When you’re building your dream bedding set, you probably think about the colour, pattern, and even thread count. And if you’re someone who knows that a high-quality, natural fabric stays soft and strong longer than a synthetic, you’ve probably decided you want cotton sheets.
Smart choice! But did you know that there are different types of cotton – and that one type beats all the rest when it comes to comfort, breathability, and durability? We’ve put together a quick primer to help you understand the ins and outs of cotton quality.
While they’re often lumped together under the same name, the cotton fabrics in your favourite products can come from one of two distinct species of plant. They’re differentiated by the length of their fibre (or “staple”), the fine little strands that make up a raw piece of cotton. Upland Cotton (Gossypium hirsutum) is made of short-staple fibres that offer reliable quality at an affordable price. It’s also the most common, making up nearly 90% of all cotton produced around the world. The remaining 10% consists of two higher-quality cottons — Egyptian Cotton and Pima Cotton. Both kinds of cotton are the same species of “extra-long-staple cotton” (Gossypium barbadense). Those longer fibres make the fabric softer and stronger than Upland cotton. If they’re pure, both Egyptian and Pima cotton are renowned for their superior quality.
Cotton Myths and Misnomers
Unfortunately, purity is a big “if” for many items that claim to contain extra-long-staple cotton. Due to unscrupulous production or promotion, many cotton products labelled “Egyptian” or “Pima” isn’t what they say they are. A recent test revealed 89% of kinds of cotton sold as Egyptian or Pima are made of an inferior cotton blend. And Egyptian cotton is especially problematic because any cotton grown in Egypt can technically be labelled “Egyptian cotton” — even if it’s not the high-quality extra-long-staple cotton of the same name. This type of confusing labelling preys on smart consumers who know to look for the mention of one of these premium cotton types. Even for the well-informed, it can be nearly impossible to know the true makeup of fabric without having insight into the entire supply chain.
Is Egyptian Cotton the Best in the World?
Wherever you shop for bedding, you’re sure to encounter endless products made from Egyptian cotton. When you do, touch the fabric between your fingers, and you’ll be able to feel the quality of the fabric. You’ll also notice that not all of them feel the same, despite them all being Egyptian cotton. Ever wondered why that’s the case?
Is Egyptian cotton really the best in the world, and does the name on the label guarantee a superior product? Let’s find out more.
The History of Egyptian Cotton
The story of Egyptian cotton began in 1818 when the ruler of Egypt encouraged the crop to boost the nation’s income. After that, the quality became legendary, establishing a global reputation. The size of the crop fluctuated with global prices and the world economy but really took off after the country’s 1952 Revolution.
Since then, Egypt has become a world leader in cotton production in terms of volume, and it has also maintained the reputation earned during the 19th century.
The reason for this high-quality reputation is simple: the Nile River valley. The Nile turned out to be the ideal setting for cotton production. For one thing, the valley’s climate is humid, while the soil is also rich in nutrients. This allowed growers to raise both extra-long and long-staple varieties. The “staple” refers to the hair-like fibres inside the cotton boll.
These types of cotton have an important property. Due to their longer length, they produce a yarn that is much thinner than other varieties. The resulting yarn is both fine and strong, creating more luxurious-feeling fabrics that are lighter and more breathable than standard cotton.
Another special feature of Egyptian cotton is that it was traditionally processed by farmers with their hands, not machines. Pesticide use was minimal, and no chemicals were used to artificially soften the cotton. This helped to keep the fibres as soft and natural as possible.
For these reasons, the elite reputation of Egyptian cotton is much more than a slogan.
Egyptian Cotton Bedding
It’s important to realize that modern Egypt grows a more diverse range of cotton types, including long, regular, and short-staple varieties. These types have their properties, and the quality can change. For instance, regular and short fibres can poke out of the weave, making the fabric coarser and weaker.
Unfortunately, even recently, some US retailers have mixed up their staples. On one occasion, retailers were forced to remove thousands of bedding sheets from their shelves when they discovered that manufacturers were supplying falsely labelled Egyptian cotton products.
The fact is, products labelled “Egyptian cotton” are often not made with the highest quality fibres. The long-staple fibre from Egypt accounts for only 1% of all cotton production in the world. So, when you buy bedding, it’s best to be sceptical regarding the fibre content.
Also, unless the product is labelled and certified as “organic Egyptian cotton”, producers will have used pesticides and insecticides during the growing and processing of the bedding, and harvesting will most likely be mechanized.
Currently, cotton consumes 22.5% of the world’s insecticides and 10% of its pesticides, while using just 2.5% of all farmland. That’s a pretty outrageous statistic.
The Egyptian Cotton Label
So, what does this all mean? Contrary to public opinion, the “Egyptian cotton” label doesn’t mean you’re buying the most luxurious product around. What used to set Egyptian producers apart decades ago were the natural techniques used and the long-staple varieties grown, not where the cotton came from.
It doesn’t matter if your cotton has been grown in Egypt, Pakistan, India, or the United States. If the cotton staple is long, the quality is pure, and the cotton bolls are hand-picked and farmed with care, you’ll find the same luxurious fabric.
These days, consumers don’t need to gamble with the label “Egyptian cotton” to get the comfortable fabrics they desire.
In many ways, Egyptian cotton is very similar to Pima cotton. Egyptian cotton is painstakingly hand-picked to preserve the fibres’ integrity and is sometimes known as ELS (extra-long staple) cotton. Egyptian cotton is a rather generic descriptor, however; and any cotton grown in Egypt can technically be called “Egyptian cotton.”
True Egyptian cotton or at least the famous extra-long-staple variety has been grown for centuries and has long enjoyed a reputation as one of the world’s best. Pure Egyptian cotton is thinner and finer than most other strains and is known for its even finish. The issue with Egyptian cotton is that there isn’t a ton of transparency or an “Egyptian Cotton Association” to sign off on allegedly high-quality products. Sometimes, even when it is the high-end stuff, manufacturers divide the one-ply staples in half, which is more profitable for them but results in a lower-quality end product. The majority of Egyptian cotton that makes it to market is long-staple, which is good, but not as good as the extra-long variety that has for so long set the standard internationally.
Simply put, the best cotton in the world is a guaranteed pure extra-long-staple cotton. So how can you trust that you’re not falling for an inferior blend when buying Pima cotton sheets or Egyptian cotton sheets? First, check the label. Anything labelled “100% cotton” is likely Upland cotton. If, however, the label indicates Egyptian or Pima cotton, see if it passes the touch test. Is the fabric extraordinarily smooth? If so, the fabric may be made of Egyptian or Pima Cotton. A good first step, but an inferior blend usually reveals itself after you’ve purchased your sheets by quickly losing softness when it’s washed, or wearing far more quickly than you’d expect.
The only way to be certain you’re getting authentic Egyptian cotton or Pima cotton? By scientific verification. In our case, PimaCott tracks its Pima cotton from farm to store and tests it for purity at multiple steps along the way. Because we have insight into the entire supply chain, we can guarantee that the products made with PimaCott contain nothing less than pure Pima cotton. That’s not just something on a label; it’s scientific fact. By doing your research into which companies and brands have the methods to back up their claims, you can rest easy knowing you’ve bought bedding made with the world’s greatest cotton.
For all the time we spend off-handedly mentioning cotton, there’s not much we’ve said about the various strains of cotton that wind up being spun and woven into our favourite garments. After all, each strain of cotton has its unique properties and history, which means that when a designer chooses a specific one, they’re trying to communicate something.
Throughout the past three centuries, Egyptian cotton has prevailed as one of Egypt’s biggest competitive advantages. With an established reputation of being the “best” cotton in the world, its softness, strength and superior characteristics, have positioned products made of Egyptian cotton as the world’s finest.
Egyptian cotton has not gained such a reputation without reason. Egyptian cotton “is” the world’s finest cotton, and the following characteristics are what sets Egyptian cotton apart from other natural fibres:
The length of the fibre makes it possible to make the finest of yarns without sacrificing the strength of the yarn.
The strength of the fibre makes fabrics more solid and more resistant to stress. Its ability to absorb liquids gives fabrics made of Egyptian cotton deeper, brighter and more resistant colours.
Its softness feels like nothing else in the world. Egyptian cotton is hand-picked, which guarantees the highest levels of purity. In addition, hand picking puts no stress on the fibres – as opposed to mechanical picking – leaving the fibres straight and intact.
All these factors have resulted in Egyptian cotton being by far the best cotton in the world. Fabrics made of Egyptian cotton are softer, finer and last longer than any other cotton in the world.
What are the other types of cotton?
Pima/ Supima Cotton
Pima cotton and its American-exclusive brother, Supima, are revered as among the best cotton in the world. These strains are best known for their long-staple characteristics. These fibres in the fluffy cotton buds you see above are, at the very least, 1 3/8 inches, which makes them about 50% longer than most other cotton strains. Longer cotton fibres typically make stronger and softer garments, and this kind of cotton makes for weaves with a smooth and even hand.
Although Pima cotton’s origins can be traced back to Peru, the strain is named for the Pima tribe of Native Americans who selectively bred the strain to achieve that signature long-stapled perfection for which the variety is now known. Pima cotton thrives in mild, warm, dry environments; so its US cultivation is centred around the Southwest, not far from the Pima tribe’s ancestral homelands. Pima is also grown in Australia and Peru.
Pima is also touted as the strongest cotton of all the strains. This is largely in part due to staple length. During the spinning, a longer fibre will have fewer exposed or frayed pieces, resulting in a longer, more cohesive yarn.
You’ve undoubtedly also heard of Supima cotton, which is the same strain, but more strictly controlled. Supima is a combination of the words “superior” and “Pima” and is strictly monitored for purity by the Supima Association. So, Supima cotton is Pima cotton that has been grown in the USA and meets the very stringent requirements set forth by the association.
Sea Island Cotton
Sea Island cotton is named for the area in South Carolina where this famous long-staple cotton was harvested. Francis Levett, an Englishman colonist, was the first to plant Sea Island Cotton on his plantation in South Carolina. This strain could only thrive in the low-country near the water and attempts to import it to other states, and further inland have ultimately failed.
Before the invention of the cotton gin, which made short-staple cotton profitable for the first time, Sea Island Cotton was widely regarded as the best cotton available in what was to become the United States of America. In fact, upon the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, Levett abandoned his plantation for fear of American reprisals and never returned.
This cotton is especially temperamental and difficult to cultivate. But when successfully grown, its softness and strength are legendary. Queen Victoria had her handkerchiefs made out of this special cotton. It became known for its exclusivity and was popular among the world’s wealthiest individuals. Sea Island cotton had a rather low yield and needed to be picked by hand to preserve its trademark, long fibres. As you can imagine, this picking in the American South was done by slave labour.
Several histories of the cotton bemoan the blow to the industry made by the Civil War, but if you think about things a little more critically, what these authors are saying is that a large part of the workforce was liberated, leaving cotton planters in the lurch (and rightfully so!).
We almost lost the entire strain not because of the Civil War, but because of a weevil infestation that affected cotton-growers from Mexico to the East Coast of the USA in the early 1900s. Sea Island Cotton was barely revived as a strain with a couple of leftover seeds. Now Sea Island is grown mostly in the Caribbean, where the climate can satisfy this particularly uncooperative breed of cotton.
Suvin Gold is yet another extra-long-staple cotton. It gets hard determining exactly how each strain stacks up, especially because partisans for each cotton strain like to tout their own as being the best. Regardless, Suvin Gold is called the gold standard of cotton for a very good reason. It seems, of the strains we’ve mentioned so far, Suvin is both the longest-stapled and the thinnest.
Suvin is a hybrid of an Egyptian cotton “Sujata” and a Sea Island Cotton derivative from the West Indies known as “St. Vincent.” The resulting cotton is grown in India but can be very, very difficult to cultivate. Sun, as a hybrid, needs new seeds to be created each year, which is costly and time-consuming. As with most ELS cotton, Suvin is easily affected by climate change. It requires regular rainfall and irrigation, something that has been less and less consistent in India in the last three years.
In an article from Down to Earth, growers lament the lack of organization among Suvin and other ELS growers in India. Production has fallen greatly, which drives up the price, but is more a result of mismanagement and increasingly inconsistent weather patterns than anything else.
Luckily, the demand for Suvin isn’t going down anytime soon in Japan. Just handle any Studio D’Artisan Suvin Gold piece to see the self-proclaimed “cashmere of cotton.”
Giza cotton is grown in Egypt, but what makes it different from Egyptian cotton is its very specific area of cultivation. Like Sea Island Cotton, Giza needs to be grown near water, which for Giza tends to be the Nile River. The Nile Delta, to be exact. The Delta is nutrient-rich and has high humidity, which is a great boon to cotton production.
Giza is also renowned for its staple length, but it is slightly thicker and shorter than Suvin. As with another Egyptian cotton, you have to be sure that you’re getting the real deal. But if you are, most sources agree that it’s the pinnacle of all Egyptian cotton in softness and breathability.
Upland Cotton is the first shorter-staple cotton on our list. Upland Cotton is also known as Mexican Cotton, and with evidence tracing its roots back to 3,500 BCE in the Tehuacan Valley, it is the oldest cotton in the Americas. It makes for 95% of American cotton cultivation, so if something is made from “American cotton” without any other clarifiers, it’s likely this strain.
There are hybrids and longer-stapled varieties around, but Upland, on the whole, tends to be shorter-stapled. Short staple cotton has a slightly rougher and more uneven hand, which is helpful in the spinning thread for the more out-there denim we love, but since long stapled cotton is usually nice Upland doesn’t get as much hype.
What thread counts is the best?
The thread count is the number of threads in each square inch and generally speaking, the higher the thread count, the more luxurious, dense and soft the material will feel. The quality of the yarn is also very important in the feel of the product, so thread count alone does not always tell the whole story.
120-180 Thread Count | This range is most suitable for rentals and basic domestic use, the type often found in hospitals, and certainly good for a spare room and where the user calls for the material of a more basic nature.
200 Thread Count | A very cool and light percale cotton, mostly used in summer. Found in many hotels, this product is ideal for contract or domestic usage where the requirement is for cool crisp bed linen within a certain budget.
400 Thread Count | Definitely our best-selling cotton product. A soft yet more substantial Egyptian cotton than the 200 counts, favoured for its cool feel and durability, with a universal appeal. This product is what you expect to find on the beds of major hotel chains worldwide.
600 Thread Count | Here is where the exclusive end of quality begins, made possible by the use of compressed air technology in the weaving process. It is a beautiful lustrous, uniform, soft and very smooth fabric, the best selling Luxury cotton in our upper range.
800 – 1000 Thread Count | Ultimate Luxury, pure indulgence, a step above the 600 Thread Count with an even greater lustre and a fuller fabric. This is an amazingly robust yet silky weave and will always be considered to be very beautiful bed linen even after many, many years.