Cotton tales: Sunspel

Sunspel is named after the climate that produces Sea Island cotton. So what’s the story behind this special fibre favoured by both Queen Victoria and James Bond?

Style 12 Apr 2021

Sea Island Cotton Knit Long Sleeve Polo, £215

Sea Island Cotton Knit Long Sleeve Polo, £215

One thing that most people agree on is that there has to be an element of rarity for true luxury to exist. So consider this: every year, some 100 million bales of cotton are produced worldwide, but just two million qualify as extra-long staple cotton, where fibres exceed 34mm in length. Sea Island cotton is this type and, at around 150 bales a year, it is very rare indeed, accounting for only 0.0004% of the world’s cotton supplies.

The reason we should care is twofold: the longer the cotton fibres, the finer the fabric. It takes great skill to spin Sea Island cotton and it produces silky material that has a fine, uniform texture and is comfortable and a pleasure to wear next to the skin. It is also hard wearing, which means clothes made from it will last, a factor Sunspel promotes as part of its slow fashion philosophy and support of sustainability: the longer you wear your clothes, the better it is for the environment.

Sea Island Cotton Polo Shirt, £175
Sea Island Cotton Polo Shirt, £175

Sunspel, the British knitwear company based in Long Eaton, which dates back to 1860, has a long history with Sea Island cotton and can justifiably be considered to have been a pioneer in its use. It started making clothes from these fibres in the 19th century and became famous for its luxurious Sea Island cotton underwear and shirts. Notably, it lays claim to being the first brand to make T-shirts from this special cotton, transforming an item traditionally considered to be workwear into daywear. Today, the firm still makes Sea Island cotton T-shirts and underwear (boxer shorts, trunks and briefs), and has also developed knitwear in this luxurious fibre.

The company name even stems from its relationship with this material. As referenced by an archive logo that features the sun breaking through clouds, “Sunspel” speaks of the “sunny spells” and rain showers in the Caribbean that are required for growing Sea Island cotton. Although it can be traced back over 6,000 years to Latin America – where it was apparently cultivated on the coasts of Ecuador and Peru – since the 15th century Sea Island cotton (Gossypium barbadense) has been grown in the Caribbean. This is where Sunspel sources its supply, which comes from islands like Antigua, Barbados and Jamaica, which have the mix of sunshine, rain and humidity that creates optimum growing conditions. Sunspel works with only a few small-scale farmers who hand pick the annual crop. Once baled, the cotton is sent to expert specialist technicians in Switzerland to be spun and knitted into luxurious fabrics.

Over the years, Sea Island cotton has had some high-profile fans. Queen Victoria used handkerchiefs made from the material and James Bond’s creator, author Ian Fleming, liked to wear it at his Caribbean estate, Goldeneye, on Jamaica. He even had his super spy wear Sea Island cotton in several of his 007 novels (interestingly, years later, Sunspel would design a navy polo shirt for Daniel Craig’s new 007 for 2006’s Casino Royale).

For spring/summer 2021, adding to Sunspel’s existing collection of shirts and knitwear in Sea Island cotton, there are a number of new styles, including a shortsleeve knitted shirt, a camp collar shirt and a sweatshirt, offering handsome new staples for your warm-weather wardrobe.

Sunspel makes both men’s and women’s pieces in Sea Island cotton;