The vocabulary of fabric weaves is big and growing, but sometimes you just want to know whether it’s important to the sheets or towels you’re thinking about buying. These products can be expensive and it’s a disappointment when you’ve washed them in the hopes that they would be feel softer or more absorbent afterward, only to discover that they don’t feel either. By then, it’s usually too late to return them. Here are some of the terms you might encounter in your browsing.
If you see a towel described as made with no- or low-twist cotton, you can be sure it will be soft. Short-fibre cottons need to be twisted in the thread-production process in order to make the thread strong enough to become a textile. Long-staple cotton doesn’t need much, if any, twisting. The twisting of the thread creates a rougher surface that will end up making a rougher towel or sheet. For this reason, you’re usually safe going with Egyptian cotton towels; thanks to naturally long fibres, products made from real Egyptian cotton will be soft and absorbent.
The Carded and the Combed
Carding is the first step in the process of turning the cotton plant fibres into a yarn (the industry term for thread) and then a fabric. Carding opens the fibres, untangles them, gets the excess matter out, and pulls it out into a continuous strand. All cotton gets carded, but not all cotton gets combed, which is an additional step that further pulls out short fibres to leave long, strong ones behind. Not all cotton is subjected to this process, but it’s something you want in a sheet or towel.
This is a term you’ll often see in sheets. Mercerised cotton means that the thread has been soaked in a sodium hydroxide solution. This causes the fibre to permanently expand and smooths it surface, which results in a softer textile with a slight sheen. It also improves the ability of the yarn to retain dye, so mercerised cotton colours are more saturated than unmercerised. Because long-staple fibres take to this process better than short staple, it tends to be the higher-quality cottons, such as Sea Island, Pima, and Egyptian, that get chosen for mercerising.