When deciding on a bedding or home textile product, one can easily feel overwhelmed with the huge variety of materials to choose from, and all the characteristics that follows each one of them.
This comprehensive guide will go over the most important factors to look out for on some of the most widely available materials in the market, hopefully making things easier for you.
The best way to start is by making a distinction between Natural and Synthetic Fibers. There are also a few materials that will be classified as "hybrid", and we will go through them as well.
Natural Fibers are fibers made of materials that are naturally occurring and minimally processed before reaching your home:
Cotton: Made from the seed coat of cotton plants. Cotton is the most popular and widely available natural fiber. It is grown in many parts of the world. India, China, and the US being some of its largest producers. Because of mass production and highly advanced processing/manufacturing, cotton is the most budget-friendly natural fiber. Most home textile products can be made with cotton, including bedding, table, bath, and upholstery.
Cotton bedding can be found in a variety of different finishes. The most commonly available are:
- Cotton percale –made by weaving one yarn over, one yarn under consistently. If well made you should barely feel any texture, giving it a smooth and crisp hand-feel.
- Cotton sateen – made by weaving one yarn over, three yarns under. It will result in a smoother and more lustrous finish, that will feel warmer and heavier than a percale.
- Cotton flannel – made using a heavier cotton yarn and brushed for a velvety finish. Will feel even heavier and warmer than sateen and percale sheets.
Note that neither one of these finishes is better than the other, your choice between them is a matter of personal preference.
The quality of a cotton bedding will depend on several independent factors, however the best products will have them combined:
- Origin: Cotton from Egypt or Peru will generally be better graded than cotton from China. When a brand advertises the origin of the material it is probably because it invested more in procuring better quality cotton. For example SUPIMA® is the global trademark for all products made with the luxurious pima cotton, or Giza Cotton from Egypt, which is recognized as one of the finest strains available.
- Growing method: Most cotton crops will either be conventional or organic. Generally, cotton crops require huge amounts of water and pesticides, which explains the premium charged over organic and ecologically grown cotton. Third party organizations like GOTS® (Global Organic Textile Standard) that will certify organic and ecologically grown cotton.
- Manufacturing: The quality of a cotton product relies in good part in the manufacturing process. The best manufacturing facilities will comply with a series of strict certifications, will have updated and well-maintained equipment, and will follow social and environmental guidelines. Third party certifications like ISO® and OEKO-TEX® will certify that manufacturers are complying with strict quality and safety procedures.
- Staple: The longer the cotton fiber the softer and more durable the final product will be. Pima cotton is highly regarded because it has extra-long staple.
- Ply: The number of yarns twisted to make a thread. Single-ply threads are longer and more durable than multi-ply yarns. High-end cotton bedding will be single-ply.
- Thread Count: The thread count refers to the number of horizontal and vertical threads in one square inch of fabric. The thread count definitely matters, however if combined with the factors above you can have an excellent product starting at around 200TC. Brands will often advertise higher TC as the single factor determining a product’s quality, which can be misleading if the other elements listed above are not taken into consideration.
Linen: Made from the stem of flax plants. It is one of the most versatile fibers, cultivated and woven into fabric for thousands of years. It can be found in a wide variety of products ranging from garments, to bedding, and upholstery. Because of its long and laborious manufacturing process, linen products can have a higher price-point if compared to similar products in cotton or synthetic fibers.
Linen is naturally antimicrobial, antistatic, moisture-wicking, and thermoregulating. It is the most durable natural fiber, outlasting similar cotton products by 3-5x. Also, flax crops are widely considered to be one of the most sustainable, requiring a fraction of the water a cotton crop requires and almost no pesticides.
Linen fabric will be measured in GSM (grams per square meter). Heavier GSM linen will be more durable, warmer, and denser while lower GSM linen will be lighter and softer. Linen sheets will generally vary between 150-190GSM.
The quality of linen sheets will depend on several factors combined:
- Origin – the best flax is cultivated in northern France and Belgium, where flax has been cultivated for centuries due to the ideal weather and geography. The European Flax® certification will ensure that the product is made with premium linen fibers sourced from the best producers using the most sustainable practices.
- Manufacturing – After the flax is processed, it needs to be weaved into linen sheets. The quality of a linen product relies in good part in the manufacturing process. The best manufacturing facilities will comply with a series of strict certifications, will have the best equipment, and will follow social and environmental guidelines. Similarly to cotton, ISO® and OEKO-TEX® certifications will ensure that manufacturers are complying with strict quality and safety procedures.
L&C’s linen collection is made of 160-165GSM Certified European Flax® sourced from farms in Northern France, and manufactured in state-of-the-art, Fair Trade certified facilities. To achieve our characteristic soft feel our products are eco-washed with natural enzymes, a more sustainable alternative to stone washing (which requires substantial amounts of water), and OEKO-TEX Standard 100® Certified. The quality of the finished products in the selected GSM resulted in buttery-smooth linen sheets that will last through generations.
Hemp: Made from the stem of hemp plants. Hemp and linen are very similar in most aspects and the same factors will determine the quality of the finished product. Here are a few key differences:
- Hemp is slightly less sustainable than linen. Because hemp requires more water, pesticides, and fertilizers than flax to grow.
- Hemp is more durable than linen. Because hemp fiber is longer than flax’s, a hemp product will be more durable, however it will also make it slightly stiffer and rougher than linen.
Silk: Made from the cocoons of silkworms, it is the most expensive material to be used in bedding products. Silk has been harvested and woven for centuries, but because of its laborious processing and limited quantity it remains a specialty product with a high price-tag.
Silk absorbs very little water but remains breathable and incredibly soft. Silk products will generally require to be washed by hand or at drycleaners, which makes it less practical than cotton and linen.
Most of the silk available comes from China, obtained from “domesticated” worms rather than from wild ones. There are hundreds of varieties of silk available, but Mulberry silk is one of the most commonly available and sought-after, because of its consistency and durability – it is obtained by feeding worms with leaves of Mulberry trees. Other varieties available are tussah, muga, or jasmine silk, which are rarer and more expensive.
In addition to its type, silk products will also advertise their weight and density based in the momme (mm) scale. Making a parallel with the TC in cotton bedding, momme is how you measure what kind of silk construction you are looking at. Most silk products will start at around 16mm (69 grams per square meter) and go all the way up to 25mm (108 grams per square meter). Bedding products will generally range between 19-22mm. Higher momme means a heavier, warmer, and likely more durable product.
Wool, Made from the fur of sheep, alpacas, or goats. Because of the rougher finish that woven wool has, wool will mostly be used for fillings and for the best blankets and throws, as well as clothing.
Wool is fire resistant, moisture-wicking, antibacterial, hypoallergenic, and very durable. We all have that old wool sweater that just seems to get better with time.
Some of the most popular types of wool are merino (from merino sheep), and cashmere (from cashmere goats), but as there are dozens of breeds of sheep, alpacas, and goats, there are also many types of wool.
Wool is generally considered a sustainable fabric, because of its durability and for being 100% biodegradable.
Synthetic Fibers are man-made fibers:
Polyester is a petroleum derived material. It is basically fine plastic yarns which can be woven like fabric. Polyester is generally a durable material, easy to maintain, easy to dye and to print, and it is also budget friendly. However, because it is plastic it is not breathable, it tends to buildup static, and holds on to odors. Also, it is not ideal for people with sensitive skin because lots of harsh chemicals are used in manufacturing it.
Polyester is not biodegradable, which means it will survive for many years after you disposed of it, and potentially break down into microplastics which are harmful for the environment and wild-life. Although a polyester bedding may seem soft to the touch when new, its feel will rapidly decay after a few washes. Very common in budget-friendly sheets and blankets.
Because polyester yarns are a lot thinner than cotton’s, polyester bedding will often be advertised as having very high thread counts, which is misleading for obvious reasons. Thread count does not matter in polyester products.
Microfiber is made from finely spun polyester. It is a type of polyester and share the same characteristics.
Hybrid Fibers are fibers that originate from a natural source but are highly processed and transformed to be woven into fabric:
Bamboo is made from the cellulose of bamboo plants. It undergoes an intense chemical treatment to get completely dissolved and then spun into yarns to be woven into bamboo sheets.
The final product will have a similar look to a cotton sateen, with a slight sheen, very durable, moisture-wicking, and breathable. However, its manufacturing process requires the use of harsh chemicals and is often regarded as polluting.
Bamboo sheets will generally have a higher shrinkage rate than cotton and are more prone to wrinkling.
Pricewise bamboo sheets will most often be more expensive than 100% cotton sheets. However, similarly to polyester, the look and feel will decay faster than cotton or linen.
Tencel/Lyocell is also made from cellulose. Instead of bamboo, some types of trees are used for the cellulose, which undergoes an intense chemical treatment to get completely dissolved and then spun into yarns to be woven into sheets. Tencel/Lyocell is a proprietary manufacturing process owned by Lenzing AG (an Austrian company), and only a few authorized manufacturers can name their products Tencel/Lyocell. Because of its limited output, Tencel/lyocell products tend to be more expensive than cotton or bamboo products.
As bamboo, the final product will resemble a cotton sateen, with a slight sheen, very durable, moisture-wicking, and breathable. Because of its hydrophilic nature, if not properly cared for it can be susceptible to mildew. It is regarded as a sustainable fabric as its manufacturing process is cleaner than bamboo’s.
Also, because it is fully engineered, Tencel/lyocell is substantially more durable than cotton, which makes it an ideal product for commercial applications, such as in the health and hospitality industries.
Finally, in addition to the options listed above, manufacturers also work with fabric blends to combine some characteristics of different fibers. Some of the most common blends are:
Poly/cotton which is a blend of polyester (or microfiber) and cotton. The proportions of each material can vary depending on what you want the final product to behave like – cotton or polyester. It will be more budget friendly than 100% cotton but pricier than 100% polyester. Commonly used in budget-friendly sheets and other bedding products.
Cotton/linen which should have a lower price point than 100% linen and slightly more expensive than cotton. Commonly used in bedding products and upholstery.
Other fabric blends can also be found but would be less common. The goal with such blends is to combine the characteristics of both fabrics, like hand-feel and durability.
In conclusion, each of the available textile fibers used in home textile products has its own unique properties that make it suitable for different types of products. When choosing the right fiber for your home textiles, it is important to consider factors such as comfort, durability, ease of care, and cost. By considering these factors, you can find the perfect fiber for your home textiles and enjoy the comfort and style that they bring to your home.
Hopefully this guide will give you a better understanding of the materials available, what to lookout for and expect from each of them, helping you make an informed decision on your next bedding purchase.