Inside the peaceful confines of E. Braun & Co. on New York’s Madison Avenue, co-owner Stephanie Barbatelli says she believes that buying bed linens is a supremely subjective experience. She encourages shoppers to touch the various fabrics and choose what feels right to them. And like many of her counterparts across the country, Barbatelli bristles when customers start asking about a sheet’s thread count. "We’re not believers in numbers," she says firmly. It’s the same story at high-end linens manufacturers such as Italy’s Dea. "Clients are informed of how many threads if they ask," explains Fiona Simon, who heads the company’s U.S. office. "But they won’t find the number on the shelves or on the package. All it says is ’100 percent Egyptian cotton, made in Italy.’ " Alison Newman, marketing manager of Frette, whose stock in trade is its 500-thread-count sheets, is more direct: "There’s a huge misconception that high thread count means high quality—that’s just not true."
There’s only one problem. Even though this feel-is-everything attitude is prevalent across a wide swath of top shops and manufacturers, the numbers issue isn’t going away. For one thing, customers keep making sure it won’t. As even Simon will admit, "Most people walk into a store and base their whole purchase on thread count." More important, there’s also the fact that sheets with the most threads per inch actually do feel different—some would say more luxurious. "I love the thousand-thread-count sheets," says Joanna Poitier, the wife of actor Sidney, who runs the Los Angeles–based decorating business JSP Interiors. She uses them not only on her own bed but also on her clients’. "When you get into bed, you don’t want to get out," Poitier says. "Now the six hundred feels like sandpaper."
A mere six years ago the issue of thread count was mostly moot. Italian sheet mills—the main source for the world’s finest bedding—used single- or double-ply yarns that maxed out at 300 and 600 threads an inch respectively (in double- ply, two yarns are twisted together, thus doubling the count). Then Paul Hooker, the president of U.S. linens manufacturer Sferra, began experimenting with fabric construction. Hooker, who acquired the now 115-year-old company with a partner in 1977, started by consulting spinners in Switzerland and weavers in Italy. Next he employed a technique that involved using even finer cotton yarns (according to Hooker, these are 50 percent finer than any yarn his firm had produced before) in a proprietary multi-ply construction. By doing so Sferra was able to raise the thread count dramatically. In May of 2001 the first set of 1,020-thread-count sheets appeared on the market and the numbers game was on.
In the five short years since Sferra introduced the new bedding, word of mouth has been extraordinary. Its 1,020-count linens—which start at $1,185 for a queen-size set—now account for close to 10 percent of the brand’s overall business and sell in about 100 retailers across the country.
Other luxury sheet manufacturers and shops have been quick to follow. Léron and D. Porthault offer 1,000-count sheets by custom order. Two years ago Dea, the 46-year-old Italian company, launched what Simon will only call "very, very high-thread-count" sheets. And Manhattan’s Schweitzer Linen introduced a 1,000-count sateen sheet so popular that co-owner Yvonne Schweitzer complains about having to call Italy for more orders. "I’m yelling at the guy, ’You’re not sending me enough!’ " she says.
What is it about 1,000-count sheets that has fans stocking up on multiple sets? The leading brands are made from the finest, longest Egyptian-cotton fibers and are spun in France or Italy, home to the world’s top mills. The high thread count means the fabric is denser and more substantial than even the best lower-count sheets. They are constructed almost exclusively using a sateen weave, which translates to a soft, lustrous look and a silky feel rarely found in other cotton sheets. Lynne Jenkins, who sells Sferra’s 1,020-count sheets at Lynnens, her Greenwich, Connecticut, home-goods store, says, "The first thing you notice is how smooth they are. They feel like thick satin. Sleeping in them is a completely unique experience."
As with any successful product, however, there are cheap imitations, in this case sets selling for as low as $99.99. Most experts dismiss these sheets because they aren’t pure Egyptian cotton (once again, considered the best because the fibers are longer and less apt to break). And they are likely made in Asian fabric mills, where the weavers also do the finishing—the most crucial part of the manufacturing process, during which the cloth is bleached or dyed, stabilized to keep its shape, and given luster and softness. In Italy this complex process is done separately by experts who are still considered the best in the world. "Yes, you can buy one thousand thread count from India and China, and they can also feel like two hundred thread count from Italy," says Dea’s Simon.
As for the owners of U.S. mills, which to this day continue to produce fabrics using one-ply yarn only, the issue is highly contentious. They, along with a number of stalwart European brands such as Frette, believe that a twisted yarn should not count as two threads. The Federal Trade Commission, responding to lobbying from the National Textile Association, issued a staff opinion last year stating that consumers could be misled by those who inflate thread count by counting twisted yarns.
The fact that cheap brands use thread count as a marketing tactic goes far in explaining why so many luxury stores and manufacturers are distancing themselves from the numbers debate. Perhaps another reason prominent retailers and producers refuse to consider thread count as a measure of good linen is tradition: In Europe it was never—and still isn’t—an issue. "Europeans just don’t ask about thread count. It’s not a topic of discussion," says Priscilla Von Muehlen, the director of Pratesi’s New York store. Carlo Bertelli, co-owner of the Tuscan mill Tessitura Toscana Telerie, explains it this way: "You have to consider that any important family [in Italy] has a lot of very valuable hand-embroidered linens inherited from mothers or grandmothers. Modern fabrics are simply not as highly regarded as the old ones."
That said, Italian mills producing sheet fabric for leading bedding companies are increasing production of their 1,000-count fabrics. Tessitura Toscana Telerie has seen that side of the business grow by 15 percent over the last two years. In Piedmont, Italy, the mill F.lli Graziano started working with 1,000-count fabric only two years ago and business has increased by half. A rate that pretty much guarantees that, in the sheet world, the numbers will continue to go up.
Getting In Bed with High-Thread-Count Sheets
Thousand-thread-count sheets have only been on the market a few years, but already there are literally dozens of brands to choose from. Buyer beware: Just like inexpensive cashmere, low-cost sheets are rarely a bargain. The best examples, including those from the five companies listed below, are made from 100 percent Egyptian cotton that has been loomed and finished in Europe.
Dea Founded in 1960, this Italian manufacturer has sold its Egyptian-cotton linens to the White House, the Sultan of Brunei, and the Emperor of Japan. Dea began making super-high-count sheets a couple of years ago but does not advertise the actual number on its packaging. Every step of the manufacturing process is done in Italy, including weaving, finishing, and embroidery. Sets come in white or ivory and have hemstitching along the cuff. They’re available at Gattle’s, a 100-year-old company of linen shops. Queen set, $1,140; 800-344-4552
Leron New York–based Léron is famous for offering custom embroidery and appliqués on some of the finest sheeting fabric in the world. The company doesn’t keep 1,000-count sheets on the shelves (they account for less than 10 percent of the company’s business), but the shop is happy to procure the fabric for clients, primarily from one of a handful of mills it works with outside Florence and Milan. It will then cut the sheet to exact specifications and add custom embellishments. Queen set, from $1,200; 800-954-6369; leron.com
D. Porthault This French company doesn’t stock 1,000-count sets at its three boutiques in Paris, New York, and Dallas, though they are available by special order. All of Porthault’s linens are manufactured and finished in the company’s factories outside Paris. Queen set, from $1,700; 212-688-1660; dporthault.fr
Schweitzer Linen The 1,000-count Splendour sateen sheets, which are woven and finished in Italy and have hemstitched flanges, can be found in Schweitzer’s three Manhattan locations. Sets are available in white or cream, but they sell so well that the company is considering expanding the color options. Queen set, $1,270; 800-554-6367; schweitzerlinen.com
Sferra The company that debuted 1,000-count sheets now produces six collections, among them Milos (with hemstitch detail), Millesimo (includes lace design at the hem), and Capri (featuring a jacquard inset). Sferra’s next project is adding handmade Burano Point Venice lace, offering just ten sets for $15,000 each. Of course, Sferra uses Egyptian cotton and the finishing is done in Italy. Milos queen set, $1,185; Millesimo queen set, $1,250; Capri queen set, $1,400; 888-888-4757; neimanmarcus.com
Next on the Drying Line
Now that the 1,000-thread-count barrier has been broken, sheetmakers are looking for new frontiers. Book a night in the Presidential or Royal suites at the Hotel Principe di Savoia in Milan and you can sleep in Manrico’s new 100 percent cashmere sheets. Sets are also available for sale through Manrico (queen set, $6,600; 970-920-3370; manrico.com). Made on a special machine that weaves cashmere extraordinarily thin, they are as soft as your favorite cashmere sweater yet machine washable. Plus the fabric has natural thermoregulating properties—it keeps your body warm or cool as needed. Or head to linen shop Room with a View in Santa Monica, California, where you’ll find Home Treasures’s collection of sheets made from birch (queen set, $580; 800-410-9175; roomview.com). "It’s actual wood fiber so it’s more durable than cotton," says store designer Tom Brown. The all-natural bedding comes in six hues that can be mixed and matched and is also machine washable.
Care and Handling
Because cotton threads used to make high-thread-count sheets are thinner than regular yarns, they are much more prone to breakage if overheated, which may result in pilling. These sheets, therefore, should be washed in warm water—never hot—and tumble dried on the cold setting. Some experts advise taking sheets out of the dryer when they’re slightly damp and hanging them to dry. Either way the sheets are bound to have wrinkles. Yvonne Schweitzer of Schweitzer Linen reports that many of her New York clients send their sheets to be cleaned and pressed at Madame Paulette (212-838-6827), often called the premier cleaner. But Schweitzer has her own tried-and-true method. "I find the best thing is to have them ironed once a week by hand," she says.