King Cotton: the Past, Present and Future of the Promotional Apparel Staple
Most of us are familiar with Rhett Butler and Scarlett O'Hara, from “Gone With The Wind,” set in the South during the Civil War time. Scarlett's Tara Plantation was surrounded by fields of cotton.
The one-crop economy of the southern states, which helped contribute to the secession drive and ultimately, the Civil War, was all driven by cotton. The Confederate states truly believed that their way of life, including slavery, would be upheld due to world demand for King Cotton.
Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin in 1793 helped propel cotton to surpass tobacco as the largest cash crop in a young U.S. economy. In 1859, cotton exports were valued at $161 million, or 48 percent of all U.S. exported goods.
The cotton gin and the emergence of power looms in both the southern states and northern hubs, such as Fall River and New Bedford, Massachusetts, helped drive tremendous quantities of cotton cloth. For at-home use and for export use, cotton truly was king.
The Civil War years, 1861-1865, were responsible for a global uptick in the cotton industry. The war and the subsequent northern blockade by the Union made cotton harder to acquire for nations that had relied upon American production. In response, other countries were forced to increase cotton production and build more mills producing cotton products.
England had a substantial industry built upon power looms and cotton gins, which helped satisfy the European appetite for raw cotton in the early 19th century through the Civil War. And with the onset of the war, Egypt emerged as the biggest player in the cotton realm.
Beginning in the early 1800s, Egypt developed Peruvian cotton and Sea Island cotton strands, with cotton seeds from Peru and the state of Georgia. This was the beginning of the Egyptian cotton industry, or the long staple yarn cotton of today.
But enough history—let’s look at today’s global suppliers of cotton.
There are five countries today that supply the lion’s share of the global cotton market: India, China, Brazil, Pakistan and the U.S. In the crop year 2017/2018, these five countries brought to market 20.426 million metric tons of cotton.
After 2010, we all survived to talk about the “cotton crisis"—a worldwide cotton yarn shortage that severely affected cotton yarn, fabric, and end-use products in apparel and domestics, such as pillow cases and sheets.
The cotton crisis, as we know it, was precipitated by cold, wet, weather in China, horrible flooding in Pakistan and general climate downturn that severely hampered global cotton production. We saw a huge price increase for cotton yarn and CVC (chief value cotton) products, especially apparel.
The crisis created price increases not seen before on yarn and finished fabrics. This essentially turned the promotional products industry upside down. And while its future remains somewhat uncertain, cotton remains the promotional apparel market's go-to material for garments.
Cotton in Promotional Apparel
As we look at the fall 2018 promotional apparel selling season and long-sleeve garments in heavier weight fabrics–especially today’s yarn-dyed flannel shirt phenomenon—we will see cotton and cotton-blended styling leading the charge. This will be seen in flannels, twills, chamois and the yarn-dyed check and plaid flat weaves, cotton driven for comfort and moderate cost control.
Cotton is the world’s most absorbent fiber and gives the soft hand-feel to both wovens and knits. Cotton yarn has remained relatively stable in cost and moderately stable in global supply. We have seen little or no price increases for cotton yarn or cotton finished fabrics.
The technology movement in both promotional apparel and retail apparel was driven by synthetic fibers and finer yarns. Polyester yarns were developed into finer yarn sizes that highlighted brighter colors, soft hand-feel and performance features, such as moisture management (wicking), stain and soil finishes, stretch, and non-pilling.
The golf market, on and off course, was almost exclusively polyester and polyester blended synthetic yarns. The outdoor lifestyle market stayed true to our cotton heritage, but even here we're seeing spandex blends that stretch, and polyester blends for stain-, soil- and wrinkle-free finishes.
Fall is coming, and with it heavier yarns and cotton fibers in promotional apparel.
Cotton is still king. “And, frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn."
David J. Bebon is CEO of DBEBZ Apparel, a manufacturer of woven and knit sport shirts. Before that, he was executive vice president of Capital Mercury Apparel for 18 years. He lives in Connecticut with his wife Zoe and four children. Bebon is a frequent speaker and presenter at industry trade shows and is contributing writer for several trade publications.