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How to buy bed sheets: Linen vs. percale vs. sateen

What's the deal with all of those fancy sheets out there?

James Martin/CNET

Besides noticing the color or pattern, most of us don't pay close attention to our sheets. We know they are cotton and maybe the thread count, but that's about it.

In the last few years, several brands (think Parachute, Brooklinen, Boll and Branch) have popped up selling luxury sheets, available in linen, percale, sateen and more. That's made made us wonder: do we need new sheets? And what even is percale anyway?

Read more: Here's how to fold a fitted sheet (it's easier than it seems, promise).

It starts with cotton

Your bed sheets are made of either long staple or short staple cotton. Most of the luxury bedding brands out there make their sheets with long staple cotton. Essentially that means these are long cotton fibers that, when spun into thread and woven, produces a soft, durable fabric. Ever heard of Egyptian cotton? That's long staple.

Most budget cotton sheets are made from short staple cotton, which inexpensive and usually grown in the United States. The downside is that the shorter fibers can feel rough and be less durable.

Exactly how any cotton is woven into fabric affects the type of sheet you end up with. Whether you're shopping through a luxury bedding brand or at a department store, you'll come across percale and sateen sheets, both which are merely types of fabric weaves.

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Percale sheets are crisp and sturdy, like a dress shirt. This set is from Brooklinen.

James Martin/CNET

Percale

Think of percale like a well-pressed button-down shirt; crisp, matte and firm. Percale sheets are lauded for keeping you cool at night, especially during hot summer months. They are often used in hotels, so you've probably encountered them during your travels.

Percale sheets can feel crisp at first, but generally soften with repeated washings. It's worth noting that percale sheets can wrinkle very easily. If really you want your sheets to be smooth, you might need to break out the iron.

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Sateen sheets are smooth and look almost shiny in person. This set is from Parachute.

James Martin/CNET

Sateen

Sateen is cotton that's tightly woven to create a slick, smooth feeling and an almost shiny appearance. Think of satin fabric, but made with cotton instead of silk or polyester.

Because the threads are tight, sateen sheets are warmer and a bit a heavier, making them ideal for all seasons. However, they aren't ideal for people who sleep hot, because they aren't as breathable as percale or linen.

Sateen sheets are more flowy than percale and less likely to wrinkle.

Read more: This is how to store your comforters and quilts the right way.

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Linen sheets are lightweight and ultrabreathable. These are from Parachute and Brooklinen.

James Martin/CNET

Linen

Unlike sateen and percale, linen isn't made from cotton. It's made from flax, and because it's laborious to make, it's expensive.

Like flowy linen pants, linen sheets are airy, breathable and lightweight. Linen is good at absorbing moisture, so if you tend to sweat at night, linen sheets can help you stay dry and comfortable.

Because linen wrinkles easily, sheets made from it will never look perfectly smooth. Instead, you'll get a more rustic look that still manages to look elegant.

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So, do I need luxury sheets?

Of course not. You can find percale and sateen sheets at most stores for less than $100 a set. One-hundred-percent linen sheets are going to be the hardest to find on a budget, since most sets are pricey.

If your budget allows for it, there's an good argument for buying a set of high-end sheets. Because they're made with long staple cotton or linen, they'll feel softer than the sets you'll find at a big box store.

Even after one night of testing a pair of linen sheets, I can notice the difference in quality between them and my typical $80 sheet set. I can't yet vouch for their durability, but if the sheets last years without wearing out (like most luxury brands claim), then you'll get your money's worth.

Are you washing your sheets enough? Here's how to find out.

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