COTTON'S TRUE COST

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The Sceptical Shopper: thread count or strand count, Egyptian cotton or Romanian—our undercover expert unpicks the knots...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, March/April 2012

Chances are that most people reading this will be swaddled in cotton. Socks, underwear, sheets, even banknotes are made with the stuff—it is the world’s most-used natural fibre. But if you’ve ever listened to someone boast about the size of their thread count you’ll know not all cotton is created equal. So, aside from bragging rights, is premium cotton worth paying more for?

A thread count does exactly what it says—it tots up the number of threads in a square inch (or 10cm2 in many metric countries, about 60% more), and thus measures how fine a fabric is and how smooth it feels. But it’s not quite as simple as saying 200-thread count good, 1,000-thread count better. There are several ways of measuring it. The textile industry generally includes only whole threads, but some retailers also count the number of individual strands that have been twisted together within those threads—which makes for a far higher, and slightly misleading, total. Broadly speaking, lower than 180 is ordinary; from 200 to 500 feels like silk; much higher than that and the most noticeable difference will be in price, not quality.

Ask where cotton comes from and you can really get in a tangle. For a start, Egyptian cotton doesn’t necessarily come from Egypt. The word “Egyptian” on a label can allude to the cultivated variety of the cotton plant, or where it is grown: India, for example, exports Egyptian Giza cotton. This variety, like American Pima, is an extra-long staple (ELS) cotton: its fibres are longer, so cloth made from it is smoother and less likely to pill. And in the past people paid a premium for cotton from Egypt because its climate was perfect for growing ELS cotton.

Before you rush to the shops, wallet agape, consider cotton’s humanitarian and ecological price-tag. Cotton farmers from America to China use particularly noxious pesticides, spending around $2 billion on them each year. Unicef estimates that 1m children are hired seasonally to bring in Egypt’s cotton crop, and child labour has been reported on cotton farms in Africa, India, China and Uzbekistan. Unfortunately little is done to protect consumers from buying products tended and harvested in miserable conditions. At the London department store John Lewis, the sales assistant could tell me nothing about where a £150, Egyptian, 1,000-thread-count duvet cover came from; the packet said “Made in Romania”. 

So what do you do if you still want to sleep on luxurious cotton sheets? Until retailers clean up their acts and track their supply chains back to the fields there are barely any conscience-friendly options. (Incidentally, Fairtrade labels can refer to the manufacture of the cloth, not the work in the fields.) After a struggle I found two double-duvet covers from the Fine Cotton Company: the waffle-textured Milan (£80) and the 310-thread-count Lille (£85) which use ELS organic cotton from America. They’re soft and luxurious, not much pricier than other premium products, reasonably virtuous and available for shipping worldwide. Or try Coyuchi, whose organic cotton duvets ($190-$394) are sourced from a small collective in India. Wherever you buy from, be sure to ask questions – and if you don’t like the answers, consider sleeping rougher: you could always try linen. 

Stockists coyuchi.com; thefinecottoncompany.com

Illustration by Richard Rockwood