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

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

Fabric nameSupima Cotton
Fabric also known asExtra-long staple (ELS) cotton, Pima 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/bubblingVery low
Country where fabric was first producedUSA
Biggest exporting/producing country todayUSA
Recommended washing temperaturesWarm or cool
Commonly used inClothing and sheets

organic bamboo lyocell19_ EXC Supima Solid Cotton Fabric

What Is Supima Cotton Fabric?

Supima cotton is a high-quality type of cotton that is made from Gossypium barbadense. It is considered to be one of the softest and strongest forms of cotton in the world, and the methods of production and certification that are used for Supima cotton are different than those used for Pima cotton.

The cotton fibers that are derived from the Gossypium barbadense plant are considered to the extra-long staple (ELS) cotton, which means that they measure at least 34 millimeters in length. For comparison, most types of cotton fibers are 20 millimeters long or less, and this extra length makes Gossypium barbadense cotton fibers more tensile and easier to form into high-quality yarn.

Gossypium barbadense is naturally occurring in a variety of tropical and subtropical areas, and fabric made from this cotton fiber has been produced in South America and the West Indies for thousands of years. The Gossypium barbadense plant is easy to identify by its bright yellow flowers, and it grows in the form of a low tree.

While Supima and Pima cotton fabrics are different products, both types of cotton are derived from fibers of the Gossypium barbadense tree, and fabrics made from this type of cotton are commonly used in high-end consumer textiles. Other upscale textiles can only be washed in cold water, but Supima and Pima cotton can be washed in warm water, and they can even be tumble dried.

supima cotton lawn whiteSupima Cotton Lawn – White

One of the qualities of Supima cotton that customers love the best is this fabric's resistance to pilling. Pills are balls of tangled cotton fibers that appear on most cotton products as they age, and they start to appear on most cotton products after about ten washes.

However, it's possible to own a Supima cotton garment or household textile product for years and never notice any pilling whatsoever. In general, Supima has the greatest longevity of all of the different kinds of cotton; it's easy to find garments made from this substance that are decades old with no significant visible signs of wear and tear.

All genuine Supima cotton has been certified by the American Supima Association (ASA). This association consists of a group of farmers and textile manufacturers who have banded together to retain the incredibly high quality for which Pima cotton was originally known. The ASA only exists within the United States, which means that it's only possible to buy true Supima fabric in the USA.

How Is Supima Cotton Fabric Made?

how is supima fabric made

While most cotton producers choose to use as much automation as possible in their manufacturing processes, many aspects of Supima cotton production are still done by hand. Even if they use automated processes, most Gossypium barbadense cotton producers begin the manufacturing process by handpicking cotton seeds.

These seeds are then stripped of their fibers, and the fibers are compressed into bales. Next, the bales are transported to a large-scale production facility, they are opened, and the fibers are transferred to a mixing machine.

After the Gossypium barbadense fibers are mixed, they are carded, which is the process by which these fibers are formed into a web of rope-like strands. Carding can be done either by hand or with a machine, but most producers perform the next step, combing, with automated processes.

flint and tinder supima air knit teeFlint and Tinder Supima Air Knit Tee

Combing removes impurities from the cotton strands, and the strands are then loaded onto spools called bobbins. Next, the strands are spun into yarn, and they are then ready to be woven into fabric.

Most Supima cotton producers to their best to use non-toxic, sustainable, and organic processes to grow their crops. When you're creating a luxury product with a name to protect, it makes sense to exert the effort necessary to do things the right way, which is another reason why consumers prefer Supima cotton to Pima cotton or other upscale forms of this textile.

How Is Supima Cotton Fabric Used?

how is supima fabric used

This type of cotton is generally used to make high-end consumer garments and household textiles such as sheets. Even though it is highly tensile, costs prohibit the use of Supima in commercial settings.

Examples of popular Supima garments include T-shirts, dress shirts, underwear, nightgowns, and pajamas. This type of cotton is so soft that it is often used as a substitute for silk; practically any type of garment or accessory that is commonly made from silk can also be made from Supima cotton. Even if they don't completely substitute Supima for silk, many manufacturers choose to mix these two luxury fabrics together.

Where Is Supima Cotton Fabric Produced?

supima fabric in the world

All Supima cotton is grown in the United States. There is a network of farms throughout the southern half of the USA that grow this type of cotton, and every one of these farms is a member of the ASA. Most of these farms are in California, but there are also a few Supima producers in Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas.

The cultivation of Supima cotton in the United States began as a collaboration between the USDA and representatives of the Pima Indian tribe in the early 1900s. The Pima Indians have ancestrally grown Pima cotton, and the USDA sought to revitalize production of Gossypium barbadense in the United States.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, production of Gossypium barbadense cotton was relatively common on the barrier islands on the coast of Georgia and North Carolina. Planters originally brought this strain of cotton to the United States from Bermuda and other tropical islands, and some American Gossypium barbadense made its way north from South America.

Gossypium barbadense cotton became incredibly popular in the United States and abroad, but the widespread use of the cotton gin dissuaded the continued production of this niche crop. The USDA's pilot Gossypium barbadense program, however, was a rousing success, and production of Pima cotton quickly picked up steam in Arizona.

Pima cotton became so popular, in fact, that some unscrupulous companies started labeling their products as Pima cotton even though they contained long-staple (LS) or short-staple (SS) cotton. Pima cotton farmers in Arizona and elsewhere in the United States began to fear that their products would start to lose value in a market swamped with counterfeits, and they decided to form an organization to protect their ability to market genuine Pima cotton domestically and abroad.

chico's women's supima cotton side button bateau neck topChico's Women's Supima Cotton Side-Button Bateau-Neck Top

Supima cotton is the same thing as Pima cotton, but consumers can rest assured that they're getting the real thing when their cotton is labeled "Supima." This term, which is a portmanteau of "superior" and "Pima," is only given to cotton that has been grown in accordance with the ASA's guidelines. No Supima is grown or manufactured anywhere aside from the United States, and the ASA has no intentions of expanding.

How Much Does Supima Cotton Fabric Cost?

Supima cotton is one of the most expensive forms of cotton in the world. There are a number of factors that contribute to this high price; for starters, the quality of true Pima cotton is greater than almost every other type of cotton, which means that it naturally commands a higher price on the open market.

However, Supima cotton is even more expensive than Pima cotton. Keep in mind that when you buy cotton fabric that is labeled "Pima cotton," it's hard to tell whether or not you're getting the real thing. Unless you were there during the manufacturing process and counted the length of the cotton fibers that were being spun into yarn, it's hard to verify whether the Pima you're buying is the real thing.

chico's women's supima cotton side button bateau neck top2Chico's Women's Supima Cotton Side-Button Bateau-Neck Top2

All Supima cotton, however, has been vetted and certified by the ASA, and consumers are willing to pay a premium for this assurance. Nothing's worse than buying one thing and getting something else entirely, which helps explain the enduring success of the ASA.

In general, Supima cotton costs about three times as much as normal cotton. Whether you're buying bulk fabric or finished garments, you'll pay significantly more for the privilege of knowing that your Pima is genuine. This type of cotton costs about twice as much as organic cotton, and it's about 75 percent more expensive than Pima cotton.

What Different Types of Supima Cotton Fabric Are There?

different types of supima fabric

There is only one type of cotton that can truly be called "Supima." All Supima cotton has been grown under the auspices of the ASA, which means that any other type of cotton cannot be considered Supima even if it is highly similar to the products that are certified by this organization.

However, there are a couple of kinds of cotton that are similar to Supima, and it's important to learn more about these cotton varieties to ensure that you select the best type of cotton available. Some examples of these similar cotton types include:

  • Other forms of Gossypium barbadense: There are a couple of other types of Gossypium barbadense cotton that you should be aware of as you pick the right type of cotton for your needs. We've already covered the difference between Supima and Pima cotton, but it's important to keep these distinctions in mind as you select cotton fabric for your application.

    While it's highly unlikely that you'll ever encounter this type of cotton, sea island cotton is another form of Gossypium barbadense. This name was given to the type of Gossypium barbadense cotton that was grown by Westerners in the West Indies and on the American barrier islands, and while it's no longer in production, it's important to remember that sea island cotton and Supima cotton are technically different.

  • Egyptian cotton: Some consumers believe that Egyptian cotton and Pima cotton are the same things, but this is a mistaken impression. Most Egyptian cotton is, in fact, made with LS cotton, which is significantly less luxurious than ELS cotton. While some forms of Egyptian cotton, such as Giza 45, may actually outstrip Supima cotton in fiber length and quality, most types of Egyptian cotton are significantly inferior to Pima.

    As with Pima cotton, many manufacturers label their fabric as Egyptian cotton when it's actually made from SS cotton fibers. Technically, the term "Egyptian cotton" simply refers to cotton that has been produced in Egypt.

How Does Supima Cotton Fabric Impact the Environment?

Supima cotton is one of the least environmentally impactful forms of cotton. Production of this type of cotton is relatively minimal; Pima cotton only makes up five percent of the USA's total cotton production, and not all American-made Pima cotton is Supima.

Therefore, by merit of scale alone, it would be impossible for Supima cotton to be as environmentally destructive as other types of textiles. However, the ASA also has strict guidelines for Supima production that prevent growers from employing any dangerous or toxic practices during the manufacturing process.

chico's women's supima cotton side button bateau neck top3Chico's Women's Supima Cotton Side-Button Bateau-Neck Top3

The fact that all Supima cotton is grown in the USA is another reason why production of this type of cotton doesn't negatively impact the environment to a great degree. While these rules aren't perfect, the USDA, EPA, and other U.S. government organizations have laid down a series of regulations that prevent American companies from using environmentally hazardous production processes. If Supima cotton were manufactured in China, India, or Indonesia, for instance, it's much more likely that production of this type of cotton would represent an environmental hazard.

Supima Cotton Certifications Available

supima cotton certifications

All Supima fabric cotton has been certified as genuine by the ASA. If a Supima cotton product does not bear the ASA's seal of approval, it is not genuine Supima, and it is most likely Pima cotton or an LS cotton variety such as Egyptian cotton.

In addition, some Supima cotton may be certified as organic by the USDA. It is not necessary to have organic certification for a Supima product to be accepted by the ASA, but this agricultural association's strict standards make organic cultivation processes the preferred choice of farmers who grow this luxury cotton product.

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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.