Choosing Bed Linens


Not so long ago, the trend in bed linens ran toward easy care, and understandably so, as one considers the labor that went into laundering and maintaining traditional sheeting fabrics. "Wash-and-wear" products are now so commonplace, more of us can look beyond convenience, and now seek more elevated pleasures from our bedding choices.

Consumers now study the specifications for cotton bedding as closely as they do for home theater components, and are likely to spend as much for household linens as for electronics. Staple length, thread count, and weaves contribute to the "hand" and the durability of cotton cloth for sheets and ticking. What do these terms refer to, and why do the numbers seem to vary so widely?

Staple Length

Staple length determines the potential for fineness in cotton thread. The longest fibers on earth are found in Sea Island cotton, named for the islands off the east coast of the United States where they were once grown, although the breed itself originated in Peru and Chile and migrated to the Caribbean before finding a temporary home in the coastal islands of the Carolinas and Georgia. It enjoyed a robust market in the days before the invention of the cotton gin by virtue of the slippery quality that made its seeds easy to remove. But the yield per acre was and remains very low, and its high price places it firmly in the luxury market. It is now grown only in the West Indies and is primarily used for men's dress shirts and other haberdashery.

The cotton gin, introduced to American growers in 1793, reduced the cost of producing other breeds of cotton with higher yields. Market forces eventually resulted in the hybrids familiar to us today. Egyptian cotton is a hybrid of New World long-staple cotton of Peruvian origin and a breed native to Africa. This cotton, of long staple and high productivity, is now grown in many parts of the world. The staple length ranges from 1-1/4 to 2 inches.

Pima cotton is named for the Pima Indians who initially cultivated this modern hybrid for the USDA in Arizona. Like Egyptian cotton, it is a hybrid of Old and New World extra-long-staple (ELS) breeds. To be called "Pima," the staple length must be at least 1-3/8 inches.

Products may bear the words "Egyptian" or "Pima," or even "Sea Island" on the label, but may only contain a small percentage of these superior fibers. The best products are made from one-hundred-percent ELS cottons. All-Pima cloth may carry the SUPIMA™ trademark.

Thread Count

Thread count refers to the number of threads woven into a square inch of fabric. Sheeting with fewer than 180 threads per inch is called muslin, and with more than 180 threads per inch is called percale. Thread counts above 200 indicate the presence of fine thread spun from long-staple cotton. "100% Combed" on the labels indicates the removal of shorter fibers before spinning. Combing increases the fineness that makes high thread counts possible, and accounts for its silky quality.

Extremely high thread counts represent two to four strands twisted together in a yarn. Some cotton fibers are so fine they must be plied before weaving, but even yarns spun from coarse, short-staple cotton are woven into sheeting and advertised at very high thread counts. Cotton of lesser quality makes for a heavy, dry, and stiff cloth, whereas sheeting of the finest yarns has a fluidity that is very apparent in a side-by-side comparison. A reputable merchant can provide swatches.


A plain weave shows a simple process of passing the weft threads through alternating warp threads in a uniform pattern. By shifting the movement of the warp threads on two or more harnesses, weavers produce patterns that affect the appearance and the hand of finished cloth. A ribbed weave is a simple variation.

The satin weave that produces the glossy fabric known by that name, when applied to cotton, is called sateen, and has a like luster. Damask weaving uses the satin method with a pattern applied to the shifting of warp threads. Jacquard refers to the type of loom engineered to produce these and other complex weaving patterns.

Twill weaving results in the diagonal wale familiar to us in our denims and gabardines, but may make beautiful and durable sheeting in patterns such as herringbone.

Vintage Linens

Collectors regularly buy and sell vintage linens at auction, and one can see many worthy examples online. Many vintage linens represent an excellent value. Pure natural fibers were once the standard, and the linens themselves have stood the test of time. Pillowcases with fine needlework are prized by connoisseurs of decorative and folk arts. A collector might even find pieces bearing, by coincidence, his or her own monogram.

Understanding whiteness can help one appreciate older linens. Dyes were once expensive and not always colorfast. Linen had to be laundered many times over its useful life, and sun-bleaching was (and is) very effective. Housekeepers could tell whether the sheets and towels had gotten clean by looking at them, and took satisfaction in the whiteness they achieved with their laundering.

Stain removal treatments should follow soaking in plain water, and precede gentle laundering and line drying. Machine drying and even ironing should only be used with extreme caution. It's possible to remove most wrinkles by stretching sheets across two clotheslines, or a lawn that's protected from animals.

After all this one may enjoy the delicious freshness of sun-dried sheets and pillowcases with a supple softness unmatched by newer linens.

What's new in fiber sources

Cotton was once the exotic alternative to linen, and now we see fibers derived from beech trees and bamboo spun and woven into cloth suitable for bedding and towels. In addition, organically grown cotton provides the opportunity to support cotton farmers who maintain the highest environmental standards.

Micro fiber made from beech wood cellulose now appears in bed linens and intimate apparel everywhere, and promises to endure. In its pure form, it comes as a lightweight, super-smooth, stain-resistant fabric, and also takes dyes and blends well with cotton.

Bamboo is a pest-resistant, renewable resource, and its fibers make a breathable and antibacterial cloth for bedding and towels as soft as cotton. It is recommended for sleepers who tend to overheat.

The Touch Test

More important than crunching numbers and facts is to notice the way an article of bedding feels in one's own hands, and to find out whether it will respond to handling the same way after washing. Before choosing the bedclothes in which we spend so much of our time—fully one-third, to get the recommended minimum of eight hours of sleep—it's worthwhile to visit local merchants (some hotels too!), and touch the linens they have on offer. Once you find a brand you like, you can shop online to add to your collection.


Christina Lynn | 10223 N.E. 10th Street, Bellevue, Washington. This merchant represents fourteen manufacturers of bed and bath linens, mostly European, but one is local: Scandia Down®.

Yves Delorme is a favorite of the Northwest Eddy staff. Though it sells new items only through its stores, they are located world-wide, and its online outlet store offers discontinued patterns.

Martha Stewart, "Bed Linens 101" is a short article with some extra tips. See also Martha's Cotton Glossary.

History of PIMA and ELS Cotton | This web page explains how Pima cotton was bred from earlier ELS and other breeds.

Lenzing Modal® is the brand of micro fiber used by European makers of fine bed linen. The web site explains how micro fiber is made from beech trees, and how it is used in fabrics.

Gaiam is an online retailer that offers bed linens made from bamboo and organically grown cotton.

For more information about organically grown cotton, see the Sustainable Cotton Project web site.

Return to Perspectives