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The truth about Egyptian cotton

Egyptian cotton has a reputation for being the best. But in the quest to sell the best, some retailers are facing questions over the authenticity of their Egyptian cotton sheets. New DNA testing is lifting the lid on the fake Egyptian cotton problem.

We didn't believe it either

When first starting out, we received wholesale quotes for Egyptian cotton sheets which were higher than retail prices found in many New Zealand stores. Was this efficiency of scale? We had no idea.

New to the industry and worried we were being ripped off, we talked to other manufacturers, but they all told us the same thing; low-cost Egyptian cotton sheets are most likely fake, and once manufactured, there's no way to prove authenticity.

In fact, in early 2017, the Cotton Egypt association got so tired of the practice, they used a new DNA test to test products from New York stores and discovered 90% of the 'Made in Egypt' products they tested, didn't contain any Egyptian cotton.

Asian manufacturers (including India) often manufacture Egyptian cotton products but blend Egyptian cotton with another cotton, or don't use Egyptian cotton at all.

Compounding the issue is that many brands and retailers don't question their very low wholesale prices. The situation is a kind of 'don't ask, don't tell' policy and a well-known industry joke, especially amongst those producing genuine Egyptian cotton products.

Enter cotton DNA testing

Applied Sciences DNA Testing

However, newly introduced DNA testing is lifting the lid on the practice, and after US retailers Wal-Mart and Target couldn't guarantee authenticity, they stopped selling Indian-made Egyptian cotton products (Wal-Mart is also facing a class action suit).

Others including JC Penny and Bed, Bath & Beyond have reportedly launched investigations into their product lines.

Although larger retailers have suggested this is all a mislabeling problem, it's been going on for at least a decade. And in our experience, the industry has long known that low priced Egyptian cotton either means low-quality cotton or fake Egyptian cotton. This was one of the first things we were confronted with, so if brands, retailers and others in the industry aren't aware, it's because they're not asking questions.

What to look for?

If you're shopping for Egyptian cotton sheets, is there an easy way to spot fakes? Well, if you're ever unsure, ask the retailer but in the absence of knowledgeable staff, here are a few things to look out for.

1. DNA certification

The surest way to confirm genuine Egyptian cotton is to look for DNA tested products. However, because DNA testing is relatively new (cost-effective DNA testing has only been around since 2015), retailers may not have tested their products yet.

As a side note, The Hotel Sheet's Egyptian cotton sheets have been DNA tested and certified as genuine Egyptian cotton grown in Egypt.

2. Price

Price can be a quick way to spot a fake. As of writing, and assuming you're looking for long-staple Egyptian cotton (the reason for Egypt's good reputation), we'd personally be sceptical seeing Queen sheet sets retailing under $400ish NZD.

Yes, that's rich coming from the people selling sheets, but there are important points for you as a consumer to understand.

Firstly, product claims such as 'Made from Egyptian cotton' or 'Made in Egypt' are not the same as '100% long-staple Egyptian cotton'. Egypt's reputation for quality is built on its long-staple cotton, this cotton is the reason why people look for Egyptian cotton to begin with. If you're not looking for sheets made from Egypt's long-staple cotton, there's no particular reason to look for Egyptian cotton in the first place.

Secondly, there are always exceptions such as sales, factory seconds or stores closing down. But the rarity and cost of long-staple Egyptian cotton make it difficult to sustain selling the genuine article for much less. Remember, there's a lot of cotton in a sheet set.

3. Verifying authority

A third way to verify authenticity, is to look for this logo. However, after repeatedly contacting this authority for basic information (like how to join), we gave up and suspect others have done the same. Therefore, this programme doesn't seem widely implemented, meaning that if products don't carry this logo, there could be administrative or other reasons why.

Also, this seal doesn't verify the grade of the Egyptian cotton (medium-staple, long-staple etc), just that it was grown in Egypt. Therefore, you should also check for the product claim '100% long-staple Egyptian cotton' to ensure you're getting the good stuff. Remember, if you're not looking for the good stuff, there's little reason to buy Egyptian.

Boiling it down

  • DNA certification or the Egyptian Cotton logo are the surest ways to verify genuine Egyptian cotton
  • Price is your next bet, cheap products could indicate fake or low quality Egyptian cotton
  • Pay attention to product claims. '100% long-staple Egyptian cotton' is very different from 'Made with Egyptian cotton', 'Made from Egyptian cotton' or 'Made in Egypt'. Products carrying such claims may contain as little as 1% Egyptian cotton or be made from bad Egyptian cotton. In which case, what's the point?

We hope all brands and manufacturers remove doubt by DNA testing their Egyptian cotton products and stating a cotton grade moving forward.

What's so great about Egyptian cotton anyway?

Cotton comes in different grades. The good stuff, known as long-staple or extra-long-staple cotton is sought-after, expensive and rare (about 2.5% of global production).

Longer cotton staples come from cotton varieties grown in many countries, not just Egypt. But cotton crops require both a hot climate and plenty of water. This makes the Nile region in Egypt perfect for cotton and is a reason why cotton has been grown there for millennia.

The depth of knowledge and experience in Egypt also greatly contributes to the quality of their high-grade cotton. And remember, it's their high-grade cotton which created Egypt's reputation for lasting quality.

Does that mean Egypt also produces 'bad' cotton? In a word, yes. Egypt's famous modern speciality, long-staple cotton, results in threads that are both stronger and thinner which create sheets that are stronger, finer, crisp-yet-soft, and last. If you're not shopping for 100% long-staple Egyptian cotton sheets, then there isn't a great reason to be shopping for Egyptian cotton in particular. Cotton from other countries is just as good as Egypt's lower grade cotton.

However, long-staple cotton doesn't automatically guarantee beautiful sheets; the cotton grade needs to be balanced with right thread count.

For example, in thread counts below 250 threads per square inch, long-staple cotton can result in gaps between the finer threads. This creates less adhesion between threads and can result in an overall weaker sheet. We've seen this issue while lab-testing a competitor's sheets.

The price/performance sweet spot for high-grade cotton is about 300 threads per square inch for percale sheets and 400 threads per square inch for sateen. For more information on thread count (another area where the industry often dupes consumers) see our popular article on 1000 thread count sheets.

So although long-staple cotton is acknowledged as being better, balancing it with the right thread count is very important. This is why our lower thread count Hotel sheets use medium-staple cotton, and our high thread count Egyptian cotton sheets use long-staple cotton. Thread count and cotton grade should be balanced to ensure the best possible sheet.

Not enough to go 'round

The demand for Egyptian cotton is huge, but Egypt's cotton crop is small (and has been declining) compared with other cotton-producing nations. Egypt only just makes the top 30 cotton producers in the world.

Image credit: Bloomberg, check out this report for more.

Therefore, demand for genuine Egyptian cotton easily outstrips Egypt's crop yields, leading to manufacturers in some countries to substitute other cotton and label it as Egyptian.

Although a limited number of consumers have only recently become aware of fake Egyptian cotton, we're sad to report it's so widespread that in some circles, it's an industry joke. We hope all brands and manufacturers DNA test their Egyptian cotton products moving forward.

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More reading and reference

  1. Cotton Egypt: Calling out Egyptian cotton fakery
  2. Reuters: Wal-Mart sued over sale of fake 'Egyptian cotton' linen
  3. Bloomberg: Dirty Linen: A bed sheets scandal hits the cotton industry
  4. Businessinsider: Egyptian cotton sheets might not be what you think they are
  5. Bloomberg: DNA Testing could put an end to fake Egyptian cotton
  6. Applied DNA Sciences: The truth about testing processes for premium cotton
  7. USA Government: Long-staple cotton 2.5% of global production
  8. Index Mundi: Top cotton-producing nations
  9. The Hotel Sheet: Cut-through product claims with lab-testing
  10. The Hotel Sheet: The truth behind 1000 thread count sheets