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About Sea Island cotton

Sunspel has a long history of crafting clothes from Sea Island cotton, one of the world’s finest and rarest raw materials. Here’s a guide to how we source it and what makes it so special

The Gossypium barbadense plant 

Sunspel and Sea Island cotton have always been inextricably linked. We became world-renowned in the late 1800s for luxury Sea Island cotton underwear, and today we use it for shirts, polos and knitwear.  Even the name of the business is a nod to the ‘sunny spells’ of the Caribbean climate where the cotton is grown. 

But Sea Island cotton is incredibly rare, and every stage of crafting the garments – from growing to spinning to manufacturing – requires specialist expertise.

 

What is Sea Island cotton?

Sea Island cotton is derived from the Gossypium barbadense plant and is the finest and rarest form of cotton in the world. Accounting for just 0.0004% of the world’s cotton supply, it is one of the rarest raw materials on the planet. 

Although named after a group of islands off the coast of South Carolina, all Sea Island cotton is grown in the West Indies. Sunspel’s Sea Island cotton is sourced from small farms in Jamaica. 

 

Why is Sea Island cotton so soft?

Sea Island cotton’s exceptionally soft feel comes from the length of its fibres, or ‘staples’. The longer the staple of a cotton, the fewer the number of fibre ends in the cotton fabric, and so the softer and silkier it is to the touch. A long fibre also means the fabric is stronger and more durable than short staple cottons.

Extra long staple cotton, which makes up just 2% of the world’s supply, is defined as cotton with fibres longer than 35 millimetres. Sea Island comes into this category, but, with an average staple length of 50mm it has the longest staple of any cotton.  

Sunspel's Sea Island cotton is grown in Jamaica and spun on specliast machines in Switzerland

Growing and spinning Sea Island cotton

Cultivating the Gossypium barbadense plant requires particular climatic conditions: the mix of warm sunshine and frequent rain showers found in ideal quantities in the Caribbean. And both growing and spinning Sea Island cotton demand specialist skills. 

All of Sunspel’s Sea Island cotton fabric is supplied by a renowned Swiss textile company founded over 150 years ago and still run by the same family. They maintain their own farm and fibre processing plant in Jamaica, where the cotton is picked by hand and the ginning and baling is done on slow-running machines. These gentle, traditional methods protect not only the cotton’s long fibres but also the ecological balance of the island. And with no intermediary trade involved, the funds go directly to the responsible farmer.

The Sea Island cotton is then spun in a small factory in the Swiss Alps, where the family has been using specialist machines to craft the finest cotton fabrics for generations.

Sea Island cotton garments from Sunspel's archive

Sunspel and Sea Island

Sunspel – or ‘Thomas A Hill Ltd’ – began crafting garments from Sea Island cotton in Nottingham in the late 1800s, establishing a reputation for luxurious underwear and shirts that were popular across  the world. In the first decade of the 20th century we manufactured the world’s earliest luxury T-shirts from Sea Island cotton – simple lightweight tops perfect for export to the hot climates of South East Asia.

So synonymous was the company with the cotton that in 1932 we briefly changed our name to ‘Sea Island Cotton Ltd,  before the name Sunspel was formally adopted in 1937.

We’ve never stopped working with the world’s finest cotton – in recent years our range has expanded beyond underwear and T-shirts to include Sea Island cotton shirting, sweatshirts, polo shirts and womenswear. In recent years we have developed a collection of Sea Island cotton knitwear, manufactured in Portugal on traditional Bentley cotton knitting machines. 

Each specialist factory we work with to make these different garments uses the same Jamaican-grown, Swiss-spun Sea Island cotton fabric.

Ian Fleming on set with the original James Bond actor Sean Connery. Image credit

Sea Island cotton: the James Bond connection

James Bond author Ian Fleming lived in Jamaica and was well-known for his appreciation of the finer things in life, so it’s hardly surprising that shared with his most famous creation his love for Sea Island cotton clothes. The secret agent can be found wearing Sea Island cotton shirts in MoonrakerDiamonds Are Forever, and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and he notably sports a pair of Sea Island cotton boxer shorts in The Man with the Golden Gun

So Sunspel, Sea Island cotton and 007 have a long, intertwined history. The triple connection culminated in 2020 with the first ever release of Sunspel’s Riviera Polo Shirt - the garment famously worn by Daniel Craig in Bond classic Casino Royale – in a luxurious Sea Island cotton fabric.

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