Beware the cotton lie

If you have ever bought a 'Sea Island' shirt, or Egyptian cotton sheets, you probably did so with the expectation of a certain (higher) quality. This should make sense; some cottons so described can indeed be of good quality, because they are 'extra-long staple' cottons from the species Gossypium barbadense, which naturally has longer fibres that make stronger, finer yarns for weaving.

The fabric that results - depending on how well it is woven - is usually longer-lasting and softer on the skin; precisely what the marketing man wants you to think. 

Brazilian Cotton

The problem? Only 6 percent of cotton grown on the planet is genuine extra-long staple cotton, so there's a 94 percent chance that what you're buying is inferior, and you're getting swindled.

There are four commercial species of cotton in the world, all domesticated in antiquity. 90 percent of global production is of the lower quality Gossypium hirsutum. But all extra-fine quality,or extra-long staple cotton, is derived from the varietal Gossypium barbadense and constitutes a meagre 6 percent of global production. 

Cotonificio Paulista

Genetic evidence tells us that G. barbadense originated in Peru and the first clear sign of domestication comes from Ancon, a site on the dry Peruvian coast where archaeologists found remains of cotton bolls dating to 4200 BC. By 1000 BC Peruvian cotton bolls were indistinguishable from modern cultivars of G. barbadense.

In the Andean region, it quickly became one of the most important materials used in the processes of spinning and weaving and the production of fishing nets, bags, funerary mantles and fine clothing. In ancient Peru, the women usually spun, wove and were experts in the techniques of spinning, dying, weaving and embroidering.

South America Map

The extraordinary Museo Larco in Lima contains one of the oldest examples of domesticated cotton - a fishing net dating from the pre-ceramic epoch (8000BC-2000BC).

Cotton growing became widespread in South America and spread to the West Indies, where Christopher Columbus encountered it. It became a commercial plantation crop tended by slaves in the West Indies, so that by the 1650s, Barbados had become the first British West Indies colony to export cotton.

Cotton fishing net

Sea Island Quality - caveat emptor

G. barbadense was eventually transported to the American Sea Islands (Georgia & South Carolina) in the 1780s, where it thrived. Although it was Eli Whitney's invention of the Cotton Gin in 1793 that triggered the surge in production of this luxury cotton and helped shape the economy of the Antebellum South. Fine 'Sea Island' Cotton became the ne plus ultra on the global market.

Today, marketing departments use 'Sea Island Quality', and not 'Sea Island Cotton', to capitalise on the Sea Island brand. But the reality is that only 20 bales of actual Sea Island cotton are grown per year.  To put that in context, one bale of cotton produces enough fabric to make about 275 shirts. Caveat emptor.

But what about the aura around Egyptian cotton?

The cultivation of cotton in Egypt is entirely of modern origin - a 19th Century phenomenon to be precise. Local cotton was of extremely poor quality until a French man named Louis Alexis Jumel convinced Muhammed Ali of Egypt to start experimenting by growing his luxury cotton varietal, Jumel Coton, which he had originally bred from Sea Island cotton, in the 1820s. 

Cotonoficio Rodolfo Crespi

But what was a Frenchman doing in Egypt trying to grow luxury cotton? On account of the bellicose Napoleon Bonaparte, France's mills and markets were blocked from access to the luxury South American cotton once he invaded the Iberian peninsula. The British Navy ushered the Portuguese royal family across the Atlantic to Rio de Janeiro and established what would become a century of Brazilian commercial dominance. This forced French industrialists to look elsewhere to source fine cotton and, ultimately, led to the development of Egyptian cotton. 

The U.S. Civil War during the 1860s was the final boon to the nascent Egyptian cotton industry as the blockaded Confederacy was unable to export its own fine cotton, presenting a unique opportunity for Ottoman Egypt to win global market share. 

Egyptian Cotton

Ironically, today, only 20 percent of cotton grown in Egypt is extra long-staple. Why bother to specify 'Egyptian Giza 45' (the really good stuff) when you can say 'Egyptian cotton', and charge the same amount?

Wait, what about Peru? And what has that got to do with Brazil?

Trade had existed for millennia between pre-Columbian tribes in the vast interior of South America. So renowned was this trade that it lives on in colloquial lexicon as the legend of 'El Dorado' - the mythical city of wealth that has, since the 15th Century, driven 'white' men to their untimely deaths in search of it. 

Aguirre

For centuries, explorers probed the darkest recesses of northern South America attempting to find the mysterious city, to no avail. It's existence may not have been farfetched if recent academic conjecture about the extent of the pre-Columbian population of South America is to be believed, including the suggestion that the Amazon forest itself may be largely a human artifact. 

In fact, much of the real wealth of these indigenous communities manifested itself as extravagantly embroidered garments using the fine local Peruvian cotton and this trade stretched from coast to coast across what is now Brazil. Luxury cotton was gold. 

What’s the connection with Brazilian tailoring?

Brazil has always had easy access to the original 'fine' cotton of the world - from which Sea Island and Egyptian cotton descended - which, today, does not receive the same credit on account of the superior marketing smoke and mirrors of its American and Egyptian descendants. The best long-staple fabric comes from South America and, when Brazilian tailoring was at its peak in the early 20th Century, the local shirt-makers and craftsmen benefited from this. The history of Brazilian tailoring and extra-soft South American cotton have long been intertwined.

Alfaiataria Faraco