Nicholas Brooke, the chief executive of Sunspel, shares his expert knowledge of cotton
It’s important to know the difference between good quality and mass-produced cotton. When you wash a typical cheap t-shirt, it develops a twist—the side seams are no longer vertical and instead twist around your body. That’s a result of the way the cotton yarn is made—by twisting the natural fibres together to form a thread. That twist in the yarn pulls the garment out of shape.
If you take two pieces of yarn and twist them together to create a single piece, you can counter the twist that each of the original yarns contained. This is called a two-fold yarn, and a t-shirt made with this won’t twist in the wash. It’s how we make all our t-shirts.
A two-fold yarn is much stronger than a single thread, but doesn’t this make it thick and heavy? Not if you use a long fibre or ‘staple’. The longer the staple, the finer and lighter the yarn. A short staple cotton is heavier, coarser and more prone to unravelling. That’s why cheaper t-shirts tend to be thicker and rougher, and why very fine, light t-shirts can also be strong and long-lasting.
The best cotton varieties have a long staple. Sea Island is perhaps the rarest and most sought after. It is extraordinarily soft and light, but grows only in very specific climatic conditions. Suvi is another very special cotton. More widely available are Pima and Superpima, from California, and long staple Egyptian cotton. Be wary: these latter terms are used loosely and can include poor quality cottons.
Selecting a fine cotton isn’t the end of the story. It needs to be spun, knitted and dyed, and any of these processes can enhance or degrade it. At Sunspel we have our own bespoke spinning, knitting and dyeing techniques. It’s this attention to detail that explains why our t-shirts areso soft and light, yet durable.
If you buy a quality t-shirt there’s no reason it won’t last for years. You do need to follow the washing instructions—generally, wash on a low heat and avoid tumble drying. But clothes shouldn’t be disposable, throw-away products. We believe people should buy clothes that will last.
If you’re a perfectionist, when your t-shirt comes out of the washing machine lay it flat. You can even lay it on a towel. Why? Because if it’s hung vertically, the weight of the damp fabric can stretch it a little.
You should barely feel you’re wearing a good cotton t-shirt. A well-cut piece made from soft, light cotton should be like a second skin.
A cotton t-shirt is one of the great modern inventions—a design classic. I think it deserves respect. And what applies to cotton t-shirts also applies to other cotton garments. The better the cotton, and the more care that’s gone into every detail of making the garment, the better it is to wear. The difference is instantly noticeable.