Cleopatra may have slept on cotton sheets, but they weren't the same fine Egyptian cotton as yours. The original cultivar that produced long-fiber cotton probably came from Peru, where it was grown, spun and woven by the Incas and those who preceded them. Egypt grew a shorter fiber in the Nile River Valley until an early 19th-century entrepreneur convinced the Egyptian ruler to invest in what we know today as Egyptian cotton. Your soft, durable bedding stems from that fateful decision.
History of Nile Cotton
Thank Mohammed Ali Pasha for a good night's sleep. The Egyptian ruler began to export cotton harvested from the Gossypium barbadense species in 1822. The strain of cotton grew long -- 1 3/8-inch long -- thin fibers or staples. We now refer to these as extra-long staples, the source of the term ELS found on some bedding labels. The superior cotton, carefully controlled -- from planting to production -- by the Egyptian government, was eagerly sought after and quickly eclipsed the price of inferior domestic cottons in the rest of the world. Only the wealthy could afford to indulge in Egyptian cotton sheets, but today, with increased production and lower prices, the bedding is widely available and more affordable.
Bedtime and Bathtime Benefits
The longer, thinner strands of Gossypium barbadense fiber could be woven into stronger, higher thread counts -- more dense and durable than other cotton fabric. This cotton, known as Barbadence cotton has very low lint, so it doesn't pill as easily as other cottons and remains glossy and smooth. Egyptian cotton wears wonderfully, growing softer with every wash but keeping its looks, lustre and color. The fibers absorb dyes readily and hold them; colorful Egyptian cotton sheets are far less prone to fading than fabric made from other cottons. And the thirsty fibers are very absorbent; bath towels made from Egyptian cotton will make you feel as pampered as Cleopatra, but with softer, more lustrous towels. Look for annual white sales to score Egyptian cotton at seriously discounted prices.
American Egyptian Cotton
Pima cotton is grown from the same cultivar as Egyptian cotton. The name Pima comes from the Pima Native American tribe of the American Southwest who were instrumental in developing the strain from Latin American seeds. Sea Island cotton, once the longest fiber cotton grown and a staple of coastal islands off the Carolinas and Georgia, is enjoying a modest resurgence as an ELS fiber. The cultivar planted today is not quite as long as the original and is hand-harvested to protect the fibers so the Sea Island content label usually stands for a luxury brand. It occupies the same "gold standard" stratosphere as true Egyptian cotton but is less widely available.
Egyptian cotton is a marketing plus, so examine a sheet set carefully before investing in it. Some sets marketed as Egyptian cotton are made with only a percentage of the longer fibers and are actually a blend of long- and short-fiber cotton. The higher the percentage of Egyptian cotton in the blend, the closer to the performance of 100 percent Egyptian cotton bedding you get. Egypt strictly brands, trademarks and controls its cotton crop and licenses the use of its logo to protect the cotton's premium price. For bedding made from authentic Barbadence cotton, look for the black tag with the white cotton ball and leaves and the words Egyptian Cotton that signifies the real deal.
Benna Crawford has been a journalist and New York-based writer since 1997. Her work has appeared in USA Today, the San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times, and in professional journals and trade publications. Crawford has a degree in theater, is a certified Prana Yoga instructor, and writes about fitness, performing and decorative arts, culture, sports, business and education .