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The Differences Between Short and Long Staple Cotton

You may think it’s all a bunch of fluff, but the cotton we know and love is actually pretty complex. There are two different species of cotton plant, and much of a fabric’s feel comes from a quality known as “staple” or fiber length. Let’s take a closer look at just what a staple is, the differences between the three different staple lengths, and what it all means for your towels, bedding, and clothing.

Short vs. Long Staple Cotton

When you think of a cotton plant, a little white puffball probably comes to mind. That’s called the “boll” and each boll contains nearly 250,000 individual cotton fibers, or staples. There are three different classifications of staple length -  plants with individual fibers measuring1 1/8" are known as short staple, the most common type. Long staple cottons have individual fibers of 1 1/4" and fibers of 2” are called extra-long staple. These length differences may seem small, but they make a big difference in the quality, strength, and softness of the cotton.

Short staple fibers produce a cotton that is great for basic, everyday use. The most common short staple cotton is known as Upland cotton. Upland is primarily used to make denim jeans and flannel clothing thanks to its soft, strong, and low maintenance fibers. It’s an American classic, comprising 95% of the cotton grown in the US, including a portion of our HomeGrown Cotton harvest.

As staple length increases, so does cotton’s soft, silky feel. For this reason, long staple cotton is a popular choice to make sheets, towels, and other quality products. Through the spinning and weaving process, a longer fiber length results in a smoother surface with fewer exposed fiber ends. This means that items made with long staple cotton don’t pill or tear as much and can even become softer over time. 

Upland cotton is an American classic, comprising 95% of the cotton grown in the US.

 The most luxurious cotton products are made with extra-long staple cotton. The species of cotton that produces extra-long staple fibers are a more challenging crop and not as abundant as the plants that produce short or long staple cotton. You may be familiar with Egyptian cotton, which is one of the most famous extra-long staple cotton plants. The other extra-long cotton is Pima cotton. Only about 3% of the cotton grown in the United States is pima cotton, and it’s considered more desirable than standard cotton. The appeal of this high-quality cotton also means that consumers need to do their research to make sure they’re getting the real thing.  

Beware Cotton Mixing and Mislabeling

A label that says sheets are 100% cotton describes the material, but as we’ve learned, there is a wide range of cotton quality. And even the informed consumer can get confused, as unethical cotton industry practices have led to deceptive labeling. You might think that a label indicating Egyptian cotton guarantees you the quality of extra-long staple cotton, but it’s becoming common for companies to mix cotton fiber types during the spinning and weaving process. This results in lower production costs for the company, but a mislabeled product sold to an unsuspecting customer. Since there isn’t strict regulation on product testing, these companies are able to label and sell their products as 100% cotton, even if they are mixed with foreign or inferior fibers.

It’s becoming common for companies to unethically mix cotton fiber types during the spinning and weaving process.

The only way to trust that a product is made with 100% upland, Egyptian, or Pima cotton is through verification technology. At HomeGrown Cotton, our upland cotton is verified with FiberTyping® which is a patented test confirming our products contain 100% American upland cotton. And to prevent the mixing of foreign or inferior fibers along the supply chain, we also use our SigNature T Technology®, which is an invisible molecular marker that allows us to test product purity from farm to shelf.

Next time you’re looking for cotton sheets, consider cozying up in our Heartland Sheets. These sheets are woven from honest-to-goodness HomeGrown Cotton, verifiable as 100% American grown by America’s family farmers — sustainably, ethically, and proudly.


Whether you’re a manufacturer looking to enhance your cotton products or a customer just wanting to know a bit more, we’d love to hear from you.

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