What Is Sea Island Cotton?

Sea Island Cotton is the finest grade of cotton in the world, accounting for only 0.0004% of the world’s cotton supplies. Its exquisitely luxurious handle is attributed to it’s Extra Long Staple; fibre’s which are longer than 34mm – allowing the yarn to be knitted at the maximum yarn count, boasting supremely soft tactility. The name Sea Island Cotton comes from the area in South Carolina where the plant originates. Over 200 years ago the plant was nearly wiped out by a widespread weevil infestation – luckily Sea Island Cotton was preserved elsewhere and today is grown in the Caribbean as well it’s original place of growth, USA – where our Sea Island Cotton is grown.

The Better Cotton Standard System is a holistic approach to sustainable cotton production which covers all three pillars of sustainability: environmental, social and economic. Each of the elements – from the Principles and Criteria to the monitoring mechanisms which show results and impact – work together to support the Better Cotton Standard System, and the credibility of Better Cotton and BCI. The system is designed to ensure the exchange of good practices, and to encourage the scaling up of collective action to establish Better Cotton as a sustainable mainstream commodity.

Fibre Quality

  • Incomparably silky texture
  • Soft to touch
  • Long fibre length
  • High tensile fibre
  • Fine uniform texture

Better Cotton Initiative

Better Cotton means producing cotton in a way that cares for the environment through processes that minimise the negative impact of fertilisers and pesticides, and care for water, soil health and natural habitats. BCI Farmers achieve better yields and more financial security through access to global markets, whilst improving the working conditions in their fields. Cotton that is made in this way meets the Better Cotton Standard. The standard has been developed by the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), an independent multi-stakeholder organisation whose members are committed to making Better Cotton a mainstream product. From NGO partners to garment manufacturers, from the farmers to household brand names, all BCI’s Members are working to transform the way cotton is produced and safeguard the future of the sector.

The Aim
BCI aims to transform cotton production worldwide by developing Better Cotton as a sustainable mainstream commodity.

The Mission
The Better Cotton Initiative exists to make global cotton production better for the people who produce it, better for the environment it grows in, and better for the sector’s future.

BCI connects people and organisations from across the cotton sector, from field to store, to promote measurable and continuing improvements for the environment, farming communities and the economies of cotton-producing areas

BCI Future

With Better Cotton now accounting for 19% of global cotton production, the tipping point is being approached, whereby it can be considered a major player in the global cotton market. As more BCI Retailer and Brand Members source Better Cotton, we will be able to reach and support more cotton farmers, building momentum on our ambition to transform the sector, reduce its environmental impact and strengthen farmers’ ability to improve their livelihoods. Ultimately, establishing more sustainable cotton as the norm will also strengthen the sector and help to achieve security of supply for the future.


Cotton gins are the factories that complete the first stage of cotton processing- separating the lint from the seed. Before gins were invented the lint was separated from the seed by hand – this would take approximately one day to process 0.5 kilos of lint. Today modern gins can process approx 230,000 kilos per day.

Moving To Seed, Lint & Trash

Seed makes up approximately 55% of the seed cotton weight that comes from the farms, they have many uses such as oil, plastics, stock feed for cattle, cosmetics and margarine.

Lint makes up approximately 35% of the seed cotton weight, once the lint has been separated it is compacted into bales for easier transporting, direct to the next stage of fibre processing.

The remaining 10% of the seed cotton is classed as waste or trash, this is used in ethanol production or in products that clean up oil spills or even fertiliser.


After the cotton is ginned, a sample is taken for classing or grading for its quality, which impacts greatly on the final selling price- the higher the class the greater the price. The classing comprises of colour grade, staple length, micronaire (fineness), strength and trash content.

Bale Breaking & Carding

The bales of cotton are laid down in a row, opened and blended through a series of breaking machines, this ensures a consistent blend of fibres. The blend is then processed further to loosen the fibre tufts and remove any remaining vegetable matter.

The cotton fibre is then fed into a carding machine, which is sometimes referred to the heart of the spinning mill. The carding machine, opens the fibre further, aligns the fibres in a parallel manner and pulls them into a single continuous rope called a sliver.

Roving, Spinning & Weaving

The cotton sliver is condensed into a finer sliver. This is called the roving, and is the final fibre preparation before the spinning process.

The cotton fibre then goes through the main spinning process. We currently use ring spinning, however, compact spinning is becoming more popular. The spinning frame draws out the sliver fibre even finer and inserts twist into the fibres by a rotating spindle, although production is slow and additional process are required to be able to use the final yarn.

Once the cotton yarn is produced, the singles yarn is doubled to add strength and steam set to prevent spirality. The yarn can then be knitted direct from the greige state or yarn dyed.

The Final Stages

In the final stages, all of John Smedley’s Sea Island Cotton goes through the below processes, ensuring the highest quality finish in our iconic garments.

  • Scour & bleach – we remove all oils, waxes & pectins
  • Gassing – we remove all of the hairy fibre surface
  • Mercerising – we swell the fibre to increase the surface diameter and make the fibre more absorbent, allowing darker shades with less dye.
  • Dyeing – we add colour into the yarn itself or piece dye our iconic garments.
  • Finally, we add all additional finishes, such as our bespoke treatment to make our iconic John Smedley’s Sea Island Cotton knitwear machine washable.