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Bed Linen – A Short Guide.                Egyptian, Persian and English

Bed Linen – A Short Guide. Egyptian, Persian and English

Making Sense of Cotton Sheets - Egyptian, Percale or Oxford

We’ve all heard that 3000 thread count (or something crazy like that) 100% Egyptian Cotton is the holy grail of bedding, but there are other options! 

If you prefer knowing why you’re paying premium for plain white sheets and why there are so many price differences, read on.

But What Is It!?

What is a percale cotton sheet, what is cotton sateen sheets, what are Egyptian cotton sheets?  I recently witnessed a soon-to-be frustrated customer in a boutique linen store asking the owner what the difference between percale and sateen was and where the thread count came in.  His unhelpful and obvious response, “It’s how they’re made”.  It’s true enough, but does very little to assist the potential customer in making an informed choice about her winter bed linen.

Although I’m no expert in the matter, I do have a linen cupboard with a variety of pillow cases and can provide a brief explanation of what these different terms mean.  Hopefully it will assist you in making your own informed decisions, which is what I’m all about.


You may not have given much thought to this un-sexy topic, but the term linen (a textile made from the flax plant) is quite misleading, as most of the popular bedding is normally cotton (a textile made from a cotton plant), which is what I’ll focus on here.

There are various types of cotton, and they’re not all equal.  The most important differentiating factor for our purposes is their thread or staple length. The longer the staple, the softer the fabric it weaves, the more expensive the sheets.
This is a low thread count, 55% Polyester and 45% Cotton blend

This is a low thread count, 55% Polyester and 45% Cotton blend

Probably the most common of bed linen is the cotton-polyester blend. It has the breathability of cotton, but wrinkle resisting and cost saving properties of polyester. It doesn't feel bad, but is quite thin in comparison to the others.

If not a blend, it’s 100% cotton, and the label will tell you if it’s Egyptian, Prima or, well… if it doesn’t say we don’t know and it’s safe to assume it’s not one of the premium varieties. Don’t make the mistake of assuming it’s not a good fabric though, which is where thread count comes in.

Thread Count

This term has unfortunately been marred by pretentious suburban ladies and their decorators, but it is true that the thread count has a large impact on the feel and wear ability of your sheets. There’s also a limit however, and if you’re going over 400 the chances are the only difference you’ll really feel (you’re asleep for Pete’s sake) is on your purse.

The thread count is a measure of the amount of weft (horizontal) and warp (vertical) threads in a square inch.  You won’t normally see a thread count indicated if it’s under 150 and anything over 200 becomes percale (derived from a Persian word).  This basically means that the threads (long or short, cotton or polyester) are woven really close to each other, so you get a denser, thicker sheet that feels crisp and like a quality product. Speaking from personal experience, they honestly do last much longer, so if you can afford the extra cost, it is wort while going for percale bed sheets.

Polycotton Percale Pillowcase (note no creases)

100% Cotton Percale Pillowcase

Here are two examples from the same high end manufacturer, Granny Goose. Both are percale, but the one is 100% cotton and the other is polycotton.  Both feel thick and durable and both have worn very well (when I got them five years ago they were already being passed on). In fact, the cotton one has picked up some loving wear-fluff the pollycotton has not.

If I had to make a case for the cotton one, it feels softer and has retained its whiteness much better (either that or it bleached better).


Apart from an indication of the thread count, percale is also variation on the plain weave, which is probably where much of the confusion comes in. 

And this is the how

Other common weaves you’ll be considering for your winter sheets are Oxford (also a type of plain weave with two yarns warpwise and weftwise), twill (which is how flannel is woven) and sateen (a more complicated weave where long strings of weft thread skip the weave and therefore form a larger exposed cotton yarns, creating the soft and shiny surface.)

The just of it is that a percale sheet or pillowcase gives you the crisp, freshly washed and simplistic feel, while a sateen bed has a softer, more luxurious look and feel. They may make you sweat more or be less absorbent in summer however.
Here's an image of a 100% Brushed Cotton Flannel. The brushing adds fluff and therefore s

Here's an image of a 100% Brushed Cotton Flannel. The brushing adds fluff and therefore s

My absolute favourite for it's high quality, unaffected look and feel is an 100% Oxford standard cotton pillowcase. In my opinion it’s softer than the percale, but crisper than the sateen.

Note again the creases, but less so than on percale.  This one has a beautiful cherry blossom pattern and satin border, which probably makes me a little bias towards this one.

And finally, both amazingly luxurious and quite similar.

A 100% unknown cotton sateen pillowcase.  Luxurious and delicate.

This is a 100% Egyptian cotton sateen weave. Slightly softer than the above.

Both of these are from @Home and neither actually say sateen on the label, but when you’ve fondled enough pillowcases it’s pretty easy to tell. They've got a subtle shimmer and a really nice to touch.

Quality bed bedding is the best place to start when decorating a bedroom and I would definitely recommend 100% cotton if you can afford it. Rather than focus on the type of cotton though, decide which weave you like best and rest assured that your face won't know the difference.

If you found this post interesting (though a little long), you may also like two much shorter post on what to look for when buying rugs. and the difference between wood, vinyl and laminate flooring.


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