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Jennifer Marks

Beyond Thread Counts

Every now and then, I get a phone call from newspaper or magazine writers seeking insight into the one of the great hot button issues of home textiles. And they all ask the same question: Are higher thread count sheets really better than lower thread count sheets?

Poor things. They think there's a simple answer.

Columnists for industry trade publications write a lot about what the industry does wrong, but when it comes to sheets, there's a lot that's going right. Really, you have to marvel at the genius of the industry and the manner in which something as simple as sheets has been exploded into a complicated purchasing decision.

The good news is that in the quest for differentiation and added value, the makers, marketers and retailers of sheets have convinced consumers that there is a meaningful distinction between Sheet A and Sheet B.

The not-so-good news is that the industry is also confusing the hell out of them.

There is obviously a certain advantage in doing so. If consumers consider a sheet something more than a mere 60-by-80-inch piece of hemmed cloth, they're going to pay for it. Unfortunately, if they don't understand why one piece of dyed cloth is worth more than another, they retreat back to price.

It's been encouraging over the past two or three markets to see how energetically suppliers are working to come up with a new selling point for sheets — natural fibers, performance fibers and anti-microbal washes. And I was delighted during a walk through a Bed Bath & Beyond store last spring to see the vast number of sheet offerings whose major distinction was something other than thread count.

In fact, I would say that it is at the non-fashion level that the home textiles industry in the past 18 months has shown some of its most creative thinking. Utility bedding suppliers have turned an unseen product into an indulgence. Towel suppliers have successfully pushed the notion that everyone's bathroom should be converted into a mini-spa. And sheet makers are finding ways to up the ante without getting tangled up in thread counts.

I can't wait to see what comes next — and that's the truth.

Bonus question: In an industry abounding with super-soft towels, is it time for dryer constructions to make a comeback? Keep your eye on Linens 'n Things' new Nate Berkus towel, which hits the shelves this fall. It's dry without being rough or scratchy — and it's plump. Nice hand. You heard it here first.

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