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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
What is Supima Cotton?
Imagine pima but with more bells and whistles. In fact, the word “Supima” means superior Pima. These fibers are stronger, softer, and more durable than the Pima, making this material more expensive and more sought after. This is some of the most luxurious material you can get, and it is only manufactured in the United States. This material is strictly regulated, so you can be sure anything that says Supima on it is authentically U.S. grade Supima cotton. Supima is a brand name trademarked by the Supima Association, so all Supima is Pima but at that next level. This brand makes sure all their materials are top-of-the-line, superior grade fibers.
Benefits of Supima Cotton
If you like that extra durable strength of the Pima cotton but with more fluffiness, the Supima is the brand for you. These cotton fibers are the longest and strongest you can find on the market, and since this is a tightly regulated brand of cotton, you can be sure every Supima material is authentically Supima. This cotton will last longer, be stronger, and will almost feel like silk on the skin. Although it is rare to see bedding using strictly Supima cotton, there is bedding out there made of Supima – but be prepared to pay the price.
You will more commonly see Supima cotton being used in high-end retail outlets due to the silky soft fibers. Expensive clothing lines like to use Supima due to the strength and softness these cotton fibers bring to their clothing. Clothing wise, anything made with Supima will last far longer than standard clothing, making this material a sensible purchase if you are someone who prefers not to throw worn out clothing away often. This fabric will stand the test of time.
Downsides to Supima Cotton
Therefore, as you may have guess, Supima is expensive. In fact, Supima is three times more expensive than regular cotton and twice the price of Pima materials. If you are looking for some new queen sized sheets, for example, a set of Pima sheets will cost anywhere from $$$ to $$$, where a set of the same sized sheets in Supima will cost anywhere from $$$ to $$$. Ultimately, these sheets will feel much more luxurious and will definitely last longer, but it could be a hefty price tag to pay for most people. Pima vs Supima Comparison
|Pima Cotton||Supima Cotton|
|Lasts longer than regular cotton||Lasts the longest|
|Is softer than standard cotton||Silky feel on skin|
|A bit more expensive||Much more expensive|
|Rare||Is the rarest cotton you can find|
You may want to read: What is the Difference Between Supima and Pima Cotton?
How is Pima Cotton Produced?
The main difference in Pima cotton production is that it requires hand-picking for the best results. Most commercial cotton growers use machines to pry away the fluffy cotton ball and then sift out the cotton seeds from the fibers. The delicate G. barbadense plants, however, need a more hands-on approach for the best results.
The delicacy of the process is one of the reasons why so little G. barbadense is grown worldwide and why Pima cotton remains a luxury item!
Aside from handpicking, most of the production process looks fairly similar to how any type of cotton is manufactured.
First, the cotton balls get packed into bales, which go to a special area of production factories called the opening room. At this point, machines do take over! The factory machines undo the bales to scatter cotton bolls around.
Then a mixing machine prepares the bolls for carding, a process that untangles the fibers and arranges them into roughly parallel clumps called tows.
A combing machine turns the tows into neat, silky cotton ropes free of any lingering burrs, bugs, or other gross bits!
These loose ropes wrap around large bobbins for transport to more factory machines. This final batch of machines will twist the ropes into yarns–what we think of as threads. These fine, delicate threads will then go to a weaving factory to get woven into fabric!
You will often find Pima cotton in a plain weave that has a basic over-under thread pattern. Percale and satin weave also make popular types of Pima cotton bedding because of their silkier feel.
Why Pima Cotton is Better?
Those people who place Pima cotton in the top category do so for a variety of reasons. it is a very soft material that is easy to work with. Plus, its long fibers keep you nice and comfortable while keeping the fabric very strong.
The manufacturing process ensures that you are not getting any harmful chemicals next to your skin or the skin of your family so that is another plus in this material’s favor. Also, the fabric has some stretch to it so it will give you some freedom of movement without worrying if you are going to rip the outfit in the wrong places.
On top of that, you can’t forget that it does not pill that easily and can be washed in cool or warm water. It does not need a lot of special attention when it comes time to wash this material.
Also, the moisture-wicking ability and the breathability of this fabric make it ideal to wear under the hottest of conditions. All these positives are great reasons why some people select this fabric over any other cotton material including the other two in the top three categories.
Does Pima cotton pill?
There is good news here as well. Pilling usually takes place when the weave is loose and the fibers are of a low quality. Most top-quality fabrics resist pilling to some extent and Pima fabric is no exception.
Depending on the weave style, this fabric’s high thread count makes it hard to pill. The material does resist that laundry ill but it may not be 100% pill-free. Even top-quality fabrics will have issues with pilling at some point in time.
The tight weave given to this fabric also helps the fight against pilling. With 200 to 300 threads per square inch, there is not a lot of room for pills to form. Of course, this doesn’t mean you don’t launder the fabric properly or put it in an overstuffed washing machine or dryer.
You still want to wash and dry this material very carefully as it is an investment, not only in price but also in how you look when you wear it. Some Pima cotton materials may be dry clean only so watch that care label closely and do not ignore it.
Both kinds of cotton are machine-washable with no degradation to the material. Egyptian cotton can handle wash temperature of up to 40 degree Celsius while Pima cotton can be washed to 60 degree Celsius. The Egyptian cotton touch is tremendously soft and smooth while Pima is just as soft boasting a high absorbency rate. Understanding the differences between the two will help you choose the right one for you.