I recently purchased a set of 400 thread count organic cotton sheets. They arrived feeling stiff and scratchy. I tried washing them several times, both with detergent and with baking soda, and then putting them in the dryer with fabric softener. Unfortunately the sheets remain stiff. How can I get these sheets to soften?
First of all: 400 thread cottons that are "scratchy" should be returned.
Second: Maneesh's answer is way better than the current votes reflect. Vinegar is the most effective and safe for most cotton fabrics, most colours, the washing machine and the environment. (It also helps to protect the washer from built-up residue.)
That said, this is mainly to be read as a small addition to Maneesh's answer about chemicals.
Cotton, especially heavy cotton in canvas style (plain weave) or jeans (twill) or similar styles are quite stiff when brand new. That is a feature.
To break the stiffness you need to break some fibres and loosen the weave. Chemical fabric softeners are one way.
Washing them intensely (long cycle and high heat) is the method the industry uses. To amplify the effect add some tumble dryer balls (those plastic things looking like chestnuts on LSD) or just something like tennis balls into the washing machine and the dryer. Quality cotton can withstand cooking temperatures. Some colours on that fabric might not. White sheets can go all the way.
Ageing the fabric softens it. Quality fabric will last long after this breaking in with physical or chemical stresses. That means of course to not do this every time you wash, just in the beginning.
I suggest you the following methods:
Wash with Baking Soda and Vinegar in a washing machine(as you have not specified about vinegar, I feel you should try this combination: washing soda and vinegar). More methods are as follows:
- Add a cup of vinegar during the rinse cycle of washing machine.
Use turpentine: Add half a cup of turpentine to the washing water with the sheets and wash on a regular cycle using warm water.Rinse thoroughly to remove most of the turpentine. Hang the sheets outside or on a clothes horse to dry.It is very important that you do not put the sheets in the dryer after washing with turpentine as turpentine is combustible and could cause a fire.
Use Epsom salts: Fill a laundry tub with cold water and add 50g of Epsom salts. Stir the sheets around in the tub for two minutes (use a wooden spoon if you don't want your hands to get cold!)Leave the sheets to soak overnight in the Epsom salts mixture. The following morning, rinse the sheets out thoroughly, then hang them outside to dry.
Use borax: Fill a laundry tub with cold water and add 6 tablespoons of borax to the tub.Add the sheets to the water, stir them around and leave them to soak overnight.Rinse thoroughly the next morning and hang outside to dry.
Use salt: Fill a laundry tub with cold water and throw in 2 handfuls of salt. Add the sheets and leave them to soak overnight. Wash, rinse, and dry as usual.
A great way to get new fabric 'worked in' is to let them hang on the washing line for some days. Peg them well and let them hang in sun, wind and rain. Only take them down if the weather forecast predicts winds of greater than seven on the beaufort scale so they don't blow away.
Especially the motion, caused by the wind, will cause the freshly spun yarn to loosen up a bit and the fabric will feel softer.
Of course if you can't hang them outside, just using them will have a similar result over time.
If you still want to use a fabric softener, consider choosing ones that are oil or polydimethylsiloxane based. These work by lubricating the fibres to make the fabric feel softer. These products work better on cotton than ionic softeners, keep those for synthetic fibres.
Try ironing the bedding after you finish the/your normal washing and drying cycle. Iron your sheets with the hottest setting for cotton. Heat "relaxes" cotton fibres that stiffen during the wash. Usually, the drying cycle heat with agitation would be sufficient to ease the stiffness. With added thickness, a few more washes will be necessary until the fabric loses some body (and fibres).
I have found that bamboo-based and hemp-based cloth to be softer and last longer than cotton which is more plentiful and less expensive.
Iron if you can, or line dry. The suggestion of dryer balls is a good response as well - dryer balls will fluff, help reduce wrinkles, reduce dryer time and if you use wool dryer balls, the lanolin will help soften. A 400tc organic cotton sheet set is likely a multi weft insertion, not a true 400tc. You don't mention if the sheets are percale or sateen, but both will improve with use and age. We have more detail and care recommendations for organic cotton sheets at this link.