For those unfortunate people who have never experienced the comfort of sleeping on linen sheets or thought of linen as a fabric for bedding, the first question is almost always about thread count. Does linen have the same thread count as cotton? The answer is, unfortunately, complex and introduces some interesting and troubling facts about the way thread count has been marketed.
Perhaps the greatest misconception is that higher thread counts equal better sheets or softer fabric. Not so. More surprising still, is that the numbers advertising 600, 800, even 1000 thread count sheets, in many cases, are false and misleading.
Technically speaking, thread count is the number of lengthwise and crosswise yarns counted within a 1” x 1” square. Thread count is dependent upon the quality of the yarns and the tightness of the weave. To increase thread count, many manufactures combine multiple plies of yarn or add filler yarns to boost the thread count with no benefit to quality or durability. Higher thread count does not equal a more durable or long-lasting fabric. The stress imposed on a tight weave can also cause the fabric to break down or tear much more quickly, despite its silky smooth finish.
I used to own expensive, high-end cotton sheets that touted a thread count of 800, a dubiously high number, I’ve learned. Often, I’d wake up sweaty and uncomfortable then end up throwing the sheets aside. Blech! Consider this: The fabric used to make hot air balloons, parachutes, and windbreakers is also high thread count. By design, it prevents air from passing through it. This is called “low porosity”. When the same idea is applied to bed sheets you have very tightly woven and smooth fabric that doesn’t breathe.
Cotton yarn is made from many very fine and absorbent strands of fiber- think of cotton balls. The fibers, spun together, form a single piece of yarn. Longer fibers mean less ends and a smoother yarn. The more finely twisted the yarn is, the smoother the fabric will be. Combine fine absorbent strands with a tight weave and you’re left with a fabric that, when exposed to moisture, is slow to dry and can leave you feeling sweaty and damp.
Linen is from the flax plant. It is fundamentally different than cotton in that the strands that make up the yarn are much larger grass-like stalks that are hollow. Think of wheat stalks. The large stalks, while still incredibly absorbent, can not be woven as tightly together. Therefore, the thread count is significantly lower. The hollow linen stalks absorb moisture and, because of the air in the center, release moisture to dry very quickly. The benefit: cool, dry air is free to pass through linen. You’ll notice linen always has a cool, dry, earthy hand that feels comfortable against the skin even in humid weather. Linen softens naturally when the fabric is used and laundered.
I would love to hear from others about thread count and what they’ve learned. Please let me know if this information was useful to you.