High-surface-area, nanostructured carbon is widely used for encapsulating sulfur and improving the cyclic stability of Li–S batteries, but the high carbon content and low packing density limit the specific energy that can be achieved. Here we report an approach that does not rely on sulfur encapsulation. We used a low-surface-area, open carbon fibre architecture to control the nucleation and growth of the sulfur species by manipulating the carbon surface chemistry and the solvent properties, such as donor number and Li+ diffusivity. Our approach facilitates the formation of large open spheres and prevents the production of an undesired insulating sulfur-containing film on the carbon surface. This mechanism leads to ~100% sulfur utilization, almost no capacity fading, over 99% coulombic efficiency and high energy density (1,835 Wh kg−1 and 2,317 Wh l−1). This finding offers an alternative approach for designing high-energy and low-cost Li–S batteries through controlling sulfur reaction on low-surface-area carbon.