What’s Going on Between the Sheets?

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As a brand, Egyptian cotton is hard to beat. It’s luxurious, smooth and soft and five-star hotels won’t accept anything else for their bed linen. Cheap, scratchy sheets, on the other hand, can’t possibly be Egyptian. Right?

But a row has developed over the other side of the Atlantic which has put Egyptian cotton very much in the spotlight. The furore is over a company called Welspun India, which supplies many of the major homeware outlets in the US.  It turns out that they have been labelling goods as Egyptian cotton that have never so much had a sniff of the Nile. The result: Target (the second largest discount retailer in the US) have cancelled orders worth upwards of 90 million dollars – and that sum is rising as other retailers follow suit.

Fashionizer’s followers will know that we champion cotton and we know a thing or two about it, so the temptation to unravel what has gone here is irresistible.

What most people likely think of as Egyptian cotton is made from extra-long fibres, noted for their smoothness. The short-fibre type of cotton is less luxurious, but, surprisingly, they cultivate more of the short stuff in Egypt than they do the long. The reality is that any cotton grown in Egypt could be labelled Egyptian. Long, short, luxurious, cheap…

It’s all about perception.The strength of the ‘Egyptian cotton’ brand means that just those two words have an identity and a value all by themselves – and that means that if you buy a sheet that is labelled as Egyptian cotton sheet you expect it not only to come from the land of the Pyramids, but also to be of a quality that is fit for a Pharaoh.

So, was the quality of the non-Egyptian cotton sheets the issue?

Target’s statement makes no mention of it. What is interesting is that reports about the cancelled contract seem to make the assumption that the sheets were of an inferior standard because – guess what – they weren’t Egyptian. We haven’t had the opportunity to test the offending sheets, but we’d chance a bet that you wouldn’t be able to spot the difference. That is not to excuse it (passing off a product as something else is nothing short of unethical) but it does highlight just how powerful the concept of the authentic is – Tutankhamen was wrapped in the stuff for goodness sake!

But here’s a fact: India, China and the United Sates are bales ahead of Egypt when it comes to cotton cultivation.  Egypt only makes it to number 30 globally, and only a very tiny percentage of that is the long-fibre variety. That is a lot of sheets from a relatively small crop. You’d think that some linen buyer somewhere might have done the maths…



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