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

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 lawn
Pale Pink Japanese Pima Cotton Lawn

What Is Pima Fabric?

Pima cotton is an ultra-soft fabric that contains long cotton fibers. While most cotton types consist of relatively short fibers, Pima belongs to the category of extra-long staple (ELS) cotton, along with a few other types of cotton. ELS cotton is made up of fibers that are longer than 34 millimeters, which accounts for Pima’s exceptional quality.

Pima cotton, like other ELS cotton varieties, is produced from a particular type of cotton plant known as Gossypium barbadense. This plant species is only found in tropical regions and is vulnerable to damage from frost. Gossypium barbadense is a small tree that produces bright yellow flowers and yields exceptionally long cotton fibers, which are used to create Pima fabric.

ELS cotton fabrics, such as Pima fabric, which are obtained from Gossypium barbadense, are often called “sea island cotton.” This name stems from the fact that this type of cotton was initially cultivated by Westerners on tropical islands like Barbados. However, radiocarbon evidence suggests that Gossypium barbadense cotton has been grown in South America and the West Indies since at least 3,000 BC. Thus, this type of cotton has a long historical and geographical background.

pima cotton lawn david austin
Pima Cotton Lawn – David Austin

Pima cotton is highly valued by consumers for its exceptional softness and luxurious texture. This type of cotton is often utilized in high-end apparel and is also a favored material for bed linens. Unlike other delicate fabrics, Pima fabric can be machine washed using warm water and tumble dried. Additionally, it is available in thread counts as high as 300, adding to its appeal among consumers

Consumers value Pima cotton for its resistance to pilling, which are small balls of tangled fiber that tend to appear on clothing after several washes. With most types of cotton, pilling starts to occur after approximately 10 washes. However, due to Pima cotton’s long fibers, garments made from this fabric hardly ever pill. As a result, clothing made from Pima cotton can remain wearable for many years.

Pima cotton and Supima cotton have similar origins, but they are different fabrics. Supima cotton, which is a combination of “superior” and “Pima,” is exclusively 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 type of Gossypium barbadense that is found in various tropical and sub-tropical regions. Like other types of cotton, it yields white, fluffy seeds, each containing hundreds or thousands of tiny fibers. During cotton production, these seeds are harvested and then processed into a highly tensile yarn.

In earlier centuries, cotton was harvested entirely by hand. As picking cotton by hand is a labor-intensive and strenuous task, the cotton gin was invented. The term “gin” is short for “cotton engine,” and this industrial machine was one of the pioneers of the mass-production industrial era.

The cotton gin revolutionized cotton production, making it easier, but it also had an adverse effect on the quality of the final product. To maintain the quality of the Pima cotton, most producers still prefer to hand-pick the seeds of the Gossypium barbadense plant, despite the more arduous process.

After the Gossypium barbadense seeds are hand-picked, they are compressed into bales. These bales are then transported to the factory floor and placed in the “opening room.” In this room, a cotton opening machine pulls the raw cotton fibers out of the bales and transfers them to a mixing machine.

skin pima cotton jersey robe
Skin – Pima Cotton Jersey Robe

After the Pima cotton fibers are mixed, they undergo the carding process. Carding involves pulling the cotton fibers into parallel alignment to create a web-like formation. This process transforms the raw cotton fibers into rope-like strands. These strands are then sent to a combing machine, which removes impurities from the cotton, resulting in higher quality fibers.

Once the Pima cotton strands are combed, they are loaded onto bobbins and wound onto spools. The cotton ropes are then spun into yarn, and finally, they are woven into fabric.

In most instances, Pima cotton production does not involve the use of chemical solvents or other harmful substances. However, some manufacturers may use bleach or other caustic chemicals to clean or prepare the cotton fibers. Pima cotton is safest and of the highest quality when it is grown organically and spun without the introduction of any chemicals. However, not all manufacturers follow good manufacturing practices (GMP) during the production of this premium cotton.

In contrast to the highly efficient mass-production methods typically used to produce cotton fabric, some Pima or Supima cotton manufacturers may use small-batch protocols to create their textiles. While mass-production methods can sometimes compromise the quality of the end product, Pima and Supima fabrics are regarded as top-tier cotton materials. Thus, manufacturers may opt for production processes with higher quality control to maintain the premium status of their products. If necessary, Pima cotton manufacturers can even card, spin, and weave cotton without the aid of any automated tools to ensure the highest quality of the end product.


How Is Pima Cotton Fabric Used?

how is pima fabric used

Pima cotton fabric is primarily used in the same applications as other cotton fabrics. It is utilized to make various types of clothing, including dress shirts, underwear, dresses, T-shirts, hoodies, and other garments.

Pima cotton’s exceptional softness makes it a popular choice for luxury-oriented clothing items such as bathrobes, loungewear, and nightgowns. Additionally, it is highly sought after as a bedding material due to its premium quality.

pima cotton jacket light gray
Pima Cotton Jacket | Light Gray

When it comes to bedding, some individuals have specific preferences for the feel of their sheets. Pima cotton is often regarded as the softest and most resilient type of cotton for this purpose. Not only is it known for its luxurious feel, but it is also highly absorbent, making it a popular choice for towels. Pima cotton’s durability also makes it resistant to the formation of small balls or fibers, known as pilling.

Despite its exceptional durability, Pima cotton is not typically utilized in industrial settings. This may be due to the fact that the cost of this type of cotton is relatively high, making it difficult to justify its use in commercial applications.

Where Is Pima Fabric Produced?

pima fabric in the world

The term “Pima cotton” was chosen in recognition of the significant contribution made by the Pima Indians in the early stages of cultivating this type of cotton in the United States. The Pima people possessed ancestral knowledge of how to grow this variety of cotton, and they collaborated with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) on the pilot project for G. barbadense in the 1900s. As a result of their efforts, the cotton was named after them as a way of honoring their contribution to its cultivation.

Pima cotton was initially cultivated exclusively in the United States until the final decades of the 20th century. Even today, this variety of cotton is still grown in specific states including California, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. However, Pima cotton only accounts for less than five percent of cotton production in the United States. Currently, the majority of this type of cotton is produced overseas.

India recently supplanted China as the largest exporter of Pima cotton , and the competition between these two countries for the top producer of this luxurious fabric remains fierce. The increase in Pima cotton production in India can be attributed to several factors, including the country’s hot and humid climate, which is ideal for the growth of G. barbadense cotton. Additionally, due to its high breathability, the middle-class in India has shown a preference for this type of cotton over Egyptian cotton, contributing to the rise in its production.

How Much Does Pima Cotton Fabric Cost?

Compared to other types of cotton, Pima cotton is notably more expensive. While the prices of textiles may vary depending on the country of manufacture and the processes used, this type of cotton generally costs around double the price of short-staple cotton.

the mini pima abaya
The Mini Pima Abayac

It is important to keep in mind that Supima cotton is one of the most expensive types of cotton in the world. This premium cotton can cost up to three times as much as regular cotton. However, when purchasing Supima cotton, buyers can be assured of its high quality, as it carries the ASA seal of approval. Despite the higher cost, Supima cotton is a popular choice for those seeking superior quality in their textiles.


What Different Types of Pima Cotton Fabric Are There?

different types of pima cotton

There are two primary varieties of Pima cotton: G. barbadense and G. hirsutum. Additionally, there are several types of cotton that closely resemble Pima cotton, including:

  • Egyptian cotton: be famous for its luxurio
  • Supima cottonSupima cotton : a premium version of Pima cotton that is virtually identical to its namesake in terms of quality and properties. However, what sets Supima cotton apart is that it is subject to much more rigorous manufacturing controls and standards. This ensures that every step of the production process is closely monitored to produce a final product of the highest quality.
  • Sea island cotton:a type of G. barbadense cotton, is no longer produced in mass quantities, but it played a crucial role in the history of Pima cotton. One of the first sea island cotton planters was Francis Levett, a British immigrant to the United States. Other planters also migrated from Barbados to plant sea island cotton on the barrier islands off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina. Today, sea island cotton is considered rare and highly prized for its silky texture, sheen, and historical significance.
  • Egyptian cotton: Pima cotton and Egyptian cotton are not the same, although they may be used interchangeably by some manufacturers. While Pima cotton is a type of G. barbadense cotton primarily grown in the Americas, Egyptian cotton generally refers to cotton products made in Egypt. However, it is important to note that some manufacturers may label their garments as “Egyptian cotton” despite not being made from G. barbadense cotton. Additionally, Egyptian cotton is known for its long staple fibers, which contribute to its luxurious feel and strength.


How Does Pima Fabric Impact the Environment?

Compared to other types of cotton production, Pima cotton is considered less impactful on the environment. While most cotton production worldwide is mechanized, Pima cotton is usually handpicked, which helps preserve the quality of the cotton fiber. This method of harvesting results in less waste and a reduced environmental impact. Additionally, Pima cotton is typically grown with fewer pesticides and fertilizers, which further minimizes its impact on the environment.

pima cotton lawn maya black
Pima Cotton Lawn – Maya Black

When Pima cotton is produced in the United States, it is often done so under the auspices of either the American Supima Association (ASA) or the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), both of which have strict guidelines to minimize environmental degradation. Because G. barbadense is a relatively low-impact crop, it is inherently sustainable to grow this type of cotton as long as responsible manufacturing processes are followed. By adhering to sustainable practices during the cultivation and production of Pima cotton, its environmental impact can be minimized, and its long-term viability as a crop can be secured.

As the majority of Pima cotton production is now done overseas, it can be more challenging to guarantee the quality and environmental sustainability of this type of fabric. Countries such as China and India are among the worst offenders in terms of unethical, wasteful, and hazardous manufacturing practices. In many cases, these countries use near-slave labor to keep production costs low, and their governments have lax worker protection and environmental regulations. As a result, it can be more difficult to ensure that Pima cotton produced overseas adheres to ethical and sustainable practices. Therefore, it is essential for consumers to do their research and purchase from reputable brands that prioritize ethical and sustainable manufacturing practices.

While it is generally difficult to make Pima cotton production environmentally harmful or unsustainable, the lack of international oversight makes it impossible to know for certain whether factories in countries like India and China are producing this luxury fabric to the same standards as American Supima cotton. Therefore, if one desires to use or wear G. barbadense cotton that is guaranteed to be non-toxic and environmentally friendly, it is necessary to source this cotton from the United States. By doing so, consumers can be assured that the cotton was produced under strict guidelines and quality control standards, ensuring its sustainability and ethical practices.

Pima Cotton Certifications Available

pima cotton certifications

Growers of Pima cotton who follow the guidelines of the American Supima Association (ASA) can receive certification and market their cotton as Supima cotton. Additionally, it is possible to obtain organic certification for Pima cotton from organizations such as the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) or the European Union’s organic agriculture agency. These certification programs provide assurance to consumers that the cotton they are purchasing was produced under strict guidelines and adheres to sustainable and ethical practices.

Author's Bio:
Sherry Lin

Sherry Lin

Sales Director of fabricstrades.com, a GRS-certified manufacturer of sustainable stretch fabrics. She love sharing fabrics procurement insights.

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