It’s easy to overlook bed sheets in favour of your mattress or pillow selection, however the simple sheet will have the most direct impact on the quality of your sleep experience. Given that, how do we determine, among the myriad of bed sheets on offer, which ones really are the best on the market?
Knowing there’s a dream sheet out there for everyone, we decided to spend a whole lot of time in bed on your behalf to break down the good, the bad and the plain uncomfortable. What we discovered was that there were really only a few variables that made the majority of the difference. Think in terms of temperature regulation, the feel and texture of the sheet on the skin, its hypoallergenic potential, longevity, ease of care, and importantly, the sustainability of the product.
So let’s dive in.
Your choice of bed sheet fabric and weave will have the most impact on how the bed sheet performs. How well it maintains or promotes your body’s natural temperature regulation, its wicking (moisture absorbency), it’s hypoallergenic quality and its overall feel against the skin – think crisp, buttery, lightweight, coarse, sticky or smooth, all comes down to fabric and weave choice. It’s also going to influence how much you’ll pay for your sheets, how long they will last, how easy (or hard) they are to care for, and how they measure up from an environmental perspective. Knowing the merits of the material before you buy is an important first step in making a good bed sheet purchase.
Bed sheet fabrics
Bamboo itself is too stiff and rough for the requirements of bed sheets and most bamboo bed sheets will in fact be blended. Bamboo must undergo a chemical process in order to respin its pulp into the thread that will create your sheets. This thread is now called a bamboo viscose. Bamboo viscose yields a stretchy bed sheet with above average softness and almost the same durability and breathability as cotton, however, its manufacturing process has a long way to go before we can call it a sustainable product.
Debunking Bamboo + Eucalyptus
Cotton is the most popular choice for bed sheets and for good reason. Cotton is breathable, has great moisture absorbency, is soft, comfortable, easy to care for and has been the industry standard for as long as we have had a bed sheet industry. It’s important to know however that cotton can be produced to a range of different quality and environmental standards. A long organic cotton fibre will give you a crisp cool bed sheet that is safe for allergy sufferers and so long lasting that it actually softens and improves with age and regular washing. Non organic, regular or Upland cotton yields a far lower quality, shorter fibre that offers the same breathability as organic cotton, but lacks its softness, hypoallergenic qualities and durability. Flannel is a third variation on cotton. Flannel is created by brushing the cotton fibres to produce an extremely soft bed sheet with a heavier weight than regular cotton. Designed to retain heat rather than move it away, flannel is a great choice for the colder seasons. With the cotton industry under the environmental spotlight it’s worth noting that regular cotton farming is a highly toxic, water heavy industry considered to be one of the most environmentally damaging in the world. For this reason non organic cotton is not recommended for allergy sufferers, those with sensitive skin, those with asthma or anyone with an environmental conscience. Best choice is always certified organic cotton
Tencel is a brand name fabric that is picking up where bamboo left off. Made from sustainable eucalyptus pulp, it has won many environmental awards and is growing in popularity. Tencel offers a sustainable bed sheet, produced with environmental responsibility and biodegradability in mind. A Tencel bed sheet will be very soft, smooth and cool to touch with a natural lustre. It also offers good moisture absorbency, breathability and is 100 times* more antimicrobial than your average polyester sheet. The mattress industry has begun using Tencel blends in its fabric mattress covers taking advantage of its breathability and anti microbial qualities. Tencel, especially certified Tencel, stacks up extremely well on the sustainability scale and while it does have some limitations for laundering, preferring a cold wash for longevity, Tencel is a fabric we will no doubt be seeing more of.
Linen is produced from the flax plant which offers a more textured sheet with a coarser finish. It offers the durability and breathability of cotton as well as softening over time with washing as an organic cotton sheet will. While linen makes for lovely bed sheets, they are considerably more expensive than other fabrics and you’ll need to like the look and feel of a sheet with more heft and its signature crumpled look.
*Bacterial Growth in modified 24 hour test. Prof Redl, University of Innsbruck
Bed sheet weaves and thread counts
The weave refers to the linking of the horizontal and vertical threads of a bed sheet fabric. The weave will impact the look and feel of a bed sheet as well as its breathability, moisture absorbency, drape or look, ease of care and wrinkle resistance. There’s really only three weaves you’ll need to know:
This is the most common weave for bed sheets and is described as an over one / under one construction. Percale yields a crisp, soft bed sheet with a matte finish. It’s considered the most breathable and durable of the weaves.
This weave is described as being four over / one under and it produces a bed sheet fabric that has more continuous thread in one direction and so a smoother, shinier, satin finish. There is less crispness in a sateen sheet which has more of a draped look, however it loses out against the percale weave with a distinct reduction in breathability and durability.
Jersey is better described as a knit rather than a weave but it is a variation you’ll find among bed sheet options. Jersey creates a very soft, stretchy, wrinkle resistant bed sheet but offers less durability and tends to pill and thin with use.
We can’t really talk about weaves without at least mentioning thread counts and the thread-count conspiracy. Thread count refers to the number of threads woven into one square inch of fabric and is a rough indicator of softness and feel. Thread count is used heavily in marketing to imply that a specific product is of a higher quality than a competing sheet; however it’s good to remember that the quality of the yarn is more important than its quantity. A super high thread count may be hiding a poor quality thread or could indicate the sheet is tightly woven and therefore lacking in breathability and natural air flow.
When it comes to cotton the ideal yarns are thicker (with less twist) to aid absorbency and breathability. The best weave has a thread count around or below 300.
With Bamboo or Tencel the extruded yarn is thinner so weaves tend to be slightly higher with 300 – 500 being the ideal range.
Breaking down the bed sheet choices
For comfort, feel, look and performance each weave and fabric combination will have something to offer. When you add sustainability to that criteria, which most discerning buyers do, then the list narrows considerably to organic cotton, Tencel and organic linen. For ease of care and durability organic cotton and organic linen, both of which can be washed for many years and actually improve their performance come out on top. All three organic fibres will offer a soft bed sheet however Tencel has the edge with Tencel sheets having a unique lustre comfort for sensitive skin. As most of us want to get performance, longevity, look and feel, environmental responsibility AND value for our money, we have to consider price. This is where the more expensive organic linen sheets lose out to organic cotton and Tencel.
Having spent a lot of time sleeping on it, ruminating on the variables and browsing the internet, the answer to the question of the best bed sheets on the market would have to be organic cotton with the door wide open for Tencel for those who prefer a softer sleep experience.