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.