Cotton is a super popular type of fabric for good reason: it’s soft, versatile, durable (when high-quality) and comparatively affordable. The most important quality property of cotton is its staple length, i.e. the length of the individual fibres the fabric consists of. Fabric made from long cotton fibres is generally considered to be of a higher quality than fabrics made from shorter fibres. Here’s why:
- Durability. Longer fibres can be spun into a finer yarn. Fine yarn can be more tightly bound, which makes the resulting fabric stronger and more durable.
- Softness. Another plus of long fibres is they can be turned into a much softer yarn.The shorter the staple, the more difficult it is to spin the fibres into yarn without having tiny ends of fibres stick out at all angles. Longer cotton fibres can be closely bound together, which keeps them from going into different directions.
- Breathability. One reason why some fabrics are less breathable than others is that they contain tiny air pockets in between the individual threads which create thermal insulation. Cotton made from long, finely spun fibres can be very tightly woven to eliminate air pockets and that uncomfortable, sweaty feeling that we tend to associate with low breathability.
- The staple length of cotton depends on its type and origin. Three types that are known for their extra-long staples are Pima, Sea-Island, and Egyptian cotton. If an item is made from either of these, brands will definitely include that on the label. But: These names are not controlled, so make sure you fully research the brand and double-check the overall quality of the fabric and the rest of the item, before you buy.
Here’s how to estimate whether a cotton garment was made with long-staple fibres or not:
- Touch it! Even cotton fabric that is sturdy, thick and or even stiff should feel soft on the skin. If it doesn’t, it was probably made with shorter fibres and will be less durable in the long run.
- No pills. Cotton is generally not as prone to pilling as other fabrics, so if you already see a trace of pilling on a new garment, move on!
- Check the density of the fabric by holding it up to a light. Even if it is very fine, the fabric should not be transparent. If the fabric lets through a lot of light, it’s a sign that it is not very dense and therefore will not be very durable.
- Cotton needs to be spun, so look closely at the threads that make up the fabric. There should be no gaps or size differences between the individual threads. All you should see up close is a regular pattern of smooth rows.
- One extra tip: Cotton is an especially good choice when you are shopping at low-end/budget stores. Some fabrics are hard to get right at the lower end of the price range but since cotton is comparatively cheap to produce, you should be able to find cotton items that are affordable AND well-made.