2 Simple question, right ?
The simple answer is, I wish ! Kind of. Actually one of the things I love about working with textiles is that there is always more to learn. That’s why when my customers started asking me about thread counts I was happy to go down a few rabbit holes because honestly, this is not a measurement that is widely used in the textiles industry.
Think about it : Do you remember where you’ve heard the term « thread count » before ? Most likely, it was when you were shopping for bed sheets. Either that, or you were looking into the controversies around « thread count » that began when it became a marketing buzzword in the bedding industry of the 1990’s. Frankly, I’m surprised that Marketplace not only missed this term as a red flag, but even put it in the sub-heading for this piece : « Thread count on cotton masks critical but not always listed on the label ».
So, why is thread count critical ? Why is it not always listed on the label ? What IS thread count in the first place ? Marketplace doesn’t give a definition in their article, so here you go :
Thread count is the number of threads in a one-inch square of fabric. It is calculated by adding the warp (lengthwise) and weft (widthwise) number of threads together. So if there are 100 warp threads woven with 120 weft threads, the thread count would be 220.
Sounds simple enough, right ? Yes, but no. I will geek out on that in a moment. After I do, you might be asking yourself (or Marketplace) why thread count is EVER listed on the label.
Back in the 1990’s, manufacturers found that consumers would pay more for bed sheets proclaiming a higher thread count. So, they set about boosting their thread counts by using creative calculations. They have, for example, counted not just each thread but also each ply (the fibres that make up the threads). So where a single thread might be four plies twisted together, one manufacturer would call that one thread while another will call it four. The end result in the second case is an inflated thread count that leads not to higher quality bed sheets but straight to an inflated price tag.
Consumer Reports once hired an independent textile lab to determine the thread count of a $280 set of bed sheets. The manufacturer’s stated thread count was 1200; the lab counted 416.
Since then, the Federal Trade Commission has ruled that for the purposes of thread count, plied yarns should only be counted as one thread. In terms of weave quality, the best fabric would be made with single ply yarns and have a single pick (the crosswise length that interlaces with the warp ends). But with this kind of construction, the highest thread count you could possibly get is about 400. To get a thread count above that, you would have to use 2-ply yarns and/or multi-picks. This is why thread counts above 400 are often referred to as « trickery » in the bedding industry, and possibly why in the rest of the textile world, are not referred to much at all.
If you’re still awake, you might be wondering at this point what thread count has to do with face masks at all. To restate my earlier question, why does Marketplace say that thread count in cotton masks is critical ?
My theory is that the authors of the Marketplace article may have confused the term « thread count » with the tightness of the weave. These are not the same things, but notice how the authors use the terms interchangeably :
“There was also a noticeable jump in filtration efficiency in cotton masks made with a higher thread count.
Masks made with 600 and 680 thread count cotton had filtration efficiencies almost twice that of the other cotton masks tested. Scott said the weave of a fabric is critical when it comes to catching those potentially harmful particles.
When it comes to cotton masks, Marketplace's test suggested the tighter the weave, the better.
Scott points out that manufacturers of consumer masks are not currently required to disclose details about thread count, and without that information it's difficult to say for certain what contributed to some cotton masks' poorer performance. “
When it comes to the efficiency of face masks, clearly, a tighter weave is better (as long as you can still breathe through it...otherwise, your breath and it's droplets will find their way out the sides of the mask). But a fabric can be woven tightly and have a lower thread count if the yarn is thicker, or if the threads are counted differently.
The truth is that fabric quality is determined by a lot of factors, such as fibre quality, yarn size, finishing and construction. Thread count might look on the surface like quantifiable data (it did to Marketplace), but it isn’t a standard measurement of anything outside of bedding, where it is mainly used to mislead customers into paying higher prices.
Another truth is that there are real, persistent problems with transparency in the textiles and fashion industries. Let’s take cotton as an example. Cotton still enjoys the reputation of being a natural fabric. Companies who sell cotton products will market their wares as being « pure » and « clean », when in fact conventional cotton is one of the most polluting crops on earth. Cotton cultivation contributes heavily to water scarcity and degrades soil quality. The agrochemicals used in it’s production leave devastating impacts on not only the biodiversity in and downstream from cotton fields, but also on farm workers and nearby populations. This is why I only use organic cotton, and wish that more of us would too.
I know we’re all exhausted right now, and that having some metrics and easy-to-spot reference points when it comes to choosing masks would come as a great relief. But journalists like the ones who wrote the piece in Marketplace really need to stop throwing around terms like « thread count » without knowing what they mean, and could stand to be more responsible when they are recommending « cotton » and « polypropylene » as the standards for face masks. (Polypropylene, by the way, is a non-woven « fabric » that is a type of plastic. Made from substances derived from hydrocarbon fuels, once discarded it will persist in the environment for up to 1000 years. Call me a downer, but I can’t see the upside of surviving the virus if we are left with a world that cannot sustain human life).
Could there be other metrics ? Of course ! The now famous candle-test and the light test are good indications of whether a mask has a tight enough weave. These might not have a numerical value, but at least we can trust what we see for ourselves. And even Marketplace ends their article by mentioning that your mask should fit you properly, covering your nose and chin. Marketplace signs off their piece by reminding us that « the average person does not need the same level of protection as a health care worker on the front lines », and that « any mask is better than no mask at all ».
Now if someone could please inform whoever wrote that sub-heading…