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Dressing your mattress requires deciphering the weave, the cotton and the depth.
Published Feb. 9, 2008

How good are you at differentiating among various types of sheets? Are you a sheet snob or a sheet slob? Test your knowledge with our questions and answers.

Q: What is a sateen finish?

Sateen is a weaving technique that gives the cotton surface a smooth, silky, soft feel, almost like satin. Some consumers say that sateen wrinkles easily and is not terribly durable, but it depends on the brand.

Q: What is percale?

Percale is also a fabric weave, usually medium weight with a thread count of 200 or higher. Today's percale is usually 100 percent cotton. Its fans like the crisper feel that tends to wrinkle less than sateen.

Q: Which cotton is best: pima, supima or Egyptian?

Egyptian cotton, grown in the Nile River Valley, is traditionally thought to be the best cotton because of its long, strong fiber. Pima or supima cotton was developed in the American Southwest. Its fibers are almost as long as those of Egyptian cotton. Most buyers probably cannot tell the difference.

Q: Which are the best ways to reduce wrinkling? A. Use fabric softener. B. Choose percale. C. Remove damp sheets from the dryer, smooth and hang dry. D. Buy cotton-poly blends.

All of these, with some wrinkle-reducing caveats. Fabric softener will reduce breathability. Percale usually wrinkles less but not always. Lands' End sells 100 percent cotton no-iron bedding with a lifetime guarantee in both percale and sateen.

Q: I've heard about thread-count inflation. How can I tell if I'm being short-sheeted?

Thread count is the number of horizontal and vertical threads in 1 square inch of fabric. If a sheet has 100 threads running each way, that's a 200 thread count, but some manufacturers count 400 threads per inch because they use double-ply, not single-ply threads.

The higher the thread count, the less space there is between individual fibers, according to the MSN Shopping Buyer's Guide ( That makes the material softer to the touch, but less tolerant to stress and more prone to ripping.

The material the sheets are made of may be more important to how it feels than the thread count, the MSN buyer's guide says. A sheet made from Egyptian cotton with a thread count of 175 will feel significantly softer than a lesser cotton or a cotton-poly blend with the same thread count.

Q: Which sheets are least likely to pill (develop those tiny balls of worn fabric)?

The worst offenders for developing pills are the cotton/polyester blends with a low thread count. Conversely, 100 percent cotton sheets with a higher thread count will not be as likely to pill, says the Web site of Bed Bath & Beyond (; click on "product guides").

Still can't decide? The MSN Shopping Guide offers these tips:

- Buy a pillowcase first. Test how it feels and how it washes. Once you've found something you like, buy a whole set.

- Check the care instructions and make sure you can live with them to keep the sheets at their best. (Are you prepared to iron the pillowcases to keep them looking crisp and smooth?)

- Read the fine print. A set of sheets might be advertised as Egyptian cotton, but make sure it's 100 percent Egyptian cotton, not a blend with a lesser cotton.

Bedside manners

Shopping for sheets? Luxury linen retailers pass on these suggestions:

- Make up a bed with a solid white bottom sheet and a top sheet edged in a border of ecru or tan with a little embroidery. When you turn the sheet back, the embellishment adds an extra touch of luxury.

- Forget about satin sheets. They're heavy, they don't breathe and they're slippery.

- Good bedding, properly cared for, will last for years. "We have customers who bring in sheets their mothers gave them," Villa Rosa's Cathy Louis said.

- What might this cost? Louis estimated that for a queen-size bed, two sheets of at least 400 thread count, 100 percent Egyptian cotton, three or four Euro (square) shams and a couple of standard shams might cost $1,000. A washable silk coverlet is $450. Add a few decorative pillows at $200 apiece.

- Girly floral chintz is giving way to a more tailored botanical look that appeals to men and women.