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What is Pima Cotton: Properties, How its Made and Where

by Boris Hodakel  • September 22, 2019 • 9 min read

Fabric namePima Cotton
Fabric also known asExtra-long staple (ELS) cotton, Supima cotton
Fabric compositionLong-fiber Gossypium barbadense cotton
Fabric possible thread count variations200-300
Fabric breathabilitynVery breathable
Moisture-wicking abilitiesHigh
Heat retention abilitiesLow
Stretchability (give)Medium
Prone to pilling/bubblingLow
Country where fabric was first producedUSA
Biggest exporting/producing country todayChina
Recommended washing temperaturesWarm or cool
Commonly used inClothing and sheets

pale pink japanese pima cotton lawnPale Pink Japanese Pima Cotton Lawn

What Is Pima Fabric?

Pima cotton is an ultra-soft fabric that incorporates long cotton fibers. Most types of cotton use relatively short fibers, but Pima is one of a few kinds of cotton that are considered to be extra-long staple (ELS) cotton, which means that they are composed of fibers that are longer than 34 millimeters.

Along with the other varieties of ELS cotton, Pima fabric is made from a specific type of cotton plant called Gossypium barbadense. This type of cotton is only found in tropical areas, and it is highly susceptible to frost damage. It grows as a small tree with bright yellow flowers that yields unusually long cotton fibers.

ELS cotton fabrics, such as Pima fabric, that are derived from G. barbadense are sometimes referred to as "sea island cotton." This name was given because this type of cotton was originally grown by Westerners on tropical islands like Barbados, but there is radiocarbon evidence suggesting that G. barbadense cotton has been grown in South America and in the West Indies since at least 3,000 BC.

pima cotton lawn david austinPima Cotton Lawn - David Austin

Today, consumers prize Pima cotton for its incredible softness and richness of texture. This type of cotton is commonly used in high-end forms of clothing, and it is also a favorite material for bedsheets. Unlike other sensitive fabrics, Pima fabric can be machine washed with warm water and tumble dried, and it is available in thread counts as high as 300.

One attribute of Pima cotton that consumers love is this type of cotton's resistance to pilling. With most types of cotton, pills, which are tiny balls of tangled fiber, start to appear on clothing after around 10 washes. Pima cotton, however, hardly ever pills due to its long fibers, which means that garments made from this textile stay wearable for years and years.

While they have similar origins, Pima cotton and Supima cotton are different fabrics. Supima cotton, which is a portmanteau of "superior" and "Pima," is only produced in the United States, and it is a trademark of the American Supima Association (ASA).

How Is Pima Fabric Made?

how is pima fabric made

Pima cotton is a naturally occurring form of G. barbadense that is found in a variety of tropical and sub-tropical regions. Like other forms of cotton, it produces white, fluffy seeds that each contain hundreds or thousands of tiny fibers. In all forms of cotton production, these seeds are harvested and then transformed into a highly tensile yarn.

In centuries past, all cotton was handpicked. Since picking cotton by hand is such a grueling and arduous process, the cotton gin was invented. Cotton gin stands for "cotton engine," and this industrial machine was one of the early heralds of the mass-production industrial era.

The cotton gin made cotton production much easier, but it also diminished the quality of the final product. While doing so is harder, most Pima cotton producers pick the seeds of the G. barbadense plant by hand to retain the quality of this plant material.

After G. barbadense seeds are picked, they are condensed into bales. These bales are then transitioned to the factory floor, and they are placed in an area called the "opening room." In the opening room, a cotton opening machine pulls raw cotton fibers out of the bales and moves them to a mixing machine.

skin pima cotton jersey robeSkin - Pima Cotton Jersey Robe

Once the fibers are mixed, they are carded, and carding is the process by which cotton fibers are pulled into parallel alignment to form a web. This process transforms raw cotton fibers into rope-like strands, and these strands are then sent to a combing machine, which removes impurities from the cotton.

The Pima cotton ropes are then loaded onto bobbins and wound onto spools. Next, the cotton ropes are spun into yarn, and lastly, they are woven into fabric.

In most cases, production of cotton does not require any chemical solvents or other toxic substances. However, some manufacturers may use bleach or other caustic substances to clean or prepare cotton fibers. Pima cotton is safest and in its highest-quality form when it is grown organically and spun without the introduction of any chemicals. However, not all manufacturers can be counted on to follow good manufacturing practices (GMP) when they produce this high-quality cotton.

Some Pima or Supima cotton producers may derivate from the usual method for producing cotton fabric and use small-batch protocols to produce their textiles. While the cotton production process we've detailed is highly efficient, mass-production methods can reduce the quality of the end product, and since Supima and Pima fabrics are considered to be top-tier when it comes to cotton, manufacturers may decide to forgo the norm and opt for production processes with higher quality control. If need be, Pima cotton manufacturers can even card, spin, and weave cotton without the aid of any automated tools.

How Is Pima Cotton Fabric Used?

how is pima fabric used

Pima cotton is predominantly used in applications in which other types of cotton are used. For instance, this type of fabric is used to make dress shirts, underwear, dresses, T-shirts, hoodies, and a variety of other types of clothing.

Due to its unusual softness, Pima cotton is commonly used to make luxury-oriented clothing items such as bathrobes, loungewear, and nightgowns. However, this type of cotton is also incredibly popular as a bedsheet fabric.

pima cotton jacket light grayPima Cotton Jacket | Light Gray

Some consumers are very particular about the way that their sheets feel, and many people consider Pima cotton to be the softest and most durable type of cotton to lay between their covers. This type of cotton is also commonly used in towels due to its high absorbency and resistance to pilling.

Even though it is highly durable, Pima cotton isn't commonly used in industrial settings. The reason for this fact could be that this type of common is too expensive to justify its use in commercial applications.

Where Is Pima Fabric Produced?

pima fabric in the world

The name "Pima cotton" was chosen due to the key role that the Pima Indians played in early cultivation of this type of cotton in the United States. The Pima people had ancestral knowledge of how to grow this type of cotton, and they assisted the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in its pilot G. barbadense project in the 1900s.

Cultivation of Pima cotton remained isolated to the United States until the last few decades of the 20th century, and this type of cotton is still grown in California, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. However, Pima cotton makes up less than five percent of U.S. cotton production, and the vast majority of this type of cotton is now produced overseas.

India recently supplanted China as the largest exporter of Pima cotton, and these countries remain neck and neck in the race to be the biggest producer of this luxury fabric. One reason given for the recent upswing of Pima cotton production in India is this country's hot and oppressive climate; since G. barbadense cotton is highly breathable, middle-class Indians now prefer it to Egyptian cotton.

How Much Does Pima Cotton Fabric Cost?

Pima cotton is significantly more expensive than other types of cotton. While prices of textiles vary depending on the country of manufacture and the processes used, this type of cotton generally costs twice as much as short-staple cotton.

the mini pima abayaThe Mini Pima Abaya

If you want to try Supima cotton, keep in mind that it is one of the most expensive types of cotton in the world. Supima cotton costs as much as three times the price commanded by normal cotton. When you buy Supima cotton, however, it is guaranteed that you will receive high-quality fabric that has the ASA seal of approval.

What Different Types of Pima Cotton Fabric Are There?

different types of pima cotton

There are two main varieties of Pima cotton, and there are also a few types of cotton that are highly similar to this type of fabric. Some examples of these fabrics include:

  • Supima cotton: This type of cotton is a high-quality version of Pima cotton. Supima cotton is, in practically every sense, identical to Pima cotton, but it is subjected to much more stringent manufacturing controls.
  • Once a large portion of Pima cotton moved overseas, American manufacturers realized that they needed to both retain their claim to the Pima cotton mythos and differentiate American Pima fabric from the fabric that was being made in other countries. As a result, the ASA was born, and any garment or other textile found bearing the ASA insignia is guaranteed to boast the same quality as the Pima cotton that was originally made in Arizona with the help of the Pima Indians.

  • Sea island cotton: This type of G. barbadense cotton is no longer in mass production, but it played a critical role in the history of Pima cotton. One of the first sea island cotton planters was a British immigrant to the United States named Francis Levett, and other planters emigrated from Barbados to plant sea island cotton on the barrier islands off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina.
  • Sea island cotton fetched the highest price of any Colonial cotton varieties, and it was often mixed with silk because of its softness. With the invention of the cotton gin in the late 1700s, most planters transitioned to short-staple cotton, and the production of sea island cotton became a thing of the past.

  • Egyptian cotton: Pima cotton and Egyptian cotton are not the same. The term Egyptian cotton usually refers to cotton products that are made in Egypt; however, some manufacturers of high-quality cotton products label their garments as "Egyptian cotton" even though they aren't made from G. barbadense.
  • Certain types of Egyptian cotton are, like Pima cotton, made from ELS cotton, but others are made from long-staple (LS) cotton, which isn't as soft or pill-resistant as true G. barbadense cotton. However, certain ELS Egyptian cotton varieties, such as Giza 45, can have thread counts of up to 1,000 per square inch, which makes them some of the softest and most luxurious forms of cotton in the world.

How Does Pima Fabric Impact the Environment?

Pima cotton production is generally less impactful on the environment than other types of cotton production. While the vast majority of cotton production worldwide is done by machines, Pima cotton is usually handpicked, which helps retain the integrity of the cotton fiber. By using this method, less waste is produced, which lessens the environmental impact of producing this type of fabric.

pima cotton lawn maya blackPima Cotton Lawn - Maya Black

When this type of cotton is made in the United States, it is usually produced under the auspices of either the ASA or the USDA, which means that strict guidelines are followed to minimize environmental degradation. Since G. barbadense is a relatively non-impactful crop, it is inherently sustainable to grow this type of cotton as long as responsible manufacturing processes are followed.

With the majority of Pima cotton production now being done overseas, however, it's harder to guarantee the quality and environmental sustainability of this type of fabric. China and India are two of the worst offenders when it comes to unethical, wasteful, and dangerous manufacturing processes. Both countries use near-slave labor to keep production costs low, and the governments of these two nations are notoriously lax when it comes to worker protection and environmental regulations.

While you'd actually have to go out of your way to make production of Pima cotton environmentally harmful or unsustainable, without any significant international oversight, it's impossible to say whether factories in India and China are producing this luxury fabric to the standards that consumers expect from American Supima cotton. If you want to use or wear G. barbadense cotton that is guaranteed to be non-toxic and environmentally friendly, it's necessary to source this cotton from the United States.

Pima Cotton Certifications Available

pima cotton certifications

If growers cultivate Pima cotton within the guidelines of the ASA, they can receive certification from this group and sell their cotton as Supima cotton. It's also possible to have this type of cotton certified organic by the USDA or the EU's organic agriculture agency.

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About the author:

Boris Hodakel is the founder and CEO of Sewport - an online marketplace connecting brands and manufacturers, former founder of various clothing manufacturing services. He is passionate about e-commerce, marketing and production digitisation. Connect with Boris on LinkedIn.