The thread count of a fabric is the number of threads woven together in a square inch. This might seem like just a marketing ploy but it is actually a scientific term and is regulated by strict laws. To obtain a thread count of say 200, there must be 100 lengthwise threads, referred to as warp threads, and 100 width wise threads, known as weft threads, this gives the count of 200. This is considered a good thread count and is very affordable.
Thread count, quality and cost
The more threads per square inch the softer the fabric will feel, as demonstrated by the feel of linen which has a count of 150, 75 warp threads and 75 weft threads, and has a slightly rough finish. If the count goes up to say 400 the fabric will be much softer and anything over this would probably be extremely expensive. However, the quality of the threads used must be taken into account also as a fabric with a thread count of say 400 using inferior threads will not produce a soft fabric as one of 200 where a better quality of thread is used.
Egyptian cotton thread count
Egyptian cotton has long been considered the best because of the quality of the threads and used to be grown exclusively in Egypt, now however due to demand it is grown in several countries including Pima cotton which is grown in America. To be sure that the all of the cotton used is from Egypt be sure to look for 100% Egyptian cotton, otherwise there may only be a small percentage of the cotton actually grown in Egypt, which means the fabric may not be as soft or robust as you had wished for.
Blended cotton is less expensive, so the old adage 'you get what you pay for' is somewhat true in this instance, but don't be put off by blended fabrics, especially if you frequently buy new bedding, for example, for growing children. The fibres in Egyptian cotton are generally longer and therefore give a smoother feel or hand. The fibres are treated and smoothed by a process known as carding and combing and then spun into threads, which in turn are made into lengths of fabric.
Obviously the better the threads used the better the finish on the final fabric and this in turn will give a longer life. Therefore a little extra cost may well be a sensible option when considering bed linen where strength, softness and durability are needed.
Cheap bedding with high thread count
Beware of very cheap linen with very high thread counts as these will not be as robust or provide the longevity you may be looking for and usually feel rough against the skin irrespective of how many times it is washed. Opt for a thread count that provides softness, durability and longevity, 200 is ideal, to get the best value for money.
If you want a high thread count, say 400, that's fine too, but expect to pay more. It's worth noting that most cotton bedding has little lumps and bumps, referred to as pill or bobbles, somewhere in the fabric. This is a natural feature in the threads. Just as long as they aren't too prominent that you are aware of them when trying to sleep, they are fine.
The more the bedding is laundered the softer and smoother the lumps usually become. As you can see thread count isn't purely about numbers, so don't let them rule your bedding choices. Look for good quality at a price that suits your budget and you won't go far wrong.