Durability of Vintage Vs. Modern All-Cotton Sheets in the Washing Machine

If you've been reading this blog, you'll know I have certain pet peeves about bedsheets. My biggest and loudest peeve is that I don't like brushed cotton, I don't like sateen, and I don't like soft - I like crisp! But one new pet peeve I'm discovering as I use my Land's End and Target's Simply Shabby Chic percale sheets is how bad the quality of most of the cotton that's being sold in the U.S. is these days. I still like these sheets a thousand times better than the sateen and cotton-blend alternatives, but I'm becoming convinced that when it comes to cotton fibers, they just don't make 'em like they used to.

This is one of the new-old-stock muslin sheets I got off of eBay. It's very thick, a great winter sheet that's still cool. And it holds up to bleach amazingly well. Minimal pilling. It is NOT as good for hot summer nights as percale or linen.

Have you noticed that you're not supposed to bleach cotton these days?  Whenever I've bought newly manufactured 100% cotton sheets in the last several years, they've always come with a warning not to wash them with chlorine bleach.

Now, I'm not a huge fan of bleach. It's a poison and pretty harsh. But it has its place. There are times clothes get especially musty with mildew, or soiled with unsavory effluvium, and there's no way to sun-bleach them, and you just have to pour on the smelly stuff.  Plus, it goes against my common sense: If you can't use chlorine bleach on cotton, what can you use it on?

So I've ignored the warnings and done what I needed to do and used bleach on the sheets.  Mea culpa.

But...darn.  My Land's End navy-colored percale sheets have faded and thinned, despite my not having bleached them that many times.  No holes yet, and for that I'm appreciative. I really do think they are quality sheets, for today. The Simply Shabby Chic did develop holes - and they were so crisp and pretty when new!  I still use them, but not as much because they're getting a brushed feel and the cotton fibers just don't seem to be as strong.

At the top, you can see my formerly navy, now almost charcoal colored pillowcase from Land's End. It's cotton percale and has faded and thinned a lot.  It's hard to capture the texture change in the picture. There's been a small amount of pilling, but nothing really annoying.

But honestly, should I be feeling guilty for washing all-cotton sheets with bleach? I assumed so, but now having had experience with the vintage stuff, I'm starting to wonder what it is that has happened to the cotton industry in the last decade or so.  

See, I've been washing the vintage cotton muslin and percale sheets I wrote about in previous posts with as much bleach as I need, with a fairly ruthless disregard for their "delicate" fibers, really pushing the envelope here, and they haven't thinned at all, developed holes, or even, in the case of colorful sheets, visibly faded.

This is cotton percale, a vintage striped sheet. It's been bleached several times, but despite the lightness of the pastel colors, it hasn't faded noticeably, and there is no change of texture yet. No pilling at all.

Admittedly, I haven't had them for as long as the Land's End and Simply Shabby Chic ones. And I know they will soften in time; the act of washing is erosive in itself. But for now, they're still crisp, still durable, still like new, and...wow.  I know these sheets are going to outlast the others by a mile.

This is a lightweight Land's End percale 100% cotton sheet. It's the newest one I bought and hasn't yet faded, despite a small amount of chlorine bleach. However, I didn't expect it to be so thin when I bought it. I'll report back on how it performs over time with fading and softening. It hasn't pilled.

What has your experience been? Have you noticed a difference in quality in the ability of your all-cotton sheets to take bleach? Do you have to baby all your sheets in the washer these days? And is that a change from the past?


  1. Those percale striped sheets? I grew up sleeping on them. 50 years, yes, 50 years, later, I still have them (and others from back then) and they're still used. They went from Beds to Mom using them for paint splatter and I have them now and use them as dust covers. And there is still some thickness to them and no holes. Looking at them now, I still wonder why Mom stopped using them on the beds!

  2. I have a linen closet full of high end sheets in various sizes. I agree with all ofyour comments! I bought white sheets 55%cotton and 45% poly made in India, and they are the greatest! Crisp, low wrinkle, cool in summer warm in winter. I have 3 sets, but can't remember where I got them. Had visitors all summer at our house by the ocean and everyone commented on these great sheets. I love them too! I am wondering if I got them at Costco or possibly Hudson's Bay. Am now hunting as I want second sets for each bed. Also the best flannel sheets I ever had are from LL Bean, huge fan for our winters here in Canada.