When it comes to distinguishing standard sheets from luxury linens, forget thread count and pay attention to textile type.
"Quality linens have a lot more to do with fibers than thread count," said Mia Worrell, co-owner of Timothy Paul Bedding + Home on 14th Street in Washington. "You can have a sheet with a thread count of 1,000 made from short fibers as opposed to a 400-thread-count sheet that would be of better quality."
Like cars, the quality of bed linens varies. With cars, however, most people understand why a Fiat costs less than a Ferrari. The price tags on luxury bed linens, however, remain a mystery to many.
What's the difference between the $50, 300-thread-count Egyptian cotton sheet sets at Walmart and those 300-thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets selling for $900 in a luxury linens boutique?
It's the textile, Worrell said. "Pay attention to where the textiles come from and how they were constructed," she said. "We have people who still ask about thread count. It's important, but only part of the information they need to make an informed decision. You have to compare apples to apples."
Thread count is the number of threads in a square inch of fabric. Threads can be single, double or even four-ply. Sometimes the threads are double-ply and twisted to create a longer strand, allowing for 300 threads to be described as 600-thread-count. Sheets woven with fibers constructed this way are less durable and lose sheen faster.
Speaking of sheen, don't be fooled by it. Similar to the way meat companies used "pink slime" to make ground beef more appealing, some manufacturers coat sheets with a high sheen that Worrell said is smooth to the touch but disappears after a few washes.
"Fine linens can look great wash after wash," said Gina Zang, manager of Emissary, a fine-linens boutique in Chevy Chase. "They can last for years and years."
Another term tossed about when describing luxury bedding is Egyptian cotton, considered the world's finest.
The problem is "people label everything that comes out of Egypt Egyptian cotton," Zang said. Where and how the cotton is woven is the key.
"Most of our linens are made in Europe, in Italy where you have more skilled workers and higher standards," she said.
True Egyptian cotton is made from long staple cotton fibers produced in the Nile River Valley. The cotton is then shipped to Europe, where it is woven into fine linens. Many types of linen labeled 100 percent Egyptian cotton actually are made from discarded short fibers twisted together and woven in factories in Pakistan or China. This is why so many so-called Egyptian cotton sheets have appeared on the market at low prices.
Besides thread count and fibers, the weave of a textile helps determine how sheets feel to the touch. Percale sheets are produced using a basket-style weave, yielding a smooth, matte finish, almost cold to the touch. Sateen sheets are woven with more fibers on the surface, creating a glossy, satiny look.
Jacquard sheets are produced by a French loom called the Jacquard. This loom can weave floral, paisley or damask patterns. Because these patterns produce texture, jacquard sheets work better on decorative duvet covers.
Each weave feels different next to the skin. Worrell said this should be considered more than thread count.
"Do they like the crisp, cool feel of percale or slick sateen, which runs a little warmer? It's about personal preference."