The Story of Sea Island Cotton


Sunspel may be recognized on this side of the Atlantic as the purveyor of some of the most distinctly British menswear, with the company holding its origins in the industrial heartland of Nottinghamshire, England in great pride, but it would be incorrect to suggest that it has been impervious to American influences. One of the most obvious is its use of Sea Island cotton – named after the area of South Carolina – in its premium underwear. But how did this relationship come to be?

The truth is that Sea Island is actually a very cosmopolitan cotton, which only makes it all the more befitting that Sunspel – which has had a strong international outlook ever since it began to import the world’s finest grade of cotton for the creation of comfortable and durable mens underwear more than a century and a half ago – has such a strong association with it. Today, Sea Island cotton is unquestionably the finest and rarest cotton, with the modern day Sunspel using it for crew neck and V-neck T-shirts, vests, briefs and one button shorts.

The history of the cotton, though, goes infinitely further back than that. Indeed, the Gossypium Barbadense plant is native not to North America, but to South America, with a domestication that dates back thousands of years. It has also been grown in the West Indies since the 15th century, with it taking until 1786 for planting to begin in the part of the world that now gives the cotton its most popular name. Oddly enough, an Englishman, Francis Levett, was among the first to plant Sea Island cotton in North America, only to be forced to flee his Georgia plantation as the American Revolution broke out.

So began Sea Island cotton’s association with the very finest quality clothing, greatly assisted by the British aristocracy, with even Queen Victoria’s handkerchiefs being made from it – its expensiveness and difficulty of cultivation only seemingly increasing its exclusivity and allure. However, this craze for Sea Island cotton was brought to an abrupt halt in the early 20th century, when a widespread weevil infestation, affecting the entire cotton belt from Mexico to the USA’s Eastern Seaboard, almost wiped it out. Only with the careful cultivation of surviving seeds was this strain of rare cotton bravely preserved.

These days, it is the Caribbean where Sea Island cotton is grown and hand-picked by a few dedicated experts – but it has also significantly rebounded in popularity, thanks to such enduring qualities as its long staple length, silky luster and fine uniform texture. It is woven for Sunspel by expert spinners in Switzerland. Meanwhile, back in the company’s Long Eaton factory in England, an expert seamstress makes its Sea Island heritage clothing by hand, in limited numbers.

The feeling of impeccably crafted luxury clothing is only further enhanced by the selling of the finished garments in handmade boxes, akin to museum archive boxes. Simply put, when Sunspel does Sea Island cotton, nothing else is on a par.