Quality bedding is often defined by the thread count of the fabric, whether it's a sheet, a comforter or a blanket. Thread count is the number of woven threads in one square inch of fabric. Higher thread counts create higher-quality weaves that generally feel smoother and softer. Lower thread counts can pill and feel rough, but are affordable and serve their purposes just fine.
Common thread counts range from 180 to 320, but thread counts as high as 700 also exist. The thread count alone doesn't determine how a fabric performs and feels, though. You'll also want to look at the yarn size and ply when determining the level of quality you desire.
Yarn Size: Yarn size refers to the thickness of the individual threads that make up a woven fabric. The higher the yarn size, the finer the thread. Quality sheets usually have a yarn size ranging from 40 to 100. Finer yarns can only be made from high-quality, long staple cottons such as Supima. Yarn size is important to thread count because finer yarns take up less space than thicker yarns, thus the highest thread count sheets are generally made from the finest yarns.
Ply: The other important component to thread count is ply. Single ply fabrics are made from individually woven threads of yarn, while two-ply fabrics are made from two threads of yarn that are first twisted together and then woven. Since two-ply fabrics have essentially double the thread count of their single ply counterparts, two-ply fabrics must be made from extremely fine yarns, otherwise the end product might feel too bulky and heavy.
Down is an all-time favorite material for bedding, used with great frequency in comforters, blankets and pillows. The soft and airy plumage that protects waterfowl from the elements (including extreme cold), down serves the same purpose when used in bedding, creating a lightweight, high-loft cocoon of warmth. The air spaces between clusters of down insulate and allow moisture to evaporate, creating warmth and combating clamminess.
Down should not be confused with feathers; they are two separate things. A down cluster is not a small feather; it has a quill point but no shaft, resulting in greater resiliency. As well, a down cluster is lighter than a feather. Down can be white or gray, but the color makes no difference in quality whatsoever.
Differences in down are based on the size of down clusters. Larger clusters boast more insulating power. The clusters' sizes are largely determined by the bird's species, age and climate, as well as the processing techniques.
Contrary to popular belief, less than 1% of the population is allergic to down and feathers. Many people believe they are allergic, but in reality are probably reacting to dust and dirt accumulated in the bedding, or impurities that result from a manufacturer not cleaning the down enough.
Fill power is an important factor in the fluffiness of down bedding. This is the volume of the down and its resilience to compression. It is defined specifically as the number of cubic inches an ounce of down fills. The higher the fill power, the softer, lighter and more resilient the bedding item becomes. Items with high fill power—such as 500 to 550—provide excellent insulation and breathability.
It is essentially impossible to separate down and feathers completely, so no product will be 100% down. The higher the fill power an item boasts, the greater the percentage of down. Common down contents range from 65-85%.
Usually, a higher thread count is preferred with down items because it creates a tighter weave to better contain the down and feathers, lengthening the life span of the item.
Down Care: Down bedding items can last a decade or longer with proper care techniques. Here are some good practices.
Shake out or fluff down items to evenly distribute shifted down. This restores the item's original shape, freshens the air pockets between the down clusters and maximizes the loft, providing greater insulation.
Air out your bedding item outside twice a year for several hours. Drape it over chairs rather than hang it up and down on a clothesline. This will prevent the down from shifting and will keep it at its freshest.
Fluff down bedding in the dryer on low or medium heat. Add several tennis balls to help.
Cleaning will help keep down bedding in tiptop condition, but it need not be done more than once every two to three years. Carefully follow the instructions on the product tag.