Cotton: this ancient crop has been used for many centuries as a basis for the production of textiles. There are about 50 species of cotton that find their home in the tropics and subtropics.
But when it comes to clothing cotton varieties are far from being equal. The quality of cotton is mainly defined by its fibre length (or staple). The longer the fibre, the higher the quality of the cotton. Some cotton varieties have short fibres while other have long or even extra-long fibres (ELS). Yarns made from longer fibres produce more durable and softer fabrics.
Most cotton fibres that are used in high-street garments are short or medium length. Expensive designer brands sometimes use premium cotton like ELS for clothing such as T-Shirts but this isn’t always the case – higher price doesn’t necessarily always mean higher quality cotton is used.
Since the terminology is often misunderstood and misused, here’s an overview of the different cotton types and their qualities.
WHAT IS EXTRA-LONG STAPLE COTTON?
First thing, let’s clarify what ‘extra-long staple’ cotton is and means.
Discovered in the early 18th century in the British West Indies: ‘Gossypium Barbadense’, or extra-long staple (ELS) cotton, is the tropical strand of plant that most luxury cotton varieties (such as Pima, Egyptian and Sea Island) are descended from.
It is grown on medium-sized plants that are tropical, frost-sensitive, perennial and require lots of sun, high humidity and rainfall.
Crucially, it has has been cultivated to have extra-long staple fibres. To be classified as extra-long staple, the average fibre length must be longer than 35mm.
The longer and stronger fibres result in fabrics and t-shirts that are generally softer, more durable and ultimately longer-lasting than conventional cotton varieties (and most commercially used species).
Some of the cotton types about to be featured in this post are classified as ELS cotton but others have lengths under 35mm and so are lower quality.
1. PIMA COTTON
Pima – as part of the ELS family – is considered to be one of finest cotton varieties on the planet. These days, Pima is mainly grown in the US, Australia, Peru, and Israel. As an extra-long staple cotton, its long fibres make it remarkably soft and super strong. The result when it comes to clothing is luxuriously smooth fabrics that are resistant to fraying, tearing, pilling, wrinkling, and fading.
It’s no wonder that many garments claim to be made from pure Pima. But searching for Pima causes certain challenges: recent studies revealed that a majority of supposedly Pima products aren’t pure at all and quite often mixed with inferior cotton species.
- Fibre Length: > 35mm
- Extra-long Staple: Yes
- Properties: fine, uniform, great tensile strength, silky luster, soft feel
- Usage: luxury garments
- Country of Origin: Peru, Australia, Israel, USA
- Market Share: < 5%
- Price: High
2. SUPIMA COTTON
Certified Supima cotton is guaranteed to be 100% American Pima, with no lower-quality cotton as part of the weave. This differs from Pima, which is often interwoven with lower-quality cotton.
The Supima name is actually a trademark that must be awarded by the Supima organisation – formed in El Paso, Texas in 1954. The trademark describes the purity and quality but it doesn’t mean Supima is a distinct cotton species from American Pima.
Supima is formed by blending the words “Superior” and “Pima.”
- Fibre Length: same as pure Pima
- Extra-long Staple: Yes
- Properties: same as pure Pima
- Usage: same as pure Pima
- Country of Origin: USA
- Market Share: < 1%
- Price: Very High
3. SEA ISLAND COTTON
Authentic Sea Island Cotton is regarded by many as an ultra-premium, rare cotton used by luxury brands for the finest products.
Accounting for just 0.004% of the cotton supply worldwide, Sea Island Cotton is definitely the rarest in the world. The production is limited but what makes Sea Island Cotton so desirable is its unique characteristics: extra-long staple length, remarkable fibre strength, uniform growth, and significant brightness in colour. Fans of Sea Island Cotton say it’s the mix of durability, consistency, and brightness that makes Sea Island Cotton so desirable.
It’s worth mentioning that not all Sea Island Cotton is seen as the same quality. Barbados, Jamaica, and Antigua have become the main producers of this rare cotton but Barbados-grown Sea Island Cotton is generally regarded as the finest available.
- Fiber Length: > 35mm
- Extra-long Staple: Yes
- Feel: soft, silky, durable, reminding of matt silk
- Usage: (often) woven fabrics such as luxury shirts
- Country of Origin: Barbados, Jamaica, British West Indies
- Market Share: 0.004%
- Price: Extremely High
4. EGYPTIAN ELS COTTON
The “real” Egyptian ELS cotton technically derives from the same cotton species as other ELS varieties such as Pima or Sea Island. However, it has become the case that Egyptian cotton mainly refers to its origin and not to its quality.
Much of the cotton grown in Egypt that can be accurately called “Egyptian cotton” is merely long staple, not ELS, meaning the fibres are shorter, weaker, and coarser than ELS cotton. Experts in the industry also say that when buying Egyptian cotton you don’t know what you’re getting. Research carried out in 2016 showed that 83% of tested products labelled 100% Egyptian ELS were partially or entirely made from another type of cotton.
However, if you manage to find the “real” Egyptian ELS cotton you’ll be able to enjoy a fine and soft material – on a par with Supima. The most known sub-species of Egyptian ELS cotton are Giza 45 and Giza 70, which are mostly used for very fine yarns and tear-resistant twists.
Since the average fibre length of the widely used Giza 90 is slightly below 35mm it must be considered as just “long staple” and not ELS.
- Fibre Length: > 35mm (Giza 45, Giza 70, Giza 87, Giza 88)
- Extra-long Staple: Yes (but not Giza 90). However, be sure of what you’re buying.
- Properties: fine, smooth hand-feel, soft
- Usage: luxury garments & bedding
- Country of Origin: Egypt
- Market Share: < 5 %
- Price: High
The perfect T-Shirt from SANVT is crafted from pure 100% American Pima ELS cotton
5. HIGHLAND / UPLAND COTTON
This species, commonly known as highland cotton or upland cotton, accounts for more than 80% of world production. “Gossypium hirsutum” originally comes from America but is now grown all over the world. This species is therefore the main supplier of cotton fibres for clothing.
The plant grows to a height of between 1.5m and 2m. Its flowers are white to yellowish and blush in withering and its fibres are usually 20 to 30mm.
This is the variety of cotton (alongside Asian Short Staple, below) that will typically be found in ‘fast fashion’ garments because of the lower cost.
- Scientific Name: Gossypium hirsutum
- Major Growing regions: India, USA, Brazil, China, Australia, Turkey, Tajikistan, Kirgizstan
- Fibre Length: 20-30mm
- Extra-long Staple: No
- Quality: medium
- Usage: large variety of cotton products
- Market Share: > 80%
- Price: low
6. ASIAN SHORT STAPLE COTTON
In terms of global market share, the second most important type of cotton is “Gossypium herbaceum”, commonly called Asian Short Staple. It originates from Southwest Asia and is cultivated today mainly in China, India and Pakistan.
Its fibres are short and coarse and therefore considered to be of lower quality. The plant reaches a growth height of up to 150cm. The petals of its flowers are yellowish and have a reddish spot at the base.
- Scientific Name: Gossypium herbaceum
- Major Growing regions: China, India, Pakistan
- Fiber Length: 15-25mm
- Extra-long Staple: No
- Quality: low
- Usage: cheap high street clothing, synthetic blends
- Market Share: 15%
- Price: very low
WHAT ABOUT ORGANIC COTTON?
Organic cotton isn’t a species of cotton itself but distinguishes itself by being organically-grown, through processes with lower environmental impacts. Plants can’t be genetically modified in any way and only natural processes can be used during harvesting.
In theory, most cotton varieties can be grown organically. However, due to the restrictive use of machinery and chemicals, growing organic cotton can be a labour intensive process. And due to increased labour costs, it is not that surprising that virtually all organic cotton is grown in developing countries with 89% of the world’s production coming from India (51%), China (19%), Kyrgyzstan (7%), Turkey (7%) and Tajikistan (7%).
As a consequence, organic cotton is normally either mid or short staple and tends to be lower quality compared to ELS cotton. This ultimately results in garments that aren’t quite as durable – raising the question if using organic cotton really contributes to more sustainability within the fashion industry.
That said, if you do want to go down the organic route then make sure you opt for a cotton with a reliable certification. The GOTS certification is the gold standard when it comes to organic cotton, here’s a little more about it.
7. GOTS Certified Organic Cotton
GOTS-certified organic cotton is as good as it gets when it comes to organic cotton. While ‘organic’ can be a misleading marketing term, there is no greenwashing with the GOTS label because there are strict regulations to achieve the mark, such as a ban on environmentally hazardous inputs. And the certification is verified by third parties.
While our previous point on organic cotton not being ELS cotton still stands, the GOTS certification also includes quality controls, such as on color fastness and shrinking. This means that with a GOTS certified cotton garment you are getting a desirable mix of high quality and true sustainability.
● Certification Website: https://global-standard.org/
● Scientific Name: N/A – although most organic cotton is GOTS certified
● Major Growing regions: India & China
● Fiber Length: 7mm
● Extra-long Staple: Not typically
● Quality: high
● Usage: adding sustainability to higher quality garments
● Market Share: <1%
● Price: high