What is percale? How is it woven? What are its best characteristics? Worst?
Percale is a type of textile weave that affects the way the fabric feels. Think of this as a classic “over one, under one” weave, also known as a checkerboard pattern. I describe it as what kids do in camp with weaving looms for crafts. This type of weave leaves a matte finish compared to sateen sheets and a crisper feel similar to a classic oxford shirt. Sateen, by contrast, is also a weave that utilizes an over 3 or more, under one pattern. This variation creates a ‘sheen’ to the textile and a softer silkier feel.
Given this type of construction, percale has better air permeability and is lightweight. Think of percale as a classic screen in a window with the air able to transfer across with less resistance compared to other weaves. Warmer climates and months and/or humid environments may be ideal for these.
The weave of percale also gives the textile better strength and structure. It has more wearability and durability than other weaves. Sheets classically wear not only from use but also from wash. Washing routinely leads to pulling and sheering forces against the textile that tug on the contruction given the length and bulk of the fabric. Percale is better suited to withstand these challenges through multiple washes.
Incidentally, I have many patients that sleep with a humidifier on for eczema and other skin conditions. I tend to find that percale is a good option here too because some patients will feel like their sheets feel damp if they choose a different weave or blend.
Best way to care for percale?
Unless stated otherwise on the label, most percale sheets are machine washable with tumble dry low. Some notes to keep in mind in general when washing bed sheets :
- For cotton and cotton blends, warm or cold water is reasonable for the wash.
- Use ⅓ or ¼ the amount of detergent you would normally use in a wash for bed sheets unless they are actually soiled. If you are washing your sheets weekly, then less detergent is reasonable for a number of reasons. Bed sheets, by nature of the way they wrap around the basin of a washing machine, can often trap detergent in the sheets that may not completely rinse out. Skin irritation from sheets and detergents may not be a true allergy to the detergent. Instead it can potentially be irritation to the skin from soap trapped in the sheets accumulating on the skin when sleeping or sweating while sleeping. Less detergent will adequately clean sheets and have a better chance of completely rinsing out.
- Run an extra rinse cycle with just water if your machine permits. This is an effective way to remove excess soap and detergent from sheets.
- If you have sensitive skin, skip the fabric softener and dryer sheets. This can reduce the likelihood of skin irritation from additives in the wash. Remember, your skin spends a third of its time in contact with bed sheets- no need to complicate your life with unnecessary sources of irritation!
- For Percale, given its crisper feel, pull it out of the dryer as soon as the cycle has ended and fold or smooth out to avoid excess wrinkling.
Should percale sheets be a certain minimum thread count? Why or why not?
High thread counts are difficult to achieve with percale. With the classic weave pattern, excess threads are difficult to add. Most percale sheets range from 200 to 400 thread counts. I tend to think that if your goal is better breathability of the textile, the lower thread counts may prove better for the simple fact that there is more air movement through the textile. Higher thread counts tend to be warmer, however.
How does it feel? Soft? Stiff? Why do people love percale?
Textile descriptors can be so misleading. I find that many consumers gravitate towards textile adjectives such as “soft”, “cozy”, “comfy”, etc. To really understand how percale can benefit my patients, I describe them as “cool”, “crisp”, and, quite frankly, effective. I completely understand the need and desire for a soft, comfy, cozy sleep experience. Women in their late 30s to 50s will classically go to bed happy with their skin, experience a slight rise in body temperature sometime around 2am, sweat a bit, throw off the sheets, and wake to red, inflamed cheeks and potential breakouts. If you are trying to stay warm on a cold night, by all means, change out the sheets to a tighter weave, higher thread count, and consider flannel constructions. Most of the year, in the climate-controlled homes in the continental US, however, this is not always the case. I would add teenagers with body acne to the category of those who may benefit from percale sheets due to the breathability of these sheets against their inflamed skin.
Any other interesting facts or tidbits on percale that I should be aware of or features that shopper should look for in percale sheets?
Percale sheets potentially wrinkle more easily than other sheets. Although you may find “wrinkle resistant” percale sheets, avoid the temptation to get these. One of the ways that fabrics can be made wrinkle resistant is to treat them with a chemical finishing process. This process may use formaldehyde. Unfortunately, as a Dermatologist I do patch testing for contact allergens routinely and do often find formaldehyde come up as a trigger for some skin rashes and sensitivities. Although other chemical finishes such as titanium can be used to achieve wrinkle resistance, the chemical finishing process is not disclosed on packaging. The product claim “wrinkle resistant” is not necessarily regulated. For my patients with concerns about formaldehydeexposure, since we cannot necessarily determine directly if formaldehyde was used, I think it is safest to choose sheets that make no claims to wrinkle resistance. The thought is that if they make the claim, they more than likely treat the fabric unless they say otherwise!