June 29, 2013 by Ville Raivio
Cotton is everywhere. Nearly 25 million tonnes of raw cotton fabric is grown annually, with six countries holding the production reins: China, Brazil, India, Pakistan, the USA and Uzbekistan produce more than 80% of all cotton. This wobbling heap of white cellulose consists of four commercial cotton species, of which one towers over others. Extra-long staple cotton, academically known as Gossypium barbadense, grows the longest fibres of at least 3.5 centimetres, which lead to strongest yarns and softest fabrics. The species is grown in all suitable climates around the world, with several regions lending their names to raw materials: American Pima, Egyptian Giza, Indian Suvin, Chinese Xinjiang, Sudanese Barakat and Russian Tonkovoloknistyi. These products make up only 8% of annual cotton harvest. Yet one is differerent. The G.b. species grows its longest, softest fibres on the West-Indian Sea Islands, which lend their name to Sea Island cotton.
For three centuries now, the islands have offered a unique climate for cotton: plentiful rain, endless sunshine, wet and dry seasons and high humidity year-round. When combined with the particular strain of G.b. grown on the isles, these help Sea Island cotton grow fibres of up to 6 cm. The raw material has a uniform texture, high tensile strength, luster and a soft hand. Its qualities also allow the material to be spun and woven into very high yarn counts, though I’ve found no particular difference in the look of SI clothes over regular cotton ones. In short, Sea Island cotton has the feel of cashmere or silk and the strength of cotton. The material has been certified and its distribution and production has been overseen since the end of WW2 by the West Indies Sea Island Cotton Association, whose WISICA hologram acts as proof of the real deal.
Out of the 25 million tonnes of cotton produced each year, around 0,008% is Sea Island cotton. Its price is five times that of G.b. grown elsewhere, with largest buyers on the so-called luxury market with established makers, such as John Smedley, Ike Behar, Pantherella, Zimmerli, Brooks Brothers and Ralph Lauren. The reader should take note of origin, though, as most makers simply buy regular Gossypium barbadense cotton and label it as ‘Sea Island cotton’, ‘Sea Island cotton quality’ or ‘Sea Island quality’. Without the WISICA proof, the material will be nice, but not the elusive stuff from West Indies. Quality comes with a price. Sea Island cotton shirts retail for several hundreds in all major currencies, the same goes for knitwear. One use remains quite chep and handy. SI socks can be found for a bit under 20 euros, close to 15 pounds or some 30 dollars. I’ve owned SI pieces over the years and found the legends true: Sea Island cotton has no comparison in softness and clothes made from the material should come with parental advisory tags. This cotton is pornographic.
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