In the world of cotton, Supima exists at a luxury tier. American-grown Pima is exclusive, representing less than 1 percent of cotton produced in the world. And the properties of the Pima plant—Gossypium barbadense—create an extra-long staple cotton that is high-quality, extremely soft, and incredibly strong.
On the final day of the Supima Harvest Symposium in November, speakers provided tips on how to market and speak about Supima cotton, focusing on what differentiates Pima.
For brand partners, an added benefit of Supima is the ability for engaging fiber storytelling. “Supima is American made, it’s sustainably farmed, traceable and the ultimate luxury cotton option,” said Hampton Carney, managing partner and CEO of Paul Wilmot Communications, which represents Supima. “When you use Supima, you can have confidence in your communication strategy.”
The first commercial crop of American Pima cotton was grown in 1912, following a breeding program by the United States Department of Agriculture and the Pima tribe. But the roots of long-staple cotton in the U.S. go back further. Starting in the 1790s, Sea Island cotton was cultivated in the Southeastern American colonies. Due to pests, production petered out in the early 1900s, and Pima entered the market soon after. Since the Pima plants require an arid climate, today they are grown in Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas.
Supima, the promotional organization for American Pima cotton, dates back to 1954. The name Supima combines “superior” and “Pima,” positioning the fibers as top-notch.
To qualify as Pima cotton under USDA standards, the fibers have to be at least one and three-eighths inches long. In order to protect the fiber lengths, Pima cotton lint must be separated from the seed via the gentler process of roller ginning, rather than saw ginning. On average, Supima fibers are 35 percent longer and 45 percent stronger than conventional cotton. “The quality [of Supima cotton] every year just seems to get better and better. Length is a huge part of what makes the products perform the way they do,” said Jason Thompson, brand development manager at Supima.
Whether consumers are shopping for towels or T-shirts, Thompson noted that color is often what draws them to a particular product. Supima has finer fibers that absorb and retain color better than shorter staple cotton fibers, preventing fading and running. The longer fibers also provide tensile strength. In fact, during wartime in the 20th century, Pima cotton was used for functions such as tire cording, plane fuselages and parachutes.
Supima’s current advertising heralds the fibers’ “beauty, function and feel.” Through collaborations, including its Supima Design Competition in partnership with leading fashion schools and an alliance with fashion and photography festival Hyères, Supima positions itself within the fashion industry as a premium ingredient for luxury fashion and home brands.
Pricing & positioning
Today, Supima cotton commands a price premium, but this is not a new concept for long-staple cotton. In one record transaction from 1828, two bales of Sea Island cotton were sold for $2 per pound.
Like the rest of the cotton industry, Supima has experienced a recent pricing surge as demand picked up following a dip in 2020. “I think [the recovery] came faster than anyone had expected,” said Dr. Jody Campiche, vice president economics and policy analysis at the National Cotton Council. “What we’ve seen in relation to this is a rise in cotton prices worldwide.”
People are buying up goods again, particularly in the home category. But as Warren Shoulberg, contributing editor at Home Textiles Today, noted, unlike synthetics, it’s not possible for a cotton supplier to ramp up production simply by adding a factory shift—there is a specific amount of fiber and fabric available. Per Campiche, the 2020/21 U.S. cotton crop was smaller than average and the 2021 harvest has been later, leading to shortages.
“If industries are going to have problems, having too much demand is a pretty good one to have,” said Shoulberg.
Supima production volume has shrunk over the past four years—from around 850,000 bales to approximately 350,000 bales in 2021. This trend began with the trade war between the United States and China, and water issues have also contributed to smaller production years. Marc Lewkowitz, president and CEO of Supima, expects 2022 to bring a leveling off, with numbers staying close to 2021 figures.
The demand uptick coupled with transportation delays has made cotton harder to come by. Prior to the pandemic, J. Hilburn was planning for “aggressive growth” after a strong 2019 and had stocked up on fabric. This reserve of textiles has helped it to so far avoid supply shortages. However, J. Hilburn chief operating officer Joe Dixon expects to face rising prices and longer lead times for upcoming seasons.
J. Hilburn’s model is made-to-order, enabling it to avoid inventory issues. “Just stuffing products into a store’s four walls and hoping someone comes and finds their size is really an outdated proposition,” Dixon said. The brand also focuses on full-price conversions, with minimal promotional activity. Dixon sees inventory shortages giving retailers an opportunity to convince shoppers to pull the trigger at full price, since goods might be out of stock when they return.
Lewkowitz pointed out that prices—from raw cotton to finished goods—have often been lower than needed to support everyone from growers to manufacturers. He expects the days of the $40 sheet set are numbered since it can’t sustain the supply chain costs.
“People spent a lot more time in their home, in their bedrooms, living in their homes, and they’ve begun to invest and appreciate quality on product,” Lewkowitz said. “And there’s this huge opportunity now for better messaging, better authenticity, better sustainability efforts through the understanding of the supply chain and making an investment in those products that can help deliver that message to the consumer.”