by: Michael O'Brien
Since the turn of the 20th Century, Egyptian cotton has become one of Egypt’s largest agricultural exports. Up until the mid 1800’s, cotton was primarily a local resource with little exportation to other parts of the world. Through a series of historical and market events, the cultivation of Egyptian cotton has grown steadily. In fact the cultivation of the cotton species gossypium barbadense has now expanded beyond the borders of Egypt to other parts of the Middle East and Central Asia and the Americas.
Though it represents only about ten percent of world cotton cultivation, Egyptian cotton has earned a reputation for softness, workability and durability. While there is some debate about the exact time frame, it is generally thought that the Egyptians have been using cotton fibers for over 5,000 years. The species gossypium barbadense is referred to as long staple cotton, meaning that the fibers are longer than other cotton species. Egyptian cotton fibers are at least two inches long, brilliantly white and regarded as the softest of all cotton varieties.
Regarded by some historians as the father of modern Egypt, Mohammad Ali Pasha is considered responsible for the cultivation of Egyptian cotton as a commodity. It is said that during Ali’s reign, the Egyptian cotton crop became a tool of exploitation, with Egyptian peasants paid a fraction of what Ali Pasha and British textile interests earned through questionable trade arrangements.
Great Britain had developed a significant colonial presence in many parts of the world. Egypt, along with much of North Africa, was under the influence if not the outright control of the British. Britain, like other European countries, had an enormous appetite for fabric fibers. Without the climate to grow cotton domestically, Britain turned to Egypt as source. Having risen to power, Ali Pasha saw an opportunity to satisfy Britain need for Egyptian cotton while ingratiating himself and his supporters.
Despite the early inequities in the cultivation of Egyptian cotton, today’s expansion of world trade has made Egyptian cotton products more available. For many years, products made from Egyptian cotton were available only through fine linen shops. With images of the Sphinx and the Pyramids of Giza and the long history of its cultivation, an aura of mystique was created around Egyptian cotton.
Several years ago, growers of Egyptian cotton created a certification program. The program is intended to assure consumers buying products made from Egyptian cotton that the product is genuine, 100 percent Egyptian cotton. An important part of the certification program is proper content labeling. In addition to complying with government regulations, the content labeling program has benefits to both consumers and producers.
Some products made with Egyptian cotton may contain other varieties of cotton and consumers would not be able to tell the difference. Proper content labeling not only helps to inform consumers, it assures producers that the reputation and quality of linens and other Egyptian cotton products is maintained. Any type of labeling program can be misused, so producers and sellers all have an important stake in maintaining the integrity of their products.
There are other varieties of cotton that are considered by some to be on a par with Egyptian cotton. Pima, which is grown in the American Southwest and some parts of South America, is another long staple species. Sea Island cotton is grown on the offshore areas of the Southeastern United States. Short staple species grown in the America South and other areas of the world produce sturdy fibers and good quality cotton fabrics.
Still, no other cotton provides the same combination of durability and luxury. Regarded as one of the world’s softest fabrics, Egyptian cotton is as durable as it is soft.
About the Author
Michael O'Brien is Staff Writer for 100PercentEgyptianCottonSheets.com