Monday, 3 December 2012

Experiencing Sunspel's Sea Island Cotton

"Being so simple, it has to stand and fall on the quality of the product. There are no distractions to hide behind," explains Sunspel's John Mart as he introduces the Sea Island Cotton collection. Despite working in the clothing trade all his life and at Sunpel for over twelve years, this fabric obsessive's excitement for the latest release is obvious. Sitting in his office, located in the heart of their Long Eaton factory, the moment my fingers graze the soft, silk-like cotton I can see that his excitement is more than justified. Consisting of a brief, a one button short, a vest, a crew and a v neck t-shirt, the Sea Island range is considered minimalism at its best. These are truly luxurious basics worth getting excited about.

The range itself might be the finest examples of minimalism but the Sea Island journey has been far from simple. To create the Sea Island Cotton collection, this national institution (that has been making the finest English underwear and t-shirts since 1860) have leant on all of their expertise and pushed themselves that bit more. "We've been working on the Sea Island Cotton project for quite some time, at least two years since we first started talking about it," confirms Mart. As we sit and admire the range, it is obvious that a great deal of time, thought and effort have gone in to making the most of the rich fruits of the Gossypium Barbadense plant and its expert spinners in Switzerland.

"We would find ourselves on a table of six or seven people, scrutinising all aspects from stitch length to at great length," admits the brand's Sales Director Marcus Black. "We had to get it right. It had to be perfect. There is nowhere to hide. The less you have, the more you have to scrutinise." Being so minimal, there is nowhere to hide but the moment you feel the cotton and admire the subtle details and considered finishes, you realise that the product, as well as the fabric it champions, deserves celebration.

Cotton has been used as a staple fabric for thousands of years so 'why is Sea Island Cotton so special?' I hear you cry. Well, there are numerous variations but in Sunpel's latest collection, they are undoubtedly using the finest and rarest. Having long been preferred by the upper echelons of British society (it was Queen Victoria's handkerchief of choice) it was wiped out by a widespread infestation of weevil. After brave efforts to preserve this strain of rare cotton through careful cultivation of seeds that survived the weevil infestation, Sea Island cotton has in recent times experienced a resurgence. Today it is grown and hand-picked by a few dedicated experts on small islands in the Caribbean, where the optimum amount of sunshine, rain and humidity allows the unique genus of plant to bloom. In addition to this fantastic tale, Sea Island’s unique combination of qualities explain why it is so highly prized. Its extra long staple length, fine uniform texture, great tensile strength, silky lustre and an extraordinarily soft feel combine to create something truly special. Something that Sunspel were keen to sustain and showcase throughout this range.

"When the fabric is so gorgeous, you just want to keep it simple because it should all be about the Sea Island Cotton," enthuses Clare Freeman, Sunspel's Head of Design, as she talks me through the design process. "With something so simple, you have to go in to so much more detail. A great deal of time and thought were invested in the whole collection."  Surrounded by samples it is once again clear that although the finished products appear simple, the processes behind them were anything but. The pile of briefs on the table alone demonstrates this point perfectly.

The five stages of brief evolution.

"We worked on sample after sample, reworking the seams so that they were as hidden as possible and we've even changed our branding so that it is more discreet. For something so simple as the briefs, we worked through so many prototypes. As a design team, we were dreaming pants. They were initially based on another brief that we did, the Q82 block but they soon evolved in to something quite different, it had to be both slick and confortable. We were always looking at the finishing and again, we were constantly looking to both simplify and refine, from reducing the leg height, shape and the angle of seam. it was the evolution of the pant. For the final two samples, due to how the machines worked in production we devised a way of binding them so that the seams were invisible. There are no side seams and they are as clean as possible." Clare Freeman, Sunspel's Head of Design.

The same level of thought applied to the design stage was demanded in production. Due to the admirable qualities of the fabric itself, namely its stretch and movement, Sunspel's craftmanship was tested and they were not found wanting. "Little things had to be adapted and developed along the way in order to get the very best from the fabric," admits Production Manager, Mart.

Following countless tests, trials and adjustments, the first pieces went through the manufacturing process before my eager and enthralled eyes last month. I followed the crew, v, vest, brief and boxer along each stage from relaxing and rolling the fabric right through to cutting, stitching, trimming sewing, ironing and packing. Produced in very limited numbers, it takes nine people at the Long Eaton factory to handcraft each unit. It is arguably the closest a man can get to the refined luxury of artisan craftsmanship his his everyday wear. Every detail, from the shape, fit and finish of the collection have been scrutinised to ensure the utmost quality. I watched on as six of the women, who had a total of over fifty years experience at Sunspel, combined their skills and talent to create the first few items of Sunspel Sea Island Cotton. I excitedly snapped away as the action unfolded...

Experiencing Sunspel's Sea Island Cotton.

Freeman, Mart and the entire Sunspel team have been dreaming about pants and the other basics in this Sea Island Cotton range so we don't have to give them a second thought. We can just slip them on and admire how they feel, cling and drape just perfectly.


Unknown said...

Wow love seeing how its made. LOVE YOUR BLOG :)

Anonymous said...

I love Sunspel and I am originally from Long Eaton. I also love Sea island cotton. But, please tell me why this is any better than the cheaper Sea island cotton garments from John Smedley.
I think Sunspel have got the pricing wrong. I will stick to Sunspel for Egytian cotton and John Smedley for Sea Island cotton.


Priya Kundu said...

Great post very useful info....thanks! :-)


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