derived from bamboo and the hemp towels have natural anti-bacterial, odor-resistant and mildew-resistant qualities.
A Guide to Towel Weights in GSM
Shopping for your new towels online? Never fear: there is a reliable, standardized way to differentiate between various towel weights that’s even more informative than touching them.
The density of towel fabric is measured by GSM (Grams per Square Meter) on a scale from 300 to 900. Low GSM (300-400) towels are light and thin, while high GSM (450-600) towels are thicker, heavier and more absorbent. Typically, the higher the GSM, the better performance you will have from the towel. Higher GSM towels take longer to dry, but their plush softness combined with superior absorbency make them an appealing contender for that at-home spa experience.
Under 400 GSM
A towel that weighs less than 400 GSM is likely to be thin and light.
These towels are lightweight and allow for quicker dry time. A GSM of at least 400 would be ideal for a hand towel.
At an ideal medium weight, this density is perfect for soft, absorbent bath towels.
Considered the premium luxury weight, these towels are dense, thick, and extremely absorbent.
Bedding and Towel Shopping is Personal: There’s No Right or Wrong
If all these material options have your head spinning, keep in mind that you are the sole judge of what is comfortable, practical and affordable for your own lifestyle. A college student on a tight budget with limited time for taking care of her linens is going to have vastly different priorities than a parent selecting bath towels for small children, an athlete who’s frequently on the road, or a connoisseur of the finer things in life who doesn’t mind springing for the ultra-luxury home textiles.
Before deciding what bed sheets, comforter, or bath towels to purchase, take stock of your wishes, needs, and concerns. This will help you decide what you’re looking for in advance and reduce selection fatigue while shopping.