What is Pima cotton and how is it different?

Posted on October 15 2023

pima cotton shirts and clothing - organic fair trade clothing

What is Pima cotton and how is it different?

If you’re like most people, you may have heard of Pima cotton but only have a vague idea of what it is or why Pima cotton shirts, for example, might be considered better than other cotton shirts. Hint: they are!

Pima cotton is mostly known for its unusual softness, silkier fibers, and smooth fabric compared with regular cotton. But there's so much more!

 

What is Pima cotton?

The best way to start understanding Pima cotton is to look at its place in the big picture.

Common cotton, also called Upland cotton (for biology fans, Gossypium hirsutum), comprises about 93% of cotton grown around the world. The other 7% is known as extra-long staple (ELS) cotton: Gossypium barbadense.

Within that extra-long staple group there are more-or-less 4 divisions: Pima, Egyptian, Sea Island, & other. They are nearly identical strains, just grown in different regions.

Pima cotton is grown in Peru & the US Southwest. Egyptian cotton is grown along the Nile River valley. Sea Island cotton is more from times past and now grows mainly in the famed sea islands of Barbados, Jamaica, and Antigua, with a tiny contingent in South Carolina.

The ’other’ category of extra long-staple cotton is grown by planting Egyptian or Pima cotton seeds in non-native areas - predominantly China, India, & Brazil, but across close to 20 countries total.

 To confuse matters, many cotton growers under that ‘other’ umbrella, have adopted the term Pima – both as shorthand to the clumsier ‘extra-long staple’ and to snag a free ride from the reputation Pima has established for itself.

Also, more sellers are using the term Egyptian cotton if the product contains any Egyptian cotton - whether extra long fibers or not.

The longer fibers of Pima is extremely soft, high quality cotton. It can be used to create luxuriously soft fabric that's pill resistant, incredibly strong, and often more wrinkle resistant than cotton fabrics made from lesser upland cotton.

pima cotton shirts and clothing - organic and fair trade - what is pima cotton

Why is real Pima cotton from Peru & the US?

This is an interesting, and often misunderstood, story. The native Pima cotton plant is indigenous to northern Peru. Pima cotton fabric has been found there dating back to 6000BC. It was utilized by Native American cultures including Incas and Nazcas.

In the 1940’s, the US Department of Agriculture decided it wanted to grow extra-long staple (ELS) cotton in the United States. The USDA and researchers at the University of Arizona successfully created strains of Pima cotton seeds from Peru that thrived in the soils and climate in parts of Arizona & California. They eventually established ELS farming in the US.

Some of the researchers in the University of Arizona project were Peruvians and were involved in hundreds of hours of tests: seed handling, planting, climate, & soil compositions. When they took their new strains and knowledge back to Peru, they were delighted to learn the seeds grew even better there. With this discovery, they essentially re-birthed Pima cotton farming in Peru that thrives to this day.

Where does the name Pima cotton come from?

Because Pima is often associated with Peru, many English speakers mistakenly assume Pima might be a Spanish word. But Pima cotton is named to honor the Pima Native American tribe of Arizona who were an integral part of the USDA research project.

pima cotton clothing

So how is Pima cotton different or better?

The short answer: about half an inch. Extra-long staple (ELS) cotton (including Pima) has fibers that are at least 1 3/8” long. Common cotton averages ¾” long. It may boggle the mind, but that extra half inch difference in individual cotton fibers makes a world of difference!

4 benefits of Pima cotton for clothing:

  1. Softer.The first thing you’ll notice about Pima is its smooth, silky touch. When those extra long fibers interact with knitting needles, they help yield fabric with fewer loose fibers lurking around. Those loose fibers rear their heads in the form of scratchiness or, over time, pilling. After you've owned pima cotton shirts for awhile, you'll be an expert in noticing the difference!

  2. But somehow stronger! Don’t let that incredible softness fool you. Durable Pima cotton is about 30% stronger too – measured in tensile strength (4.28 N/tex vs 3.11 N/tex to be technical). This means fabrics are less likely to tear, fray, pill, or shrink over time. It means your Pima cotton t shirt will last multiples longer than those made with regular cotton. See #3.

  3. Longer lasting. Being 30% stronger has a multiplier effect on clothing. Meaning clothing made from Pima cotton should last well more than 30% longer than clothing made from common cotton. If you follow care instructions (no hot water or hot dry), Pima cotton clothing can endure. beautifully for literally several years.

  4. Color absorption. The silky, lustrous fibers of Pima will hold color through multiple washings much longer than regular cotton. This colorfastness also allows brands to use less harsh dyes to achieve desired colors.
pima cotton clothing - organic fair trade

Is Pima cotton from Peru and the US the same?

Yes, they are generally the same species and strain of cotton. One difference though is that, in Peru, cotton is harvested by hand not by machines. While more labor intensive, harvesting cotton by hand ensures almost none of the fiber is damaged in the process.  So Peruvian Pima cotton is often even one notch more pure than its US cousin.

What about Pima cotton from one of the ‘other’ regions?

While Pima cotton is grown in several other countries, the specific soil & climate combinations found in Peru and parts of the US give the cotton a performance boost – yielding cotton fibers on the longer (softer, stronger) spectrum of the extra-long staple (ELS) universe. Pima cotton also grows in other Andean countries of South America - Ecuador, Colombia, Boliva - but Peruvian Pima cotton is considered the gold standard for quality and development.

Is Pima cotton better than Egyptian cotton?

Grown in their indigenous regions, the two are nearly identical and both extremely high quality. But the name "Egyptian cotton" get a little messy for a few reasons:

  1. Many brands use blends of Egyptian cotton and/or Pima cotton mixed with common cotton. There is not an international label enforcing entity to police this.

  2. Technically any cotton grown in Egypt, even shorter staple length common cotton, can be called “Egyptian cotton.”

  3. Growers of ELS cotton have capitalized on the good name of Pima and adopted it as their own. But Pima cotton grown outside the US and Peru is on the lower end of the staple length, while still being higher quality than common cotton.

  4. To confuse matters even more (!), some Pima cotton growers have called their cotton "American Egyptian cotton."

The bottom line is Egyptian cotton clothing may well be of higher quality than normal cotton clothing, but because of the above it's difficult to ascertain.

You may notice that Egyptian cotton is more commonly found in bedding and dress shirts. These are woven cotton products versus cotton products like t-shirts and sweaters which are knit. There is no reason for this other than Egyptian cotton was historically grown in areas that had more expertise in woven fabrics - e.g. Egyptian cotton sheets - vs knit cotton fabrics.

What is Supima cotton?

Supima is a registered trademark used by a consortium of US Pima cotton growers. They have developed stringent standards ensuring their cotton is 100% extra-long staple. Supima cotton is, for practical purposes, a brand name of Pima cotton.

The difference between Pima and Supima cotton could be notable or could be nothing. Supima cotton does afford a level of confidence because of their stringent requirements. For Pima cotton, if it's Peruvian or US-grown, it's probably nearly identical to Supima cotton.

Is Supima cotton better than Peruvian Pima cotton?

No. If a brand is using cotton that’s 100% Peruvian Pima it’s essentially identical to Supima®. Many would even argue it’s a smidge better due to the less destructive hand harvesting discussed above.

 

Conventional cotton vs organic cotton

Conventional cotton is most commonly used to describe cotton that is not organically grown. It's not necessarily shorter staple cotton. It may be longer fiber or shorter fiber. It may be Pima cotton, Egyptian cotton, Sea Island cotton, or anything else. It's really referring to the the cotton growers used chemical pesticides. Cotton produced without the use of chemicals or pesticides is organic cotton. The incredibly high quality fiber of Pima cotton can come from either organic or conventional cotton. Organic cotton quality gets a leg up on conventional cotton though because there is no breakdown of the fiber that may result from introducing foreign chemicals into the cotton fibers. Organic cotton is also of course more environmentally friendly!

An overwhelming large portion of the world's cotton is conventional cotton. But more & more consumers are recognizing the benefits of organic cotton - benefits to their health and the health of the planet.

There is definitely a premium price for organic cotton, but if that organic cotton is also extra long staple cotton like Pima, it's an investment that pays off in years of wear - multiples better than regular cotton.

 

pima cotton shirts and clothing - organic pima cotton clothes

Is Pima cotton more sustainable than regular cotton?

Absolutely. Clothing that lasts years longer slams the brakes on the massive cotton farm-to-landfill pipeline. Pima cotton is also more naturally resistant to pests so it doesn’t require as many chemical pesticides. (or no pesticides at all for brands like Fair Indigo who use organic Pima cotton to make Pima cotton t shirts).

Why don’t more brands use Pima cotton?

There is one obvious and one less obvious answer to this question. The obvious one is price. Pima cotton is simply more expensive to grow and harvest than common cotton. In the world of Fast Fashion, many consumers want cheaper clothes. And many brands are more than willing to give them what they want.

The other reason is, somewhat perversely, longevity. A Pima cotton t-shirt will outlast a common cotton t-shirt by literally years. Brands who build their business models on frequent repeat purchases have less incentive to make clothing that lasts longer.

pima cotton farming - clothing and shirts made from organic pima cotton from Peru

So is Pima cotton clothing worth it?

That is completely your judgement call. If you want to change up your wardrobe frequently, it’s probably not worth the price. If you want to transition how you think about your clothes from Fast Fashion to a more minimalist ‘less is more,’ and sustainable ethos, Pima cotton clothing is a slam dunk investment.

Pima cotton makes clothing made from luxurious fabric with a luxurious feel. But it not only feels better, it's legitimately higher quality clothing. It will endure, with proper care, through years of enthusiastic use. That's why the premium price is often worth it in the long run. You might be surprised to learn how much you'll save when you don't have to replace your basics as frequently as you do now.

To find clothing that truly maximizes the benefits of Pima cotton, we suggest you look for Supima® or cotton that is 100% Peruvian Pima.

All of Fair Indigo’s cotton is organic Peruvian Pima. It’s why our clothing is designed to be ‘forever in fashion’ – timeless essentials you’ll want to wear for years to come. With cotton quality that ensures you can.

Shop Fair Indigo’s Pima cotton shirts and clothing – organic & ethically made.

 

Robert Behnke

 

Robert Behnke
Co-Founder & President

 

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