What Is Percale? The Best Sheets Money Can Buy

December 19, 2019

If you’re like most people, chances are you spend a considerable amount of time in bed. It’s therefore natural to want to make your bed as cozy and comfortable as possible. One of the single largest contributors to an ideal sleeping experience is the quality of the sheets you choose for your bed. Nonetheless, a surprising amount of people still don’t have a thorough understanding of basic quality differences when it comes to bedding. One common area of confusion has to do with percale sheets. This article provides a useful introduction to the nature and benefits of percale, while also dispelling some commonly held misconceptions about this beloved type of sheets.

What Is Percale?

To understand just what makes this sheet unique, you will first need to know a bit more about how woven fabrics are produced. All bedsheets and similar fabrics consist of intersecting perpendicular threads. On one hand, those that move in the lengthwise direction make up the “warp”. On the other hand, those that move in a widthwise direction make up the “weft”.

Percale sheets are distinguished by the fact that every single warp thread alternately crosses over and under every single weft thread. For this reason, percale is sometimes referred to as balanced or close weave, since the 1:1 ratio of warp and weft threads yields a tight, durable weave. To better visualize percale weave, try thinking of the intersecting lattice on the top of a pie.

Now imagine that, instead of weaving together in a continuous over-under pattern, each thread passed over three threads for everyone that it went under. This weaving produces sateen sheets.

Benefits of Percale

Now that you understand the basic compositional difference between percale and sateen, let’s take a closer look at four of the most important benefits presented by percale weave.

High Durability

The crisscross pattern used to produce percale has profound implications for a sheet’s lifespan. Simply put, percale sheets will outlast sateen sheets every single time. Percale’s tighter weave gives the sheet more durability, making it less susceptible to tears, abrasions, and other signs of age. By contrast, the threads in a sateen sheet exist in a highly imbalanced relationship — one that the gives the fabric far less internal strength and stability.

Resistant to Pilling and Snags

Even before a sateen sheet starts to fall apart, you will likely notice that its appearance has started to suffer. Because the face of the fabric runs primarily in one direction, the surface threads are far more exposed. That leads to more snags, pilling, and fraying. Percale’s tight weave helps to protect the fabric against those kinds of problems.

Get Softer With Age

The producers of sateen sheets love to tout this fabric’s naturally soft feel. While it’s true that sateen will initially feel soft and smooth, the fabric will soon take on a limp, uneven feeling after a few trips through the washer. Once again, this has to do with the imbalanced nature of the weave. Percale, meanwhile, can easily stand up to repeat launderings — and will actually get softer as it ages.

Naturally Lightweight and Breathable

In order compensate for sateen’s weaker nature, manufacturers are often forced to use heavier gauges of thread. As a result, sateen sheets tend to weigh significantly more than percale sheets. Likewise, the sateen sheets are often far less breathable, increasing the chances that you will become uncomfortably warm during the night.

The structural durability of percale weave allows manufacturers to use lighter — and hence more breathable — gauges of thread. Percale sheets therefore make a better choice for year-round bedding and for those who tend to sleep hot.

Misconceptions About Percale

laying in prescale sheets with a white dog

Unfortunately, percale has been subject to a lot of damaging misinformation over the years. Here we set the record straight about three of the most pervasive myths regarding percale sheets.

Percale Is Not Cotton

Perhaps the most common source of confusion about percale has to do with the material from which it is made. In fact, the term percale is not used to specifically designate any one particular material. Instead, as discussed above, percale simply identifies the weave pattern used to construct the fabric. Percale sheets may be made from cotton, polyester, or even natural fibers derived from bamboo. While the type and quality of the material will certainly play a role in the feel and performance of the sheet, most of the benefits associated with percale sheets stem from the way they are crafted.

Percale Sheets Are Rough

Detractors often make the claim that percale sheets are rough and uncomfortable compared to sateen sheets. It is true that percale sheets do have more of a crisp matte feel, whereas sateen sheets will be silkier — at least while they are new. Otherwise, however, the claim that percale sheets are naturally rough simply isn’t true.

That said, any sheets (including sateen sheets) may feel rough and scratchy if made from inferior quality materials. The key consideration here has to do with the length of the fibers used to create the sheet. Long-staple cotton, for instance, is far softer than short-staple cotton regardless of weave pattern.

Percale Sheets Are Lower Quality Than Sateen

Those who make this claim usually point to general differences in thread count between percale and sateen sheets. To begin with, it is important to emphasize that the thread count for percale and sateen sheets may vary. The second key thing to appreciate is that thread count does not tell the whole story regarding the quality of a sheet.

In fact, a common strategy among manufacturers of cheap sateen sheets is to drastically increase the thread count in an attempt to distract customers from the sheets’ poor quality in other regards. Such tactics won’t lure in savvy consumers. Instead, pay attention to the quality of the materials used, as well as the methods of construction.

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