Sea Island Cotton is the Finest Fabric You’ve Never Heard Of
By: Teresa Buzzoni
When cotton was king
Many years ago, the gossamer threads of sea island cotton were discovered off the coast of Ecuador. Carried from Peru to the Caribbean to England, tales of extra-long staple cotton grew into a frenzy as the first colonial crops appeared, driving colonizers crazy.
Sea Island cotton produces the very finest thread count, creating a luxuriously soft fabric unlike any other in the world. Nearly decimated by posts and heavy production costs, sea island cotton accounts for only 0.0004% of global cotton production today. But once upon a time, it was king.
Queen Victoria’s handkerchief
In the early 1800s, sea island cotton was discovered in Latin America and the West Indies. As many colonies of the crown peppered the Caribbean, Queen Victoria discovered this magical cotton by the way of intimate items and handkerchiefs. Notarized for its thin texture, the fabric was more like silk than cotton. The Queen’s fetish for this fabric led to a craze in Victorian England to obtain as much sea island cotton as possible.
Cotton circa the Civil War
By the time the Civil War broke ground, 1.6 billion pounds of sea island cotton were being exported from the United States to Britain per year. South Carolina’s “Sea Islands” were home to high humidity, salty air, and arid conditions that allowed this cotton to flourish and create fortunes for elite farmers on the Sea Island plantations.
Like all cotton, sea island cotton was enormously profitable for a few, but it required great suffering for many enslaved people. After the Union occupied Port Royal, South Carolina in 1861, many landowners abandoned their plantations, which were divided up among former slaves, who began to grow their own crops. The Port Royal Experiment offered newly freed slaves an education and the chance to work and live independently of slave-owner control.
Sea Island Cotton today
While still produced in some coastal regions, sea island cotton is impossible to mass-produce today. However, it is making a slow but brave return to fashion. 100 percent of Bajan cotton (from Barbados) is sent to Italy, where it is woven into extremely fine gossamer threads and shipped to Sweden, where the renewal of sea island cotton is in full swing.
Along with mother of pearl, sea island cotton remains the ultimate luxury fabric. Gucci, Orlebar Brown, and Sunspel are just a few brands capitalizing on the allure of sea island cotton to produce shirts that cost upwards of a thousand dollars to purchase.
Sea island cotton remains fashion’s finest cotton–so rare that most people have never heard of it. Every fabric in fashion has a long and rich history we often forget to ponder. The next time you feel a luxurious or soft fabric, take a minute to wander at the centuries-long journey it took to get in your hands.