Stories

The Story of Sea Island Cotton

Sea Island is the world’s rarest and finest cotton, and makes for the softest, most luxurious fabric. Here’s the story…

Vintage Sunspel Sea Island cotton products

James Bond, like his creator, Ian Fleming, appreciated the good things in life; Sea Island cotton was one of them. Wherever they were in the world, Bond and Fleming favoured clothing made of this luxurious fabric. It was a wise choice: Sea Island cotton, with its fine, uniform texture and silky lustre, is one of the softest and most comfortable fabrics to wear next to the skin but it is also one of the most robust. Clothing made from the best Sea Island cotton is remarkably long lasting, which reflects Sunspel’s own ‘no waste luxury’ philosophy.

Today, it is unquestionably the finest and rarest cotton, which makes it a natural choice for so many Sunspel ranges: Sea Island cotton knitwearSea Island cotton polo shirtsSea Island cotton shirts and, of course, Sea Island cotton underwear.

Ian Fleming and Sean Connery on set. Image credit

What makes Sea Island cotton so special?

Every year, the world produces some 100 million bales of cotton and just 2 million of these are what is known as extra-long staple cotton, which has fibres longer than 34 millimetres; the longer the fibres the finer the fabric. Sea Island comes within that category but, at around just 150 bales a year, it is exceptionally rare and, therefore, valuable – the cotton equivalent of Da Hong Pao oolong tea.

Spinning its fine, long fibres takes great skill but, once spun, those fibres are transformed into the softest, silkiest cotton fabric imaginable.

 

The origins of Sea Island cotton

Although named after a group of islands off the coast of South Carolina, Sea Island cotton (Gossypium barbadense) has been grown in the Caribbean since the 15th century. But this remarkable cotton’s origins can, in fact, be traced back to Latin America.  Carbon dating has revealed that Sea Island cotton was being cultivated on the coasts of Ecuador and Peru over 6,000 years ago – quite a pedigree.

Gossypium barbadense plant

Map of the Caribbean from the Sunspel Archive

Sunspel and Sea Island cotton

Sunspel and Sea Island cotton have always been inextricably linked. We began crafting clothes from it in the 1800s, becoming world-renowned for our specialism in luxurious Sea Island underwear and shirts. We were also the first brand to make T-Shirts from Sea Island cotton, transforming an item that had traditionally been considered workwear into a luxury garment.

Indeed, the very name ‘Sunspel’ was inspired by the production of Sea island cotton. For the first few decades of our existence we were simply ‘Thomas A Hill Ltd’ – named, in typical Victorian fashion, after our founder. By the turn of the 20th century Hill’s son – another Thomas – had inherited the business and developed the Sea Island cotton specialism. In a characteristic moment of innovation, he one day had the idea of inventing a new name – indeed, a new word – that might intrigue people and lodge in their memories. In other words, he created what we would now call a brand.

The inspiration for the name Sunspel itself came from the Caribbean climate, that perfect mix of sunshine and dramatic cloudbursts required for growing Sea Island cotton. Why not name your company after a glorious ‘sunny spell’ between the rainshowers?

 

Sea Island – the rare cotton we almost lost

It was not until the 1700s that planting began in North America, where an Englishman, Francis Levett, was among the first to cultivate Sea Island cotton…only to be forced to flee his Georgia plantation when the American Revolution broke out. Domestic and other wars notwithstanding, Sea Island cotton production continued in North America into the early 20th century, when a widespread infestation caused by weevils (a type of beetle) affected the entire cotton belt, from Mexico to the USA’s Eastern Seaboard, almost wiping it out.

Despite this disaster, determined efforts by cotton specialists prevented Sea Island cotton’s complete extinction; the surviving seeds were saved and carefully cultivated, ensuring that this rare and precious cotton was preserved for future generations.

Where is Sea Island cotton grown now?

Sea Island cotton still depends on specialists: it is grown and handpicked by a few dedicated experts on small islands in the Caribbean, including Antigua, Barbados and Jamaica, which have the optimum mix of sunshine, rain and humidity. Once the annual crop has been picked and baled, it is sent to the very few expert spinners around the world who have the skills required to weave the material. It will always be a rare commodity, but its future is assured.

The Sea Island cotton selected by Sunspel is among the finest in the world, and is woven for us by specialist spinners in Switzerland.

 

Sea Island cloth

Sunspel Sea Island boxer shorts

Sea Island cotton – all the right connections

Sea Island cotton has long been associated with the very finest quality clothing, its popularity assured by the British aristocracy and royalty. Queen Victoria favoured Sea island cotton handkerchiefs, setting the standard for delicate noses; her preference, the cotton’s cost, and its challenging cultivation have all contributed to its exclusivity and allure.

In 1958, when Colin Tennant (3rd Baron Glenconner) bought the Caribbean island of Mustique – now a luxury holiday destination for those who value privacy – for £45,000, it came with what was then a struggling Sea Island cotton estate. Determined to make Mustique ‘a household name’, one of the first things that Tennant did was to put the cotton estate on a more secure footing. In her memoirs (Lady-in-Waiting), his widow, Anne Glenconner, says her husband was immensely proud of the estate’s high quality ‘very soft, like silk’ cotton. At home on Mustique, Tennant could usually be found in a pyjama-style suit made from his own Sea Island cotton.

Queen Victoria favoured handkerchiefs made of Sea Island cotton

Sea Island cotton series stamp, St Christopher Nevis & Anguilla c1963. (Image: Shutterstock)

James Bond, Ian Fleming, and the lure of Sea Island cotton

But of all Sea Island cotton aficionados, it is, arguably, James Bond who is the best known. In 1946, his creator, novelist and former naval intelligence officer, Ian Fleming, bought GoldenEye, a house and estate on Jamaica, one of the Caribbean islands most associated with the cotton. It remained his tropical home for 30 years and it was here that he wrote all 14 James Bond novels. Small wonder that Fleming, who loved to wear Sea Island cotton, in particular when he was at GoldenEye, made his favourite cotton clothing Bond’s choice too.

The world’s most famous secret agent can be found wearing Sea Island cotton shirts in Moonraker,  Diamonds Are Forever, and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and sporting Sea Island cotton boxer shorts in The Man with the Golden Gun. 

Pattern pieces from the production of the Riviera Polo Shirt, tailored for Daniel Craig.

When James Bond met Sunspel

In 2006, Academy Award winning costume designer Lindy Hemming worked with Sunspel to create a casual wardrobe to be worn by Daniel Craig in his role as James Bond in Casino Royale. We began with a style that we have been making since the 1950s, tailoring it to Craig’s exact measurements by slimming the fit across the chest and making the arms slightly shorter – to flatter his physique and allow him to move cleanly and easily in action sequences. Handsome, poised and effortlessly stylish, the Riviera Polo shirt shares more than a few of Bond’s distinctive qualities.

In 2020, to celebrate Craig’s final outing as Bond in No Time to Die, Sunspel released two exclusive versions of the Riviera Polo shirt in Sea Island cotton, unmatched for smoothness and softness to the touch.

Daniel Craig wears the Sunspel Riviero Polo shirt in Casino Royale

Sea Island cotton for women

Sunspel’s womenswear is made with the same design and craft ethos as our menswear – and  that of course includes our commitment to using the world’s finest fabrics.

Our women’s Sea Island T-Shirt has a flattering classic design, exceptional, softness, and real durability: a complete contrast to the throwaway culture of fast fashion.

 

Sunspel Sea Island cotton – simply the best

Those who have always valued the very special qualities of Sea Island cotton are not at all surprised that it has undergone a tremendous revival in recent years. But it has to be the right kind of Sea Island cotton; even in the world of fine fabrics, not all Sea Island cotton is equal: Sunspel’s range uses the real thing, making it a first choice for men, for women … and for that most discerning of secret agents.

Back to Stories