When my house was being remodeled last summer and the dust hadn't settled, I splurged and spent a night at the Ivy Hotel in downtown Minneapolis. I can still recall slipping into the sheets and thinking "whoa!"
I lifted the corners to find the brand. When I discovered that it was Sferra, I was slightly disappointed because I have the same brand at home and they don't feel as soft and smooth. Then I realized why Ivy's were better -- they were ironed.
Talk about a letdown. Appreciating the luxury of ironed sheets is one thing but getting out the Rowenta is another. That's when I started noticing that retailers are selling sheets labeled "wrinkle-resistant." Some of the labels make even bolder claims such as "wrinkle-free" or "no iron." These aren't poly-cotton blends -- they're 100 percent cotton that claim to defy cotton's worst flaw -- wrinkles.
I had to know. Can "wrinkle-free" sheets feel as good as ironed ones?
What makes them wrinkle less?
All cotton sheets with wrinkle resistance have a treatment applied to finished fabric after it's been scoured, bleached and dyed, said Mike Tyndall, vice president of product development at Cotton Inc. in Cary, N.C.
It's a similar treatment that has been used since the 1970s on no-iron dress shirts and khakis, but newer formulations make it more effective, he said. The treatment locks cotton's molecular structure in place with a coating on the small hairs of the cotton fibers, helping to smooth wrinkles, he said. It lasts about 50 washings before the wrinkle resistance wears off.
Only about 3 percent of sheets have a wrinkle-resistant feature, according to Cotton Inc., but 74 percent of consumers are likely to purchase them. Discounters (Wal-Mart and Target), mid-line stores (J.C. Penney and Herberger's), higher-end stores (Macy's and Bloomingdale's) and specialty retailers (Company Store and Garnet Hill) all sell them.
Most consumers probably prefer the look of a smooth sheet, but some people can feel a difference, too. One salesperson at Bloomingdale's described the treated sheets as a "satin-y, almost polyester feel." It's a feel that some buyers will like and others won't.
Several weeks ago, Target featured its wrinkle-free Home brand in the Sunday circular ($36 for a king set, regularly $45). I bought a set because I've had good luck with Target's sheets in the past. Last year, Consumer Reports rated Target's Home 600-thread-count sheets as a "best buy" for price and performance, although they are not labeled wrinkle-free.
I washed Target's no-iron set and found that it definitely wrinkles less, although to call any of these sheets wrinkle-free would be an overstatement.
In May 2010 when Consumer Reports tested sheets, it included a couple of wrinkle-free models, but they didn't fare well. The Canopy sheets from Wal-Mart ($35 to $39 for queen and king sets) and the Eddie Bauer Lodge Collection (now discontinued) still wrinkled, according to the magazine.
But consumers who are hesitant about trying the wrinkle-free sheets can rest easy. First, most of the all-cotton sheets aren't expensive. Paying less than $50 for a king set at most discounters is a good value, although some are more expensive. A Living Quarters wrinkle-resistant set at Herberger's is on sale this week ($43 queen, regularly $120, $48 king, regularly $140). The Sky sets at Bloomingdale's are on sale at $100 for queen and $110 for king.
A liberal return policy
Regardless of what you pay, no one can tell how a sheet will perform by feeling it in the store. Until it's been washed and dried, the quality is a mystery.
That's why it's important to know a store's return policy. While many retailers get strict about returning defective clothes, most department stores and specialty shops will let consumers return bedding if they're unhappy with the quality.
Even Target, which can be strict about returns of defective merchandise, allows customers to return iron-free sheets that wrinkled, said Target spokeswoman Erika Svingen. Customers should have their receipt and the original packaging and make the return within the stated return period, usually 90 days.
Even if a sheet is labeled "wrinkle-free," they don't all feel the same. Percale cotton sheets will feel crisper. Sateens will feel softer and generally wrinkle less, but no one will mistake them for freshly ironed sheets.
You need a laundry service or hotel reservation for that.