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For many years the textile home furnishings industry and in particular, that part concerned with bed linen has been quoting a value for “thread count” or sometimes “sheet count”. In times gone by we in the UK called it “American sheet count” due to the practice hailing originally from the United States.

This is a shorthand way of expressing the number of threads per unit area in a woven fabric. The presumption being that the more threads there are, the better is the quality of the bed sheet. The process of counting is not difficult, it is a bit fiddly but not technically difficult. It is simply the addition of the number warp threads to the number of weft threads per unit length which is usually 1 inch and so the thread count is the number of threads interlaced in 1 square inch. If it was as simple as that, I suppose it would be a fair way of expressing something about the cloth even though it does not take account of very different numbers of threads in warp and weft. Most fabrics used in this industry are roughly square so the issue of very different warp and weft densities does not have a large impact. However in more recent times the marketing people have been making more of this counting system and now many bed linen lines are sold based solely, as far as the consumer is concerned, on so-called sheet or thread count. This means that in the retail outlets you may see claims of “800” and “1000” count bed sheets with prices to match. This means that there are 800 or 1000 threads in every square inch of cloth... or does it?

Some NGOs don’t think that this is quite a fair statement. They believe that some suppliers are exaggerating their claims and thereby contravening legislation under amongst others; the UK Trade Descriptions Act and the European Directive on misleading and comparative advertising.

In a recent survey carried out across a number of UK retailers, the numbers of threads per square inch were counted and some quite stark differences were recorded both between retailers and against the assumption that this figure represents the number of threads per square inch. This was a bit of a surprise to all concerned and began the discussion, “What does it really mean?”

The retailers argue that the values are provided by the fabric suppliers and these figures are used in their marketing and in their labelling and that as this is a custom and practice of the trade, this method of counting is acceptable. This may be a good argument but why is there a difference between the findings for different retailers? Do different suppliers count differently?

It seems that in order to increase the “thread count”, many suppliers quote the number of threads based on the singles threads used in plied yarns so that for example if they sell a fabric constructed from 200 2-ply threads, they call this 400 threads even though most might assume this was actually 200 individual threads. To further complicate the issue, it seems that some producers don’t like the inch as a unit of measurement and would prefer a centimetre but as this is a bit small, it would render their “thread count” seemingly small and thereby counter to their objective. Instead, they have adopted a unit of measurement of 3cm x 3cm, being large enough to give impressive figures and yet having a basis in metric measurement.

To try and find a suitable argument to settle this problem, SGS researched for the definitive word on this but of course found no absolute answer because there isn’t one. During our investigation we did turn up one piece of information in an American standard; logical as this was once the American sheet count, which might prove useful. Clearly the question has been asked at ASTM meetings at some stage because in the standard: ASTM D7023-06(2012) “Standard Terminology Relating to Home Furnishings”, the following comment is made:

thread count, n—in woven textiles as used in sheets and bedding, the sum of the number of warp yarns (ends) and filling yarns (picks) per unit distance as counted while the fabric is held under zero tension and is free of folds and wrinkles, individual warp and filling yarns are counted as single units regardless of whether comprised of single or plied components.

DISCUSSION - The thread count of sheets and bedding articles is frequently displayed on the outside packaging of such items, or utilized in advertising literature. The specific construction of the warp and filling yarns used to construct the fabric in such items may also be displayed.

Examples: “300 Thread count, 2 ply yarn.” A representation of “600 thread count” for this same product would be likely to mislead consumers about the quality of the product purchased.

The above “Discussion” from ASTM tends to suggest that the consensus of opinion in committee was to count 1 thread as 1 regardless of whether it was single or plied, but some pressure in that committee wanted to retain the practice of counting the singles ends in the plied yarn for bed linen.

What SGS advised

When a retailer recently asked me this same question, I had to say there is no clear and definitive answer to this question but in order to mitigate against prosecution from the authorities under the pieces of legislation mentioned at the outset, they should make it clear in their published literature and on their web site that, “This is how they as a retailer count threads and the thread count value should only be used to compare their own product ranges and not to compare their product with other retailers’ products”. In this way it is hoped that they have a defence against claims of “misleading the customer” that may be made somewhere down the line.

By way of a footnote, to this subject, the same approach should be made for any claims made for products where there is no official published definition available: claims such as “Thermal”, “Cotton Rich”, “With a touch of silk” and so on. The merchant is advised to make it clear in their literature what these claims mean to save time and money later.

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