Cotton couture: Fashion starts at the farm
May/June 2010 California Country magazine
Story by Christine Souza
Photos by Scott Monaco and Paolo Vescia
A premium fiber grown in California shows how good cotton can look—and feel.
The high-quality pima cotton grown by California farmers such as Don Cameron is prized by consumers and fashion designers for its softness and durability.
From the expansive fields of fluffy white to fashion runways in Los Angeles, New York and Paris, all eyes are on a premium fiber grown in California.
It’s pima cotton.
Known as the “cashmere of cottons,” pima has long been the cotton of choice for blankets, sheets and towels because of its softness, strength and ability to maintain a brilliant color. But the luxurious cotton, which is sold under the brand name Supima, has crossed into the world of high fashion and now adorns celebrities including Oprah Winfrey, Bruce Willis and Courteney Cox.
This comes as no surprise to farmer Don Cameron.
“There’s something special about wearing Supima cotton shirts and pants. It all centers around the soft feel of the fabric. It just makes you feel and look good,” said Cameron, who grows cotton near the small town of Helm, just west of Fresno. “Pima cotton is so versatile that I wear it for day-to-day work and definitely when heading off the farm for some fun on the town with my wife.”
Cameron acknowledges that people might not think farmers are interested in fashion, “but as a pima cotton grower, it’s important to follow fashion trends. Not only is it important to look forward to see what trends might be affecting our prices for our crop in the future, but we want to wear what we grow and show our friends how good our cotton can look.”
Assembling a pair of Agave brand jeans at Caitac Garment Processing Inc. near Los Angeles starts with Supima denim and can require up to 20 steps.
Someone who knows all about developing trends is fashion designer and Southern California native Jeff Shafer, the man behind the Agave clothing brand. Shafer’s Supima-made designs are a hot fashion ticket among men and women because they are stylish, yet casual and comfortable. The Agave label can be found on denim jeans with various washes and treatments, as well as knit hoodies and T-shirts.
Agave fashion designer Jeff Shafer, left, watches as Bairon Morataya sands the jeans by hand. This is one of the steps that helps achieve the premium look Shafer’s brand is known for.
“A lot of fashion designers are driven by a historic era, a color story or a theme. I’m interested in textiles,” Shafer said. “Why wouldn’t you use the best cotton? For me, it’s all about raw materials, and Supima is simply the best. It’s incredibly soft and comfortable, but durable.”
Complex machinery and a human touch create the knit fabric that fashion designer Jeff Shafer uses to make his signature shirts. Shala Tabassi, owner of Design Knit Inc., a knitting mill in Los Angeles, shows off the machine that turns Supima cotton thread into luxurious fabric.
California farmers grow two kinds of cotton. While upland, or acala, cotton is known for its strength and “spinability,” pima is often considered superior because it has an extra long staple, or fiber length. According to the Supima organization, pima is 45 percent stronger than other types of cotton.
Farmers in Madera, Merced, Fresno, Kings and Kern counties grow about 90 percent of the nation’s supply of pima cotton, while the remainder comes from Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. In order to carry the Supima trademark, a product must be made of 100 percent U.S. pima cotton.
“The cotton we use is grown in the San Joaquin Valley and generally gets sent to a company in Georgia that spins the cotton into yarn,” Shafer explained. “From there, it can either go back to Los Angeles, where it gets knitted, or it can be sent to Japan, where it gets woven into denim.”
After the cotton destined to become Agave denim is milled into a woven fabric, it returns to a manufacturer in the Los Angeles area called Caitac Garment Processing Inc. There the jeans are cut, sewn and washed to Shafer’s specifications. A single pair of jeans can undergo between 15 and 20 separate processes during its construction to create the final look.
Caitac manufactures up to 6,000 pieces of denim a day. For Agave, the company creates 7,000 to 10,000 pieces a month.
“The trick of Supima is, this jean won’t wear out,” Shafer said. “I’m not trying to take over the world. For me it’s about quality, not quantity.”
To construct Agave knitwear, Supima yarn is sent to Design Knit Inc., a Los Angeles-based knitting mill in its third generation of family ownership. There the yarn is transformed into a soft, high-quality knit fabric and then sent out to be dyed and sewn.
At this point, Shafer’s line of Agave clothing is ready to be sold in high-end department stores and boutiques.
While many well-known brands are made with Supima—such as Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Victoria’s Secret, 291 Venice, James Perse and Splendid—emerging designers are also taking a turn at the high-quality fiber. In an annual runway show known as the Supima Design Competition, up-and-coming talent is given an opportunity to strut their stuff in front of New York’s fashion elite.
Supima fashions are available for every budget, whether the item is to be worn to a glitzy party or while attending a sporting event. High-end jeans by designers like Agave and Marc Allison sell in the $150 to $300 range. Supima T-shirts can start at just a few dollars, and retailer Lane Bryant has tees for $19.99. High-end tees sell for between $50 and $100.
Supima Chairman Jeff Elder, who markets cotton for J.G. Boswell Co. in Hanford, said he’s impressed with how far Supima has come.
“Five years ago, I could walk into Bakersfield and say, ‘Have you ever heard of Supima cotton?’ and they would say, ‘No,’ not knowing that the best cotton in the world was being grown five miles away,” Elder said. “The designers and fabric manufacturers have really embraced Supima for apparel. Now we’re finally getting to the point where we’re reaching the consumer.”
For Cameron—whose first-ever Supima shopping experience yielded a large bag of shirts from Brooks Brothers—being part of the cotton business has given him a different perspective on farming.
“When we harvest cotton, I think of it as harvesting clothes, not just cotton,” he said. “When the cotton is harvested and baled, there is a sense of accomplishment and pride knowing that I was able to grow another crop of premium cotton fiber that will find its way into some of the finest garments in the world.”
Christine Souza is a reporter for California Country. She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or email@example.com.
- Cotton, which in California is usually planted in March and April, requires about 180 to 200 days to reach full maturity and be ready for harvest.
- From the field, cotton moves to nearby gins to separate the lint and the seed. The cotton first goes through dryers to reduce the moisture content and then through cleaning equipment to remove foreign matter.
- The California cotton sector directly provides for more than 20,000 jobs on farms and in cotton gins, warehouses, cottonseed oil mills and textile mills. In addition to direct employment, when employment related to the value-added goods and service of cotton’s domestic and export trade is considered, it is estimated that cotton accounts for an additional 137,000 jobs in California.
- California farmers grow two varieties of cotton: pima and upland, or acala. Pima has a longer growing season and prefers heavier soils. In finished products from towels to T-shirts, it is prized for its softness and durability.
- About 90 percent of the nation’s supply of pima cotton is grown in California. Last year farmers in the Golden State produced 350,000 bales of the premium fiber, enough to make 114 million pairs of jeans.
- Licenses to use the Supima brand are given only to select, high-quality textile mills, apparel and textile manufacturers and retailers whose products are made of 100 percent U.S. pima cotton. There are about 300 licensees in the world.