Thread Count Game Slammed by FTC

Michele SanFilippo, September 12, 2005

The issue of how to properly evaluate thread counts for the purpose of product labeling has once more become top-of-mind as the Federal Trade Commission's Division of Enforcement recently issued a staff opinion stating that certain counting techniques may mislead consumers.

On top of that, an article in Consumer Reports entitled “Sheets Wake-up Call” slammed the category stating that “some thread counts are bogus.”

According to James Kohm, associate director for enforcement at the Federal Trade Commission, “Consumers could be deceived or misled by the practice of stating an inflated thread count, achieved by multiplying the actual count by the number of plies within the yarn.”

The non-deceptive way to disclose thread count and yarn ply, he said, would be to state count followed by ply, as in: 300 thread count, two-ply yarn. “A representation of 600 thread count for this same product would likely mislead consumers about the quality of the product being purchased,” he stated.

Hardy Poole, director of regulatory and technical affairs for the National Textile Association, the group that contacted the FTC seeking clarification on the issue, added, “I hope people will begin to change the way they label their sheeting products if they have not been following the industry standard.” He believes enforcement is not necessary from the onset if the industry follows this guideline. “However, retailers and consumers are the ones who determine what will ultimately end up in the stores.”

Poole said the FTC opinion eliminates any vagueness. “It was very clear on what is appropriate for packaging and labels.” He hopes the guideline will make it “a bit less confusing for consumers to know what they need to look for in terms of thread count.”

Tom Ferrisi, vice president of marketing and sales at High Country Linens, said: “The bottom line is there seems to be a growing consensus that steps to clarify the mystery of thread counts need to be taken. With this momentum, and leading retailers providing further impetus, it seems likely even the most reluctant suppliers will be forced to embrace new guidelines designed to clarify single-ply versus two-ply construction.”

According to Joe Gleicher, president of Poly-Commodity Corp., who has been removing two-ply constructions from its sheeting line over the past few months, department stores have been asking the company to only supply them with single-ply yarns this year. “I think the inflated thread-count issue is mostly a problem at mass-market. But it could cause a problem in certain countries like China that typically spin two-ply yarn,” he said.

“I think it is buyer beware out there. Two-ply is bogus in my opinion, and retailers should not allow it in their stores. You're not telling the truth to the consumer when you bulk up the thread count,” said Rich Roman, president of Revman International. “The retailer who plays by the rules and is conscientious about the quality levels they are marketing in their locations will win with consumers in the end.”

Ted Matthews, vice president of corporate communications at Springs, added, “We believe (the thread count opinion) will be positive for consumers as long as packaging accurately identifies the true thread count in products where fabric construction is a selling feature.”

“There is great dissatisfaction among shoppers today with regards to sheet purchases primarily due to pilling, shrinkage and fit,” said Kaela Forker, vice president of sales at American Pacific. “One of the things causing these problems is that consumers see a high thread count sheet and believe they are buying good quality. They are not aware of how the staple of the yarn, finishing or thread count impacts the product they buy.”

Forker believes the industry needs to improve this situation. “Anything we can do to call out the features of our sheeting products, including thread count, will be beneficial.”

Currently there is no enforcement of the opinion, but the issue is governed by Section 5 of the FTC Act, which prohibits deceptive acts or practices.

Carol Jennings, an attorney for the FTC, said the opinion is “unlikely to become a rule as thread counts have not traditionally been covered under textile rules and regulations, but these laws are coming due for review in the next few years.”

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