Cotton is the most commonly grown natural fiber, but despite its ubiquity, not all cotton is created equal.
“A lot of people refer to cotton as ‘cotton,’ and they don’t differentiate one version from another,” said David Sasso, vice president of international sales and marketing at Buhler Quality Yarns, during a panel discussion on day two of the Supima Harvest Symposium last fall. “And I can say there’s tremendous differences between fibers, even within American pima cotton.”
Supima cotton—which represents less than 1 percent of global cotton production—boasts extra-long staple fibers, giving it enhanced strength, softness and color retention over conventional cotton. Blake Ulves, chief product officer for clothing brand Sewn West, referred to Supima as “by far the best cotton that you can find on the planet.” For the brand, Supima cotton enables it to authentically tout its products while steadily delivering on customer expectations.
“The biggest challenge for anyone who’s in the fashion space or in the textile space is consistency among product,” said Ulves. “No lot of yarn, no dye stuffs, no bale of cotton is exactly the same as the last, and we’re all striving to make it exactly as great as it was the last time…When you’re working with such a premium product offering, it’s so much easier to deliver on consistency.”
While Supima cotton shares a number of quality characteristics, it is not immune to variation. To help downstream customers understand what they’re getting, every bale of Supima cotton is tested and graded by the United States Department of Agriculture at its Visalia, Calif. classing facility. During the symposium, attendees got a behind-the-scenes look at the classing process. Workers use highly calibrated equipment and their know-how to measure the length, strength, color and fineness of the fiber samples that are taken. The resulting data is stored digitally according to the unique barcode for each bale. This allows growers and textile mills to remotely access the classing quality information for their bales.
This classing determines the pricing for individual Supima cotton bales. “In a typical year, probably 99 percent of the crop is not going to experience any type of discount,” said Greg Townsend, area director at the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, Cotton Program. “But any poor quality—whether it’s color, leaves, micronaire, strength, length, anything that we measure—could affect the price that the grower is paid for that cotton.”
Producing quality cotton may start at the field, but equally important is how the fibers are processed. After the harvest, the raw cotton goes to a gin, where it is cleaned of extraneous matter. Kirk Gilkey, manager of Cross Creek Gin in California, explained that to make 500 pounds of cotton lint, it takes about 1,500 pounds of seed cotton. The ginning removes approximately 800 pounds of seed, as well as trash—such as leaves and sticks—and moisture content. Rather than waste the seeds, they are collected and repurposed for cattle feed or cooking oil production, and trash can become bedding for cows.
“Everything from the start to the finish is used from Cross Creek Gin,” Gilkey said during a tour of the gin. “Nothing goes to waste, and we’re real proud of our product that we finish with.”
Made in America
Sasso noted that the demand for quality and transparency is driving interest in made in America, starting with fibers such as Supima. Along these same lines, there is also a benefit to knowing your supply chains. “When you’re able to have that relationship from the fiber supplier, the farmer, the ginner, all the way through the supply chain, that is a strength that you shouldn’t take for granted,” said Sasso.
From the brand perspective, Ulves explained the benefits of domestic sourcing, including skirting current supply chain issues and being able to easily visit production facilities to have better oversight of manufacturing. Sewn West’s local production partners also afford it the flexibility to order just the merchandise it needs, rather than having to meet large minimums required for most overseas factories.
For Buhler, fibers represent about 60 or 70 percent of its total costs. Sasso noted that Supima’s premium priced product can be a challenge for cost-conscious retailers like big box stores, but when quality and hand feel are a priority, Supima really delivers and differentiates the product.
From raw materials to logistics and labor, supply chain costs are rising. At the same time, consumers continue to expect cheaper and cheaper products. But Ulves says paring down costs shouldn’t be the priority.
“A lot of brands right now, and a lot of other businesses and other industries, are looking at how they can control costs. And I think that’s the wrong approach…going into this new decade of a post-pandemic economy,” said Ulves. “We need to start focusing on how can we talk more about the value that our product is bringing forth.”