There are many different criteria used to grade cotton: fiber length, fiber strength, color, and fineness to name some but not all. Of these, fiber length (or staple) is the one you are probably most familiar with.
In terms of staple length there are basically 3 different quality grades:
Short staple cotton. Fibers of about 1” or less
Long staple cotton. Fibers of about 1 1/4”
Extra long staple cotton. Fibers of about 1 3/4”
Approximately 80% of the world’s cotton is “short staple” and is used primarily in garment production and would not make a particularly good raw material for the production of sheets. The short fibers would yield a sheet that would throw off a lot of lint, would not last and would be prone to pilling.
Long staple cotton is the next step up and should be considered a medium grade cotton. Here’s a caveat: we’ve visited a number of web sites that tout their sheets as fabulous, superior quality, etc. while stating that they are using long staple cotton for the production. You cannot make a fine wine from medium quality grapes and you cannot make the finest bed linens from a medium quality cotton.
Finally there is extra long (XL) staple cotton. Only about 3% of the world’s cotton production is XL staple and, as you would expect, the price for such cotton is consistent with its scarcity. Extra long staple cotton is the only cotton used in fine bed linens truly made in Italy and it is the only cotton used in “Belisari” bed linens.
All of this begs the question, does it matter? Yes, it does.
If you were going to make a rope, would you do it by braiding short fibers together, or long ones? Intuitively, you would expect a rope made by braiding long fibers to be stronger than one made with short fibers. The same idea holds true for yarns; the longer the cotton fiber, the stronger the resulting yarn. In addition, longer cotton fibers are going to make a smoother, finer yarn than short fibers.
The quality of the cotton is the fundamental building block for bed linens and choosing bed linens made from XL staple cotton will be stronger, silkier and smoother. Compromising the raw material is most certainly going to compromise the quality of the end product.