Cotton is a natural fiber — the most popular natural fiber in the world, but it’s not the natural choice, says Mark Messura, vice-president of the Global Product Supply Chain Division of Cotton Incorporated.

The global economic recession magnifies this unnatural choice and eventually filters down to growers in lower prices for their crop.

Messura, speaking at a recent Cotton Incorporated (CI) growers tour in Raleigh, N.C., says a cotton buyer has to discard 3 percent to 7 percent of the raw product, can’t lock in on a price, and the contents of his raw product are not uniform — that’s cotton.

Cotton’s competition, polyester and a number of other ‘non-natural’ fibers don’t have the waste, do have a locked in price and do have a uniform raw product. But these fibers don’t have the many natural qualities of cotton, the CI executive says.

“The enemy cotton growers should worry about is not other cotton growers, not even those in China or India or any other major cotton-producing country. The real enemy is, or to be more politically correct — the major competition is polyester,” Messura says.

On the positive side of the ledger, cotton is the primary fiber in 98 percent of the jeans bought in the U.S. Cotton makes up 86 percent of the weight of U.S.-bought knit shirts, 72 percent of tee shirts, 67 percent of slacks and 47 percent of dresses and skirts.

Increasing market share in women’s apparel is a big emphasis for CI, according to Messura. About 85 percent of all the cotton grown in the world goes into the manufacture of clothing — by far the largest percentage. The biggest part of the clothing market is apparel. Cotton currently has about 50 percent of the market share in women’s and girl’s apparel.

A big, and increasingly important market for cotton, Messura says, is athletic sportswear. Recent surveys indicate more than 60 percent of people who buy athletic and recreational sportswear prefer cotton. Developing a product that has the softness and comfort qualities of cotton has been a challenge for the cotton industry. Cotton’s thickness and moisture-absorbing qualities are detrimental in athletic clothing.

Wicking Windows is a major breakthrough for cotton. Cotton clothing made with the Wicking Window process essentially moves moisture from the back to the front, or the coated to the uncoated side of the garment.

A big difference between cotton and polyester is that cotton fibers are more absorbent, or hydrophilic, while polyester and other petroleum-based synthetics are not as absorbent, or hydrophobic.

Bill Rearick, director of textile chemistry research at CI explains, “Synthetic fabric that wicks absorbs less water, due to the thin construction and not as much due to their underlying hydrophobic nature. The drying time was much less for synthetics because they were thinner. However, the drying rate was essentially the same for all fabrics that wick.”

Holding on to the market share in tee shirts is an ongoing challenge, because of the emergence of synthetic athletic wear that has made its way into the tee shirt market. Though most people think of cotton when they think of tee shirts, that particular segment of the cotton apparel market has gradually declined over the past few years.

Wicking Windows is a process that will allow cotton to better compete for the athletic wear market and should help stop or slow down the loss in market share for tee shirts and other clothing items that are affected by the out-growth of synthetic products coming from athletic apparel made from polyester, nylon and other synthetic fibers.

On a global basis, the new cotton moisture wicking sportswear is already making a difference. In China, Lining, similar to Nike in the U.S., will bring over 500,000 all cotton athletic shirts to the market.

Dong II, a global spinner of cotton, headquartered in South Korea will be introducing new improved cotton moisture wicking fabrics into the world market.

The single most important market for cotton is denim. One of every five pounds of cotton sold worldwide goes into the manufacture of denim jeans and jackets. Being the world’s most popular market, puts a big target on cotton’s back for synthetic fibers.

Products like Storm Denim, give denim a water repellent quality, but don’t take away the comfort qualities of cotton. If the Storm Denim process goes into production, it would add about 50-80 cents per garment to the end cost of the product, Messura says.

“We can’t overlook the added cost when we develop new ways to use cotton. The average price of cotton apparel worldwide is going down. We have to keep price in mind in our efforts to build market share in apparel products,” Messura stresses.

Stay True cotton is a good example he says. This process allows denim jeans to retain up to 93 percent of their original color after 25 washings. Stay True has some marketing advantages, but we have to be sure consumers are willing to pay for it, Messura explains.

Building market share in non-apparel products can be even more difficult, he says. Unlike apparel, baby wipes, cotton puffs and feminine hygiene products do not require cotton fiber content labels.

Most people assume diapers are cotton products, yet little cotton goes into baby diapers. Diapers are predominantly made from wood pulp, which is cheaper than cotton and highly absorbent. Cotton is making some headway into the baby care market. Pampers recently introduced a new baby wipe product that contains 30 percent cotton.

The global ‘green movement’ has frequently targeted cotton, but the industry is making great strides to combat efforts by non-natural fiber manufacturers to portray cotton as an energy-using, polluting source for wearing apparel.

“There is no doubt we must leave a smaller environmental footprint to compete with synthetics — that goes all the way down to cotton growers and all the way through the manufacturing process,” Messura says.

Despite a dramatic loss in cotton acreage in the U.S. in the past few years and despite the virtual loss of a domestic market, the cotton industry in the U.S. continues to move forward. As long as the growth in demand for cotton products outruns cotton production, cotton farmers will likely fare well.

e-mail: rroberson@farmpress.com