Gossypium barbadense, commonly known as Pima cotton, is today cultivated in many of the major cotton growing regions of the world. This luxury cotton, highly valued on the global market, is still grown in Northern Peru -- the place where its origins can be found, and where it is known as Peruvian Pima cotton.
A Brief History of Peruvian Pima Cotton
Gossypium barbadense was given the name “Pima” cotton in honor of the Native American Pima people who first harvested the cotton in the United States. Many of the Pima people worked on an experimental farm for the cultivation of this species of cotton, a plantation developed by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in the early 1900s in Sacaton, Arizona.
While the common name of the plant originated in North America, its historical origins are believed to be South American. Archaeological evidence suggests that Gossypium barbadense was first harvested in the region encompassing the coastal area between northern Peru and southern Ecuador. Cotton fragments found in Peru have been dated to as far back as 3100 B.C. Archaeologists discovered cotton samples of this era in the Huaca Prieta excavation in the La Libertad region of northern Peru, a site located in today’s cotton-growing region.
According to the Plant Resources of Tropical Africa (PROTA4U) website, “In Peru, cotton products from Gossypium barbadense such as yarn, cordage, and fishing nets date back to about 2500 B.C."
The Incas also harvested cotton from the Gossypium barbadense genus, for use in both practical and artistic endeavors. Their cotton weaving techniques and the quality of their textiles impressed the Spanish Conquistadors, the same men who ultimately caused many Inca textile-working techniques to be lost during the conquest of Peru.
The precise evolutionary journey of Gossypium barbadense is complex. Despite G. barbadense having its origins in the coastal regions of Ecuador and Peru, the variety now cultivated in Peru is likely to be a strand developed in the U.S.A. in the early 1900s, which itself was crossed with Egyptian ELS cotton. Complicated? Yes.
As it stands, the name Peruvian Pima cotton distinguishes varieties of Gossypium barbadense produced in Peru from other types, such as American Pima.
What Makes Peruvian Pima Cotton So Special?
Cotton is cotton – or is it? Stephen Yafa, in his book Cotton: the Biography of a Revolutionary Fiber, highlights the importance of length in any given species of cotton fiber. Luxury cotton is distinct from more common cottons in that the fibers are longer, and this distinction is vital. Yafa likens this to “the difference between perfectly drinkable table wine and a celestial Chateau Lafite-Rothschild."
Gossypium barbadense, or Pima cotton, is categorized as an Extra Long Staple cotton (ELS cotton). Pima cotton fibers can be more than double the length of standard cottons, a fact that gives Pima cotton some distinct and desirable qualities.
In 2004, a U.S. International Trade Commission report called Textiles and Apparel: Assessment of the Competitiveness of Certain Foreign Suppliers to the U.S. Market stated the following:
“Peru’s pima cotton reportedly rivals high-quality Egyptian cotton and is renowned for not only being the longest-staple cotton in the world but also for its softness that, according to some U.S. apparel producers, “rivals silk.””
This combination of softness, strength, and durability has earned Pima cotton its global status as a luxury cotton. Peruvian harvesting techniques can also enhance the overall quality of the final product. Modernization of the cotton growing process has obviously occurred in Peru, but many Peruvian Pima plantations still harvest the cotton by hand. Handpicking leads to fewer imperfections in the yarn, giving an even softer finish. It is also a more environmentally friendly process.
Buying Pima Cotton in Peru
Today, Peruvian Pima cotton is cultivated primarily in the northern coastal valleys of Piura and Chira, as it has been for thousands of years. The climate and soil conditions here are perfect, with ideal seasonal rainfall and temperatures.
Despite the internationally recognized quality of Peruvian Pima cotton, foreign tourists are far more likely to purchase (and have some prior knowledge of) textiles from Peru’s camelids, most notably alpaca and vicuña. Items made from alpaca wool are particularly popular, having become a classic -- and arguably clichéd -- souvenir.
Part of this difference in popularity is perhaps due to Peruvian tourism trends. Foreign tourists flock towards the southern third of Peru, to famous attractions such as Machu Picchu, Cusco, Arequipa and the Nazca Lines. Comparatively few head along the north coast of Peru, the region in which Peruvian Pima is grown.
But if you do head north along the rich cultural coastline above Lima, keep an eye open for Pima cotton products, including T-shirts, dresses and incredibly soft baby clothes. As long as you find a reliable seller (and not someone trying to sell standard cotton as Pima), the quality will be high and the prices more than reasonable -- you certainly won’t find genuine Peruvian Pima items for similar prices when you get back home.
- Stephen Yafa – Cotton: the Biography of a Revolutionary Fiber, Penguin, 2005
- U.S. International Trade Commission report -- Textiles and Apparel: Assessment of the Competitiveness of Certain Foreign Suppliers to the U.S. Market, 2004
- Oxford Business Group -- The Report: Peru 2012
- PROTA4U -- “Gossypium barbadense L.”