Is Thread Count That Important?
Yes and no. Thread count is often used as the barometer of a sheet's smoothness and durability. However, this measurement--which should refer to the number of threads woven into a square inch of fabric--isn't always reliable. High thread count is a factor, but the type of cotton can be more significant.
What's The Best-Quality Cotton?
Top-of-the-line is 100 percent Egyptian cotton. Second best is 100 percent pima cotton, also known by the trademarked name Supima. If a label says simply, "100 percent cotton,” assume that it's American upland cotton, a rougher, less expensive variety. Egyptian cotton's long fibers produce sheets that are thin and sumptuous yet extremely strong and long-lasting. (The shorter fibers of upland cotton, by contrast, can poke out of the weave, leading to a coarser, weaker fabric.) Pima cotton is also soft and less likely to pill than upland cotton. You can find a good queen set made of pima for less than $200. If you want the best, you'll invest about $500 in an Egyptian-cotton set in percale or sateen--both clean, classic weaves. (See this round-up of luxury sheets for our favorite picks.)
What's Better, Percale or Sateen?
Neither. It's a matter of taste. Percale is a plain, matte weave that has a crisp, cool feel, so it may be sensible for people who tend to get overheated when they sleep. Sateen is slightly heavier and very soft, with a lustrous, smooth finish that's almost satiny--hence the name. If you're not sure which you prefer, look for fabric swatches on display for a touch test.
Is There a Cheaper Option For Kids or for a Spare Set?
A cotton-polyester blend, often marketed as "easy care,” is a smart choice, since it withstands frequent washings well. A little poly is all you need--a 90/10 blend is durable, looks crisp right out of the dryer, and is still soft and cozy. But don't go above 30 percent synthetic: The sheets won't feel great and could make the sleeper sweat.