Cotton is one of the most ancient textiles. Its cultivation dates way back to 4000 BC in Mexico and India and these days it’s by far the most popular natural material used to make the clothes that we wear, across all of the seasons. Almost every one of us must have an item in their wardrobe made from cotton.
But even though cotton is so ubiquitous and well known - it’s actually quite a complicated fabric with nuances you might not know about. There are many different types of cotton, with distinct characteristics. And not all of them are equal when it comes to quality, longevity, or even sustainability.
So, while you’ve undoubtedly worn cotton, read on if you’d like to know more about the details that most people are unaware of.
1. Organic Cotton
Let’s start with organic cotton, which has become popular in recent years as a more sustainable alternative to the intensively farmed fluff. You’ll now see this type of cotton used in fast-fashion shops, such as H&M or Primark, as well as by higher-end brands.
The key idea behind organic cotton is that it should be farmed with lower environmental impacts, through activities like reduced or prohibited pesticides. The elimination of genetic modification of crops is a key tenet of the textile, too.
However, despite the sustainable production, some organic cotton isn’t necessarily high-quality. Or rather, the cotton plant involved doesn’t produce the finest cotton fabric in the end. What this means is that some organic cotton garments aren’t durable and have to be thrown away to landfill after a short period of time. With that in mind, the so-called sustainability of organic cotton can be called into question. Sustainability is also about how long an item of clothing lasts.
- Website: https://global-standard.org/
- Fibre Length: Variable (Long in the case of the POMP).
- Characteristics: Sustainably cultivated and also high quality
- Cultivated in: India & China
- Quality: High
- Market Share: < 2%
- Price: High
Note that unlike some of the other cottons coming up in the post, organic cotton isn’t from a specific cotton plant itself - and a wide variety of different cottons can be grown organically. In POMP's case we cultivate long-staple cotton, which is high quality.
2. Pima Cotton
After organic cotton, Pima (and also Supima) are two of the more common cotton types that you may have heard about - perhaps even when selecting a T-shirt for the summer.
Pima is a high-quality cotton and is part of a family of cotton fabrics that are all derived from the same plant Gossypium Barbadense. The fabrics from this plant are known for their flexibility, softness and durability. This is because the fibre length of the plant’s cotton is long - typically over 35mm - and this influences quality. The longer, the better.
Sometimes the fibre length is referred to as ‘extra long staple’. And the end result with Pima is a premium fabric that’s soft to the touch - and resistant to fraying, tearing, pilling, wrinkling, and fading.
Next to Pima, you also have Supima, which ups the confusion a notch. This is because Supima cotton is just a trademarked name for Pima cotton that is 100% pure and grown in the USA. The organisation that awards the prestigious ‘Supima’ trademark is actually based in El Paso, Texas.
There are many other high quality cottons that are derived from the same plant, and thus also have long fibres and high quality. Some examples are Egyptian Cotton, ELS Cotton and the super-rare and highly-sought after Sea Island Cotton that accounts for less than 0.004% of the cotton supply worldwide and originates in the West Indies.
- Scientific name: Gossypium Barbadense
- Fibre Length: Long: > 35mm
- Characteristics: Fine, uniform, flexible, soft to the touch
- Cultivated in: Peru, Australia, Israel, USA
- Quality: High
- Market Share: < 5%
- Cost: High (or Very High for Supima).
3. Upland Cotton
Last, and kind of least, this species, commonly known as Upland cotton, or Mexican cotton, accounts for more than 80% of world production. If you ever see a generic cotton garment at a low price that contains little to no actual details about the cotton involved, then it’s likely you’ve got an Upland Cotton garment on your hands.
The plant that this cotton is derived from, Gossypium Hirsutum, is native to Central and South America but is now cultivated all over the world because of its rapid growth, hardiness and easiness to grow compared to other cotton plant varieties. This species is therefore the main supplier of cotton fibres for clothing and one of the most cultivated crops worldwide.
Here’s what the plant looks like…
Upland Cotton (Gossypium Hirsutum)
This is the variety of cotton (alongside Asian Short Staple, below) that will typically be found in fast fashion garments because of the lower cost. Sometimes the farming will be organic but normally Gossypium Hirsutum is the source of the second largest use of nasty pesticides in the world! Perhaps another reason to shun it apart from the lower quality.
A related type of cotton Asian Short Staple Cotton from the plant Gossypium Herbaceum is even lower in quality than Upland Cotton, with a fibre length of 15-25mm. It’s the second in terms of market share globally and mainly grown in China, India and Pakistan.
- Scientific Name: Gossypium Hirsutum
- Cultivated in: India, USA, Brazil, China, Australia, Turkey, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan
- Fibre Length: Short to Medium: 20-30mm
- Quality: medium (although there are also longer-staple varieties)
- Market Share: > 80%
- Cost: low
And here's a visual summary.
We hope we’ve shed some more light on a surprisingly complicated area. But what to do with all this? Well we recommend the next time you’re out on the hunt for clothing, check the label: look for a cotton that’s organic or high-quality, or ideally both (like our GOTS-certified organic cotton sustainable essentials that also use long-staple cotton). And definitely avoid synthetics like Polyester.