Our Cotton – Reed Family Linen

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Our Cotton

The origins of Cotton

Many years before Christ, Virgil wrote of “The groves of the Ethiopians, hoary with soft wool” which is believed to be the first reference to the fibre “koton”, as it is named in Arabic, which later became known as “cotton”. Whilst western civilisations used wool for clothing and textiles until the 1700s, eastern cultures had already been using cotton for spinning and weaving fabrics a thousand years earlier.

Like a good chef only uses the best ingredients, so the Reed family has always tried to source the best weaving yarns made from the best growths of cotton in order to weave the ultimate sheeting cloths for our clients. This search for the optimal cotton growth is a science and is an ongoing quest in our family. My favourite book on this subject is “Cotton” by George Bigwood published in 1918 at the height of the Lancashire Cotton Industry gold rush period. Exotic and long staple cotton growths were being sourced from all over the British Empire at that time in order to satisfy the insatiable demand for textiles from the Manchester merchants.

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George Bigwood’s 1918 Classifications of Cotton

Bigwood was one of the first people who categorised worldwide cotton growths. He was independent from the textile industry, and his book became the reference for spinners, weavers, merchants and customers for the next 40 years. His book explains how cotton was grown, harvested and marketed in the sunset days of the British Empire and many of his observations remain true today. After three years of liberal watering and humid conditions, the Gossypium flower blossoms with a ‘boll’ of soft white fibres which we know as cotton. On page 75 he classified the world’s available cotton growths at the time and compared their staple length, colour, spinnability and even their relative market price. Except for price inflation, all his data is valid today over a century later, though his table excludes several growths developed since 1918.

Any of you who have visited the Royal Exchange theatre in Manchester may have seen the Cotton Futures boards in the roof which remain with the prices from trading on the Cotton Exchange’s last day in 1968. Predominantly, Lancashire used shorter staple American cottons purchased from Memphis, but the fine weavers in and around Nelson needed finer yarns which were spun from longer staple growths such as Sea Island and Egyptian. Bigwood classifies these as fibres with staples lengths of between 1.5 and 1.75 inches – compared to the American crops with lengths of between 1 and 1.25 inches.

World Cotton Classification - Cotton by George Bigwood

Our Family’s Pioneering History with Cotton

Mark Reed’s great grandfather, William Reed, used American cotton growths at the beginning of the 20th century and it was his son, Clifford Reed, who was the first Lancashire weaver to source weaving yarns made from longer staple Egyptian growths in the 1930s. By the start of the Second World War our family company, John Moorby & Sons Limited, was one of the largest consumers of Egyptian cotton in Lancashire and they were recognised as leading experts in the field of weaving wide width fine cotton fabrics used primarily for bed sheeting. Clifford pioneered the use of Egyptian and Sudanese cotton growths such as Menoufieh, Ghizeh (Giza) and Assouan. What he noticed a hundred years ago was that the quality of Upper Nile growths was far superior to that of cotton grown in the Delta region of the Nile. This was explained by the reduced alluvial nutrients which flowed down the river as a result of the Aswan dam – a trend which continues today. Clifford also insisted that his weaving yarns were “Carded” twice in the spinning process in order to extract the shortest fibres, a process which became known as “Combing” and after a few years all his yarns were ordered “Super Combed”.

Clifford’s son, Peter, continued the family’s tradition of buying and sourcing the best Egyptian grown cottons long after the Royal Exchange in Manchester closed and was one of MISR’s (Nationalised Egyptian textile company) first direct export customers. Peter was the first to weave yarns spun from Giza 45 growth cotton and was invited to join the Alexandria Cotton Exchange. In the 1970s he was invited to visit Barbados and import the first bulk shipment of Sea Island Cotton from the West Indies which was commission-spun for him in Bolton, and then woven into “Super Percale Five Row Cord” bedlinen exclusively for Harrods. Peter Reed joined the Barbados Cotton Exchange in 1978 but it soon became evident to him that the volumes of cotton which were being exported and labelled “Sea Island” seemed to far exceed the growing capacity in the West Indies and that traceability of origin was an issue. The Exchange could not satisfy his order for several tonnes of cotton for a repeat set of wide width warps for Harrods in 1979 and this product was discontinued after only a few years.

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What is Long Staple Cotton?

What George Bigwood’s classification table highlighted, is that the term “Egyptian Cotton” refers to a category of fibre which has a long staple length and does not necessarily have to be grown in Egypt – just like Burgundy grapevines can be grown in Chile, California or South Africa rather than France. Since his book was published, several new cotton growths have been developed from hybrids of existing plants. Successful examples are Pima, Supima & Suvin. Long staple crops like Pima were developed by the US Government to substitute Opium farming in Columbia and this cotton is almost exclusively used by American mills for towel manufacturing.

In the early 2000s Karen Reed started to look for an alternative source of long staple cotton after becoming concerned at the overuse of damaging pesticides and fertilisers in the Nile Delta cotton fields which have become increasingly arid over the years since the construction of the dam at Aswan. She made sustainability a pillar of the company’s future plans and decided that cottons grown in Egypt were no longer environmentally the best choice for the planet. Karen visited Southern India and found a new growth of long staple cotton called “Suvin” which is a hybrid plant developed by combining local SUJATA cotton with the original ST VINCENT Sea Island cotton plant. The resulting SU-VIN crop has a long staple length (>1.5 inches), is very silky and has a pure white sheen finish. After trials in our weaving mill, Suvin proved to be an ideal replacement for toxic Egyptian grown cottons and is now our main source of fibre for our bedlinen.

Karen also researched “Organic” cotton extensively but found it difficult for growers to guarantee that issues of cross pollination by wind from neighbouring fields did not occur. Certifications like OKEO-Tex and GOTS had similar flaws. She insisted that our mill contract long term with local cotton growers in Tamilnad where she visits regularly and can see no evidence of use of harmful chemicals as the region is also renowned for its production of fine quality teas.

Since the mid 1980s our family has also used 100% linen yarns in our looms. Linen is a much coarser fibre than cotton and is made from flax, another plant which thrives in wet conditions but does not require the same warmth to grow. We source our wet spun linen weaving yarns from Northern Ireland and Eastern Europe.

As you can see, the Reed family have learned the science of sourcing cotton over five generations. Our advice to consumers is simple. For bedlinen you need a product woven from a 100% natural long staple fibre which has been grown and harvested in cottonfields which are as sustainable as possible. We believe that Suvin cotton grown in India and pure linen grown in Eastern Europe are the best sources of bed linen fibre available today, but our search has not stopped and will continue for as long as our family is weaving.

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