The differences between separate materials are vast. Nylon, spandex, and wool all have wildly varying properties, production methods, and uses. Even within a single fiber, however, distinctions exist. It’s some of these differences that separate high-quality Pima cotton from regular cotton varieties.
Introduction to Cotton
Cotton as a material is made from the white, fluffy fibers of the cotton plant. Clothing made from cotton has been in use since the early Egyptians adopted it in 4,000 B.C. Cotton has the benefit of being a lightweight, breathable, comfortable material, which has the rare distinction of becoming stronger as it accrues moisture. Cotton holds color well and sees utilization in clothing as well as home decor for its long-lasting durability.
The manufacturing process of cotton is fairly involved. It includes the initial harvesting from the plant, cleaning the fiber of dirt and other substances, processing the fiber in yarn, spinning the yarn into a fabric, and then cutting the fabric into various designs.
The type of cotton refers to the kind of fiber it is (Pima is one variety). Cotton fabric refers to various creations derived from the type of cotton as well as the special weaves of treatment used in the manufacturing process to create materials such as linen and twill.
Cotton does have some drawbacks as a material. Cotton tends to absorb moisture, which may leave the wearer feeling wet after a workout or through intense heat or humidity. Cotton also holds on to odors, meaning that for better or for worse, the scents the material encounters linger on. Fortunately, higher-quality cotton can enhance the good and minimize the bad of the material.
Cotton Types: The Best of the Best
There are numerous types of cotton varieties that grow all around the globe. Geographic location is the prime determinator for cotton production and type of cotton production, as certain varieties develop in only certain types of soil. Cotton production is extremely significant in the United States; in the 2019-2020 fiscal year, roughly 20 million bales of cotton (enough for two billion pairs of pants) were produced. There are two types of cotton grown in the U.S.: American Upland and pima cotton.
The United States contributes to roughly a third of global cotton exports, and roughly 97% of that is American upland. While the USDA has strict standards for cotton grading when it comes to tensile strength, coloration, and fiber length, Upland cotton generally falls short of rarer luxury cotton types like pima, supima, and Egyptian cotton.
Since upland cotton makes up such a large portion of products, oftentimes, cotton products made from rarer varieties will list the variety they are made from to announce their premium identity.
Defining Traits of Cotton Type
From a material standpoint, different types of cotton can be distinguished by a variety of features, including the feel, fiber length, durability, and moisture response.
Most are familiar with the feel of standard cotton, but high-quality products have a softness and texture to them that separates them from the stuffy feel of regular products. Cotton generally absorbs moisture, but some products generally respond better to moisture than others.
Individual fiber length serves as a standard metric for the quality of cotton, with extra-long fibers contributing to strength and durability. Long fibers are highly desired. High-quality fiber showcases longer fibers, and for this reason, shows enhanced durabilities as well.
Beyond these parameters, pima cotton can also be separated from upland and other “normal” kinds of cotton in the way that it is used. Normal cotton is routinely used in daily clothing, home decor, as well as in medical gear. Pima cotton is more seen in sewing thread, luxury apparel, and bedsheets. Both share the trait that as an organic material, cotton is easily recycled into other gear, giving it an advantage over many other synthetic fabrics.
Three types of cotton, hailing from completely different parts of the globe, generally stand out for their use in elite products: pima, supima, and Egyptian cotton.
Pima cotton is primarily grown from the fibers of the Gossypium barbadense tree in Australia, Peru, and the American Southwest, the latter of which the pima name originated in. It is considered to be one of the best varieties available on the market. Though the areas it grows in are large overall, pima represents only a minuscule percentage of cotton production (three percent of manufacturing in the U.S. in 2020), making it both rare and valuable.
Pima cotton often comes with extra-long fibers, adding durability to make bed sheets and clothing alike last longer at peak condition. For a strict comparison, while American upland cotton starts with 1’’ fibers, the minimum fiber length for pima cotton is 1.75’’. In addition to strength, fiber length also contributes to the softness of the material, where pima excels and creates a lush hand-feel.
Pima Cotton Grows Where?
Picture an ideal location for plant growth. While history shows us that life in some form will grow about anywhere, greenery is the first picture that comes to mind for plant life. Being aware of the history of cotton production brings to mind images of healthily wet, verdant growth surrounding cotton plants all along the U.S. from Southeast to Southwest. Despite this misleading image, high-quality pima cotton grows in the desert.
In fact, cotton has grown in the desert for thousands of years. In Arizona, the Hohokam people built canals and complex irrigation systems in order to grow the crop. Many generations later, commercial cotton production in Arizona started in 1917, peaking with nearly 700,000 acres of cotton planted in 1953 (Incidentally, at this time, pima production only made up six percent of the crop at 42,000 acres.). We mention Arizona because it is the birthplace of pima cotton.
An extra-long staple (ELS) cotton was developed in 1951 that showcased longer fibers, greater softness while also having a high yield, in a bid by the USDA to create a product of comparable quality to Egyptian cotton. This cotton, while in development, was called American-Egyptian cotton due to similarities in quality and various qualities in the experiment's production.
After a successful ELS cotton came about, creators chose the name “pima” to honor those who helped lead their way. Pima cotton is rightfully named after members of the Akimel O’odham Native American tribe, who have also been referred to as the Pima.
Pima vs. Egyptian Cotton
Pima cotton, as stated, came about in an experiment to create a worthwhile American counterpart to luxury Egyptian cotton. Egyptian cotton for many years was the gold standard, both because of the quality of the material and the suitability of the area for cotton production in early history.
So, how does pima compare? Both types of cotton showcase extra-long fibers, resulting in superior durability and softness. Egyptian cotton is marginally softer than pima, but pima remains the more durable material, letting it outstrip its competition in the long run. As far as price goes, Egyptian cotton is costlier than other kinds of cotton on the market, leaving pima as a more accessible and affordable option without sacrificing quality.
Supima Cotton: Next-level Pima
We’ve done a deep dive into the virtues of pima, but now it’s time to explore closely related cotton. Supima stands for superior pima, a bold statement for a boldly distinctive fabric. The cotton was first produced in America, though manufacturing has since been licensed to other countries as well. Whereas pima only accounts for a small portion of cotton production, supima cotton only accounts for a small portion of pima production.
Supima is subtly softer, more breathable, and more durable than traditional pima materials, making it a compelling choice in activewear. Olivers uses high-grade Japanese Supima for most of our cotton and cotton blend offerings. Supima cotton makes up our Classic French Terry fabric found in a variety of tops and bottoms. While cotton absorbs moisture, combining it with moisture-wicking materials allows for the softness of quality cotton and the athletic performance of synthetic fabrics.
Supima does have two drawbacks compared to traditional pima: Supima is a slightly more costly material and is less resistant to high-temperature washes than its pima counterpart.
Where To Find Pima
Pima cotton provides a luxurious alternative to your run-of-the-mill cotton products. Look for this sleek product in any of the following:
The first place to look is in activewear. Pima cotton is long-lasting and high-grade. With pill resistance, thanks to the extra-long fibers, your gear will stay looking and operating its best long after purchase.
Other products commonly made with pima cotton are bed sheets. Thread count isn’t everything, but it certainly helps. Pima cotton has a minimum thread count of 200-300 per square inch, making a silky-smooth sheet with cooling properties to ensure a good night’s sleep.
Pima is Prime
Pima holds superior comfort, quality, and performance as its virtues, outshining regular cotton, matched maybe only by supima. It is a material to look out for whether you’re looking to enhance your home or your wardrobe.