Cover Factor - The New Thread Count – Reed Family Linen

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Cover Factor – The New Thread Count

Since the late 1960’s consumers have been bombarded with technical jargon relating to home textiles, especially bed sheets and linens. Initially there was “Terylene and Cotton” promoted by Springs Industries and Wamsutta in the USA as “easycare minimum iron crease resistant” product, but many other trade names followed over the past half century.

The inclusion of a synthetic fibre like polyester (of which Terylene is a derivative) made the fabric more crease resistant and easier to iron and was easily explained to consumers, but these American mills went further and branded this new product as “PERCALE”. Technically this was correct as the word referred to a weave containing more than 180 threads per square inch – which the Springs and Wamsutta cloths did as they were woven with 90 ends per inch in the warp, and 90 picks per inch in the weft.

During the 1970’s and 1980’s “Polyester Cotton Percale” bed linen sales boomed as the public embraced the convenience of non-iron easy laundering and saved many hours of housework. Further time was released as easy bedmaking was made possible with the introduction of fitted sheets and duvets for the first time. The worldwide chore of laundering, ironing and making up beds was solved at a stroke.

During this whole conversion of the market from natural fibres to man made fibres, the manufacturers never explained the meaning of the word “Percale” to their consumers – sales were so good that they did not need to. The result was that by the 1990’s most of the public believed that “Percale” meant ‘easycare’ and had nothing to do with the construction of the cloth itself. 

In order to correct this widespread misconception, the US mills started to label their bedding products with the term “Thread Count 180 Percale” and inadvertently started a branding and marketing frenzy which would lead twenty years later to the near bankruptcy of one of their most important retail clients due to a Class Action lawsuit claiming that they had misrepresented the quality of their bed linen products.

Shortly after Wamsutta started labelling their Terylene sheets as ‘180 thread count’ Springs Industries launched a ‘200 count’ range – and so the war of thread counts began. Over ten years thread counts on sheet ranges climbed relentlessly from 200 to over four hundred. Conscientious and transparent manufacturers were aware that thread counts of more than about 400 are impossible to achieve as the yarns required are so fine that they are not strong enough to perform in high speed looms at wide widths. As a result by the mid 1990’s the highest thread counts quoted, and hence marketed as the most luxurious bed linens, were around the four hundred and fifty region.

Consumers, retail buyers and hotel housekeepers became obsessed with thread count and purchased mainly on this criteria alone believing it to be the ultimate technical measure of the quality of a cloth.

This remained the case for a few years until several Italian companies started to use innovative weaving constructions as a method of increasing their stated thread counts even further in their desire to jump ahead in the “thread count race”. By introducing the use of two and multi-ply twisted yarns in both the warp and weft directions, these ingenious manufacturers were able to double, treble and even quadruple their stated thread counts at a stroke. Cloths with counts as high as 1800 were being sold in the market by the early 2000’s.

Even though these new high thread count fabrics technically did comprise over a thousand individual threads per square inch, the number of woven intersections in these cloths was often less than used in the original 180 thread count polyester cotton percale sheets which were responsible for the thread count race. The Fabric Discovery Center (founded in 2018) in Massachusetts defines thread count as being the number of single yarns in a given area of woven cloth – which hence precludes and discredits fabrics with a count of more than about four hundred unless these are made from strong mono filament fibres like silk or wire.

A more reliable measure of fabric suitability and quality is that of “Cover Factor”. This measure is simpler than thread count, less arbitrary and can be compared between cloths of varying fibres and compositions. Cover Factor is defined as “A number that indicates the extent to which the area of a fabric is covered by one set of thread.”

For Reed Family Linen’s best selling 400TC single yarn percale the Cover Factor is 25.5 – about 16% higher than a standard plain weave construction out of a maximum theoretical value of 28.0, compared to our sateens and jacquards which have factors of less than 20.0. The Cover Factor for our most popular 400TC Percale sheeting is 91% of the theoretical maximum achievable value which we believe is amongst the highest available on the market today and which represents a more transparent measure of quality than thread count.


As Benjamin Franklin famously said: “The bitterness of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten.”

Long standing Reed Family Linen clients will know that as a company we have only ever sold and promoted cloths with thread counts of at most 400 per square inch. We also know from our long experience of over a century and a half in the weaving industry that a 400TC single yarn percale sheeting cloth offers the best value for money for the consumer in terms of purchase price and durability.

So how does today’s consumer differentiate between the huge choice of bedlinen products which they see on retailer’s shelves? If they can’t rely on thread count to tell them apart, then how can they make their choice between brand A and brand B? The answer unfortunately is that there is no straight forward way for the average consumer to compare different manufacturer’s products in store. The process is complex and the relevant criteria and information are not always available.

But in summary, consumers should look for the following |

  • FIBRE – synthetic or natural, long staple or short staple cotton.
  • WEAVE – single yarn or multi-ply.
  • THREAD COUNT – below 400 or above (if so, then query it)
  • COVER FACTOR – always look for values above 21 for plain weaves.
  • BRAND – do your research, look at the manufacturer’s website, do they weave and produce their own fabric, are their cloth specifications trustworthy?
  • PRICE – like most things, you get what you pay for; a £100 sheet which lasts ten years is better value than a £20 which lasts eighteen months.

We wish you luck in working through this minefield. If you have any questions, then please don’t hesitate to email or DM us.

Happy Shopping,

Mark Reed

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