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Down For the (Thread) Count

Jesse Burkhart, Brent Felgner -- Home Textiles Today, October 25, 2004

The long simmering passions that briefly flared over the industry's first formal definition for thread count appear to be giving way to a somewhat broader discussion that includes packaging language and, perhaps, product quality issues.

The recently adopted ASTM standard is the textiles industry's first-ever formal definition for thread count, according to participants in the deliberations. Previously, it was simply understood among companies within the trade. But the rise of imports over the last several years, involving a broad mix of upmarket luxury suppliers along with goods of lesser quality, has resulted in skyrocketing thread-count claims — not uncommonly reaching as high as 1,000 or more.

"The ASTM ruling on threadcount determination is a needed simplification of how the industry will describe product going forward," said Bobby Lanier, vice president, bed manufacturing, WestPoint Stevens. "Ours is a global business with an ever expanding source of supply. It is important that all suppliers use the same thread-count definition, and that everyone in the supply chain have the same understanding of its meaning."

The new standard states that warp and weft strands are counted as single units, regardless of the number of yarn plies. So a package claiming 800-count sheets using two ply yarns should be correctly labeled as 400-count, according to Bob Holcombe, chairman of the ASTM D13.63 subcommittee that adopted the definition.

Holcombe is lab director for Safety Components International based in Greenville, S.C., formerly the J.P. Stevens Synthetic Fabrics division. Two importers earlier joined the committee to seek the more liberal rule making, he said.

The controversy also highlights what many agree is the false emphasis on thread count as the primary gauge of product quality. Others, including some importers, complain it reeks of old U.S. mill standards and a desperate effort to fend off global competitors.

The issue argued by the importers focused on the U.S. Customs Harmonized Tariff Schedule, which states each ply should be counted as one using the "average yarn number."

But a U.S. Customs specialist, who is also a member of ASTM, said it's a false comparison. The regulation exists solely for determining the tariff.

"They're taking apples and trying to make orange juice," offered Kathleen Mulligan-Brown, textiles team leader for the U.S. Customs Service's Savannah, Ga., laboratory.

"If you have plied yarns in sheeting the number's going to be higher, which is fine and dandy, except we don't really care about the packaging (claims)," Mulligan-Brown explained. "We just need that information to properly classify the merchandise (for purposes of the tariff)."

In rejecting the Customs argument, all but two of the subcommittee's members present — the importers — endorsed the commonly held industry standard. Some importers countered that times have changed and thread-count definitions tell only one, out of context, part of the story.

"I'm only ready to get on board with this as an industry if we also add additional components to that because they are still making it a thread-count issue," complained Paul Hooker, president of Sferra Bros., Edison, N.J. "If they really want to get on board with this let's talk about (publishing) what yarns we're using in our construction — warp and weft. I think we should publish about our finishing. For example, is the fabric mercerized, or not? I don't think you can categorize the thread-count issue only and then talk about it as a single-ply or two-ply. It's going to boil someone like us, who pays attention to 10 different components of sheet construction, down to a single denominator, and it's not right, it's not fair and it doesn't make sense."

Hooker, whose company supplies luxury bedding at $1,000 price points, said he did not take part in the deliberations.

Holcombe said the subcommittee is already considering some "editorial" changes to the definition's language that might bring the importers on board.

"These are reasonable people … we're not trying to put them out of business," he said. "You (can) put what you want to on the label, as far as describing your materials. But you still should count it as the rest of the world does — a plied yarn is considered a strand and each strand is counted as a single unit regardless of whether it's one-, two- or four-ply."

As for quality issues and other alleged misrepresentations, for example cotton source and quality, that's out of the subcommittee's hands, a different issue. The ASTM is a volunteer consensus group, he explained.

"You've got some people shipping stuff in here that are more concerned about how they can circumvent the requirements than they are about playing by the rules," Holcombe said.

Strictly speaking, the new standard is not a rule — there is no formal enforcement or sanction within the industry. Most U.S. retailers, however, have adopted ASTM standards for their own internal measurements, according to Janett Rice, chairman of the ASTM D13 committee.

Rule or not, there may be significant pressure to comply.

"Because the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) has chosen to support the ASTM action, I believe that this new definition — and with the clarification added to D3775 — will resolve the industry controversy," Rice wrote in an e-mail response. "The consumer will ultimately benefit by receiving consistent thread-count labeling on bedding products."

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