When you think of cotton what springs to mind? Cloth and clothing most likely. You may think about its historical placement, so inextricably linked to the brutal slave trade. A wondrous plant that yields fibre, oil and protein, we humans have utilised it in our day to day lives for centuries, probably usually without even knowing so.
A Little History
In the 1700’s cotton traders developed a plant that produced the finest cotton for production. Sea Island Cotton – Latin name Gossypium Barbadense is a member of the ‘Mallow’ species that are well suited to cotton manufacturing It was heralded as a superior plant due its extra long fibre lengths. These Fibres known as Staples, range between 35-60mm compared to ordinary ‘upland’ cotton (short staple) which range between 20-23mm and accounts for 90% of the worlds cotton production.
A tropical plant with yellow flower and black seed, it is frost sensitive – a fact that later helped lead to its demise in production. While Sea Island Cotton became famous whilst cultivated and grown on the ‘Sea Islands’ of Carolina, Georgia and Florida in the 19th century its origins date much further back. Earliest documented specimens were found in both Peru and Ecuador in 4200bc and 4400bc respectively. However, it wasn’t successfully developed for production until around 1800.
It had little competition in terms of popularity amongst cotton growers in South USA during the period 1790-1920 due to it being suited to the climate. Considered the finest cotton around the globe, it was highly sought after and extraordinarily rare. Its historical reputation was for being the finest of fibres with a silky matt texture, durable and breathable it reigned supreme with growers and consumers alike.
Its reputation for superiority spans centuries. Donned by Victorian royalty it was particularly favoured by Queen Victoria who liked to have her handkerchiefs made from the fine cloth. Later it found fame as it was the chosen material for the shirts of James Bond in several of the films in the series by famous director Ian Flemming. In fact, He wrote all 19 of the James Bond films in his ‘Golden Eye’ estate that used to produce the plant in days gone by.
Unfortunately for the prosperity of its growers back then, the American Civil War and a Boll Weevil outbreak due to declining weather temperatures in the region, plus its controversial connection to the slave trade, saw its production all but halt. A few remaining seeds were preserved and sent to an agricultural research centre in Texas where they were cross bred with other varieties. These variations of the same genetic structure are what are now grown around the globe, from Egypt to China, India, Sudan, Australia, Israel, and in the South-West USA. Then in reality, can the authenticity of Sea Island Cotton be questioned due to its highly modified genetic structure?
Those early saved seeds that were genetically modified are what contribute to the plants existence today. While the original Latin name remains Today’s plants are now classified by their provenance and staple length. So, in fact a range of luxury cottons such as the most notable ‘Pima’ and ‘Egyptian’ are produced from the same plant in a different part of the world.
Nowadays ‘authentic’ Sea Island Cotton is grown only in the west Indies, with Jamaica and Barbados remaining supreme growing locations due to their favourable weather conditions. Handpicked by dedicated growers it is inspected and certified by the regulatory body WISICA (West Indian Sea Island Cotton Association), it is then shipped to the few expert spinners that remail around the globe to be crafted into the finest accessories and clothing for men and women.
To put its rarity into perspective we only have to look at the numbers. Every year around the globe around one hundred million boles of cotton are produced for various purposes. Of those only two million are of the extra-long staple variety in which Gossypium Barbadense belong. Within those two million boles only 150 per year are certified Sea Island Cotton.
With all this information in mind we will leave it up to you to decide whether you believe Sea Island Cotton remains supreme or is it simply a gimmick due its rarity?
I have a long experience of SI cotton shirts, reaching back to, I think, 1967. I still have the original, Liberty’s, a gift. Then, inspired, I soon acquired a Van Heusen SI from a shop on High St Kensington. Then one from a small enterprise just off Piccadilly. I was poor then, really poor, so these two could not have cost very much. I still have them. All three shirts have had adventurous lives. Each is incomparable in lustre and feel. Nothing I have experienced comes close.
In more recent years I have had SI from Spencer Milne, another gift, and one bespoke SI from Seymours in Bradford. The Spencer Milne is good, the Seymour not. Maybe the Seymour is what you call a ‘gimmick’; the Spencer Milne a mock-up of some kind, though both shirts carry a Sea Island Wisica label. I tend to think that the Seymour was a swindle. All these shirts are white.
However, I do have some other very fine two-fold cotton shirts. Occasionally a purchase turns out to be a decent challenge, a glance at SI, a reminder of the ultimate. James Meade used some good fabric; TM Lewin too has produced one or two fine examples. But, alas, real quality is hard to find now.