Wardrobe: Castaway Cotton

<< Back to Robb Report, July 2002
  • William Kissel

Martin Carstarphen has spent the last five years investing his money, time, and talent in reintroducing genuine Sea Island cotton to the lexicon of luxury fashion. The silky 300-year-old fiber virtually vanished from the fashion radar screen 30 years ago when cheaper hybrids were developed. Though the crop has faded into obsolescence, the name has lived on.  

“There is a lot of confusion about what Sea Island cotton is,” says Carstarphen, whose company, GulfStream Trading of McAdenville, N.C., claims to be the only textile mill and American apparel maker producing 100 percent pure Sea Island cotton clothing. “You may have heard ‘Sea Island–like’ or ‘Sea Island–style,’ but it has become a textile term, not an organic term.”  

Genuine Sea Island cotton is one of the longest, finest, and purest strains of cotton, superior to pima, Egyptian, and Peruvian cottons in both strength and luster. “Most of the companies that use Sea Island cotton today actually blend it with lesser cottons to lower the price,” says Carstarphen, whose debut collection of polo shirts, sweaters, and crew socks recently was launched through the J. Peterman catalog. The collection is also available at At Ease stores in California and Arizona, and Mitchell’s and Richard’s in Connecticut.

“It feels like a cashmere/silk knit,” says Linda Beale, clothing buyer at At Ease stores. “You wonder, ‘Is that cashmere in there or what?’ The difference is this breathes, and cashmere doesn’t. You have to pay a little more for the Sea Island cotton, but it’s so light and comfortable, it’s worth it.”  

Officially known as Gossypium Barbadense, or the “black seed,” Sea Island cotton was first discovered in the early 18th century in the microclimate of the British West Indies. The seeds became so valued that they were often passed from one family to another as gifts. Ultimately a handful found their way into the pocket of William Elliot, who harvested the first successful crop on Hilton Head Island in 1790. He passed the seeds to growers on the surrounding Sea Islands, where the cotton acquired its name.

The industry flourished until the end of the Civil War, when the absence of slave labor on the islands of Saint Helena and Port Royal sent the large plantations into decline. A boll weevil infestation in the early 20th century further devastated the industry in the United States. According to Carstarphen, Sea Island cotton is grown primarily in the West Indies, with GulfStream purchasing 30,000 pounds of the annual production of 100,000 pounds. Much of the remainder is shipped to Japan, where it is blended with other fibers and sold on the open market.  

To distinguish his pure products from the blends, Carstarphen has an exclusive agreement with the West Indian Sea Island Cotton Association, a Brit-ish entity that was established in the mid-1930s to protect its small cotton industry. As a result, Carstarphen garments are authenticated with a silver hologram certification mark on the individually numbered labels. “The ironic thing is, the guys using the fake stuff have kept the name alive,” says Carstarphen, “and it’s that name recognition that is allowing me to bring it back after all these years.”  

GulfStream Trading, 704.824.3551 ext. 214, info@seaislandcotton.com

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