Why America’s Pima Cotton Is the Most Prized in the World

Why America’s Pima Cotton Is the Most Prized in the World
A pima cotton farm in San Joaquin Valley, Calif. (Himatsingka)
Updated:
0:00

What if cotton enjoyed the same cultural cachet and sophisticated distinction as fine wine?

“Ah, yes, a 2022 Los Banos appellation, Bowles Farm estate-grown PimaCott vintage,” Cannon Michael declared humorously, plucking an ivory tuft from an immense roll of newly harvested cotton resting field-side in central California.

“Extra-long staple that year. Take a minute to savor the sweet aroma,” he added, smelling the fibers. “After-scents of yeast and apricot. A satiny feel,” he concluded, rubbing the fibers gently, as you would a rose petal. Bowles Farm, where Michael is president, is among a handful of cotton growers allied with PimaCott, a consortium working to upgrade the status and perception of cotton—specifically, the extra-long-fiber cotton grown in the United States. The brand involves entities from all stages of the supply chain, from grower to textile manufacturer to retailer.

Cotton has been part of human life for at least 7,000 years; India, Egypt, and South America are among cotton’s original homelands, and the various original species (more than 30) have been extensively adapted and interbred for millennia by numerous civilizations, with seeds and production migrating around the world. Originally derived from cotton species native to the Western Hemisphere, pima cotton was taken to Egypt centuries ago, where it is still grown and called Egyptian cotton. That cotton was brought back to the New World and first grown on the sea islands of the Atlantic coast; later adopted by the Pima Indians of southern Arizona, acquiring its modern name; then planted in California’s Central Valley, which is where most of it is grown today. Egyptian or pima is used for high-quality textile products, while upland cotton is the more common variety and viable for growing in more challenging environments, such as West Texas.

(Helena-art/Shutterstock)
(Helena-art/Shutterstock)

The problem in the industry is that no formal agency oversees or regulates what cotton is called what—especially in international trade. Quality cotton advocates have called out the many instances of brands deliberately or inadvertently mislabeling what kind of cotton the products are made from. PimaCott’s answer is verifiable traceability.

A Fabric Worth Its Salt

PimaCott’s cotton is sustainably grown by a group of family farms in the San Joaquin Valley; nurtured, harvested, and processed for high quality; bio-tagged to assure traceability; and ultimately turned into premium bed linens and bath towels sold by a handful of retailers in North America. It represents a nascent campaign to bring authenticity to the world of luxury textiles, joining similar campaigns in the realm of wool, hemp, and silk, among others. “There’s evidence there’s demand for better, more sustainable cotton and other textiles. And you can’t have sustainability without traceability,” Michael argued.

PimaCott dreams of having an ultra-premium, end-to-end, verifiable cotton market. In the real world of global commerce, one of humankind’s oldest and best-loved fibers has largely devolved to humdrum commodity status in which the only time the average American thinks about it is every other year—when it’s time to replace their bed linens. Cotton is ubiquitous, useful, diverse, and multi-faceted. It was, and still is, the basis for that most American garment, denim jeans, the patent for which was registered by Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis in 1873 in San Francisco. Denim quickly became a vital necessity for work apparel, then eased into 20th-century fashion and spread around the world.

Raw cotton is processed and spun into textiles. (Himatsingka)
Raw cotton is processed and spun into textiles. (Himatsingka)

But the clothing industry has kept pace with the postwar industrial chemical tsunami, and today, more than 60 percent of textile fiber is artificial, chiefly made of polyester. In addition, other hydrocarbon chemicals are used to create stain- and wrinkle-resistance, and the upshot is that most “cloth” today is far from natural. Not only does that carry environmental consequences, wellness advocates believe it is not good for humans to spend their daily lives essentially wrapped in plastic. Wearing polyester material, for instance, has been linked to infertility in some studies with dogs and humans. Further, charges of forced labor, hazardous working conditions, and blatant greenwashing dog the global textile industry.

“There’s huge abuse of people and the environment associated with cotton around the world,” Michael declared, acknowledging that relieving those human and ecological costs will inevitably drive prices up. “Telling the consumer that doing the right thing doesn’t cost more is insane. … Luckily, we produce a higher-end product, and sell to higher-end consumers.” Michael said he’s not joking about the aroma of new-picked cotton bolls. Its scent is mild but pleasant, and he actually does enjoy it. “I know, crazy, huh?”

(Himatsingka)
(Himatsingka)

He’s not the only one who treasures fine cotton.

“Roll me in designer sheets, I’ll never get enough,” sang Debbie Harry in the 1980 Blondie song “Call Me,” illustrating the venue in which cotton shines brightest. Breathable, soft, and durable, sheets and pillowcases made with quality pure cotton and tight weave are high on the ladder of household luxuries. PimaCott-sourced fiber is used, for example, to produce 1,000-thread-count sheets by high-end linens brand Wamsutta. A cursory online search reveals ferocious debate about whether thread count actually matters; caress a PimaCott 1,000-thread-count sheet and the debate will be settled quickly. It’s as fine as silk, but not as clingy or sticky.

The Future of Cotton

Cotton was the catalyst for the Industrial Revolution and the basis for the plantation economy of the antebellum American South, where it gave rise to expressions in the American vernacular such as “cotton-pickin’,” a pejorative derived from the great difficulty of hand-harvesting; and “now we’re in tall cotton,” to describe a period of great success—due to the greater ease of picking tall plants.

No one’s in tall cotton any more; cotton bolls today are stripped from compact, 30-inch plants by gargantuan combines that look ever so much like contraptions from the “Mad Max” movies. This mega-industrial technology mirrors the ultra-modern bio-tagging technique applied to PimaCott fibers. An artificial DNA marker strand created by Applied DNA Sciences, a biotech company based in New York, is sprayed onto the cotton right after it is processed to remove the seeds and stems, so the marker remains on the fibers throughout the textile production process.

(Himatsingka)
(Himatsingka)

“We provide precise verification of the type and origin of the cotton—something sorely needed in the industry,” explained MeiLin Wan of Applied DNA Sciences. “The old paper trail standard is not enough: Bales get switched in warehouses, and it can be extremely difficult to unravel what’s what.” Testing the fiber at any point in the textile life cycle can verify its provenance, creating the transparency which is now a burgeoning issue in agriculture around the world.

Can efforts like PimaCott reverse the tide of artificial textile fibers? “Not only is it possible, it’s the need of the hour,” declared Anju Verghese of Himatsingka, the large Indian textile firm that turns pima cotton into sheets, pillowcases, towels, and more for brands. “Pima cotton from the San Joaquin Valley is the finest cotton in the world. Its long fibers make it extra soft and extra strong,” Verghese added. “That yields a more durable, long-lasting, high-luster product. PimaCott’s bio-tagging is a unique solution to the issue of traceability.”

Pima cotton’s long threads make for strong yet silky textiles, ideal for bed linens. (Himatsingka)
Pima cotton’s long threads make for strong yet silky textiles, ideal for bed linens. (Himatsingka)

Although it’s a high-value crop, Bowles Farm’s 1,000 acres of pima cotton is not the farm’s only product; tomatoes, kale, cilantro, and more occupy the farm’s other 3,000 or so acres. But Michael professes a special affection for the cotton and its unique character, which is sustainably grown by high-efficiency drip irrigation, the power for which is provided by the farm’s 1.5-megawatt solar field. Like all crops, cotton varies from year to year; as with all commodities, the market for it is volatile; as with all industries, trends go in many different directions. Advocates for natural fiber sustainability detest the “fast-fashion” industry in which garments are designed, produced, sold, and discarded in mere months—a system they view as intrinsically wasteful and highly dependent on artificial textiles.

Michael isn’t completely convinced consumers will embrace traceable, sustainable natural cotton sufficiently to grow the PimaCott approach into a major force. But he’s happy to take part in trying.

“If you’re going to do something you believe in, like sustainable farming, you have to be both optimistic—and fascinated.”

This article was originally published in American Essence magazine.
Eric Lucas is a retired associate editor at Alaska Beyond Magazine and lives on a small farm on a remote island north of Seattle, where he grows organic hay, beans, apples, and squash.
Related Topics