top of page

Understanding Cotton

Knowing Quality Cotton Fabric

As sewists, cotton is a fabric we use constantly. It sews easily, accepts patterns and dye that produces wonderful fabrics, and results in wearable items or household goods that are easy to maintain and wear well. Yet as sewists, we also know that there can be a huge difference in the quality of cotton fabrics. The type of cotton fabric doesn’t usually tell you its quality. There is cotton lawn, and there is good cotton lawn. So how do you tell the difference?

Understanding types of cotton is the first step toward finding the quality you desire. All cotton fabric comes from the cotton plant. There are over 50 species of cotton, but only 4 are grown commercially. Gossypium hirsutum and Gossypium barbadense are called New World species and account for about 95% and 3% of world production respectively. G. arboreum and G. herbaceum are called Old World or Asiatic cottons and are grown commercially in India, Pakistan and parts of South-east Asia, accounting for about 2% of world production. Asiatic cottons are typically shorter and coarser.

Those wonderful cottons that we love to use in our smocking or heirloom sewing, known as Extra Long Egyptian, American Pima and Sea Island cotton belong to the species Gossypium barbadense; the species that only represents 3 percent of the cotton grown. According to the International Trade Centre’s Cotton Guide, ‘extra-long staple’ (ELS) cotton is long, fine and strong with a minimum staple length of 34.925 mm (1-3/8") and may exceed 40 mm. Most commercially grown cotton averages 26–27 mm. As well as fiber length, ELS cotton is also recognized for its superior strength and better uniformity.

So why isn’t all cotton grown, ELS cotton? Because ELS cotton is harder and more expensive to grow! ELS cotton plants are not as hardy, and can only be grown in specific areas of the world where the days are hot and the nights are cool. ELS are the prima donnas of the cotton world. The good news is that demand for ELS cotton is growing and manufacturers and growers have responded. More items now contain ELS cotton.

Traditionally the names Sea Island cotton, Pima cotton, and Extra Long Staple Egyptian cotton were all ELS cottons that guaranteed a high level of quality. Sea Island cotton was originally produced on Sea Island, Georgia, and continues to be produced in the West Indies. The USDA gave the name “Pima” to the ELS cotton that it was breeding in Arizona, in recognition of the Pima Native Americans who grew the cotton and ran the field trials. Most Egyptian cotton is a long staple variety, although not an ELS. Neither the terms “Pima”, nor “Egyptian cotton” are regulated, so the name alone won’t guarantee that you are buying ELS cotton. In fact, the Pima name is now used by other nations that produce ELS cotton besides the United States. However, usually those nations are using “Pima” to refer to ELS cotton. Liberty of London Tana Lawn is named for the lake in East Africa where the original cotton was grown. The fabric is made from extra fine, long staple cotton (ELS) and finished without the use of crease-resisting chemicals or irritating allergens.

Purchasing fabric from a brand or store that stands behind the quality of the goods it offers is another way to guarantee you are receiving a quality product. At Pink Hollybush, I have learned the hard way that different fabrics from the same company can have a very different feel. I never purchase a fabric without first feeling it. When in doubt, ask for a sample. Most fabric stores are happy to accommodate!

bottom of page