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Cotton: From Comfort to Innovation

By Blair McCowen

Picture this, you are a young child growing up on a cotton farm. As your father and other family members work to complete harvest on the cotton strippers, you are tasked with tarping modules, or perhaps tromping cotton in cotton trailers. As you climb up the ladder and toss the tarp on top of the module and begin untying it, you take a second and lay down among the fiber that has just been pressed. Or, as your legs begin to grow weary from tromping cotton, you sit for a spell down inside the trailer. As the cool fall breeze blows across your face and the familiar smell of fiber, dirt and burrs fills your senses and you relax, you begin to wonder where the cotton goes next after it leaves the gin, and even the warehouse. Maybe it turns into jeans and shirts. “That can’t be all. Where else does it go?” you might ponder.

Cotton’s main use is in the textile industry, but today, the fiber crop many know, grow, and love has been allowed to find a foothold in many other consumer products on the market thanks to innovative technology. When the seed, fiber, and even burrs find new homes in new products, value is added to each component of the crop every step of the way.

Stacey Gorman, Director of Communications for The Cotton Board, said the uses for cotton are endless, and each use adds value to both the consumer and producer.

“The possibilities for cotton are limitless,” Gorman said. “Together, through the Cotton Research and Promotion Program, cotton producers and importers are funding cutting-edge scientific research, award-winning advertising campaigns, and state-of-the-art manufacturing techniques to help this trusted, reliable crop find new markets for generations to come.”

At the helm of expanding cotton’s use further in the world of textiles is Cotton Incorporated. The organization has worked to develop new technologies that present cotton as a desirable component of fabrics for the textile industry – from workout wear to everyone’s favorite blue jeans. Some technologies that have been developed by Cotton Incorporated with funding from the Cotton Research and Promotion Program include:

TransDRY® Technology – A high performance moisture management application for fabrics that performs as well as other synthetics on the market.

Brands that carry TransDRY® Technology include Under Armor®, Eddie Bauer®, and Remington 1816TM.

Wicking WindowsTM, Storm Cotton, and Storm DenimTM Technology – High performance finishes that help move or repel moisture from the surfaces to which they are applied. This technology repels liquid and still allows moisture vapor to pass through the fabric, decreasing the time it takes the garments to dry.

Brands that carry products with this technology include: Cabela’s Guideware and Roughneck lines; L.L. Bean’s Katahdin Iron Works®; The North Face sweatshirts; Under Armor Charged Cotton® Storm; 5.11 Tactical’s® water repellent job shirts; and other popular brands in Canada, East Asia, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand.

Tough CottonTM Technology – Enhances durability of the clothing and is mostly used in children’s clothing.

Brands that carry products with this technology include: Walmart’s Wonder Nation girls leggings; Target’s Cat and JackTM boys’ school uniform pants, girls leggings, and girls fashion pants; and JCPenney’s Arizona and Okie Dokie brands in girls leggings.

“Globally, 442 companies are licensed to use one of Cotton Incorporated’s key fiber technologies,” Gorman said. “It is not a requirement for apparel partners to label their products with Cotton Incorporated’s technologies’ names – they can call their products whatever they choose – but it is a requirement that if they use the technology they must use it on cotton.”

According to Cotton Incorporated, “Cotton’s natural properties can be enhanced through application to technology innovations that reinvent cotton as a true performance fiber. Through the use of Cotton Incorporated’s branded technology solutions, cotton can be engineered to manage moisture as well or better than many top-performing synthetics, or made to repel moisture with exceptional durability over the life of the garment.”

In addition to these technologies, Cotton Incorporated also works to promote other characteristics of cotton, such as the fiber’s ability to provide a better night’s sleep, its versatility, durability, low maintenance, and comfort.

“Cotton is used in tons of products consumers know and love,” Gorman said. “From denim blue jeans and t-shirts to bedding and towels, cotton continues to dominate many traditional markets. However, as synthetic fibers get better and better at imitating the feel of cotton, it is more important than ever for consumers to check their labels to ensure they are buying cotton.”

While cotton may best be known for its uses in the world of textiles, recent research is helping promote the fiber crop’s presence and use in other areas of production. For more than 10 years, Cotton Incorporated experts have been continually pushing the crop into nonwoven markets and shaking things up in areas that are traditionally synthetic based. Some new and innovative products include:

  • High protein, high value cottonseed meal feed for shrimp farms
  • All natural, zero trans-fat cottonseed cooking oil
  • Nutrient-rich whole cottonseed dairy feedstuff for cattle
  • Pampers Pure Protection diapers and wipes
  • UltraTouch™ Denim Insulation
  • Spray-on hydromulch
  • Mushroom Materials® – naturally grown, 100 percent biodegradable packaging
  • JaDecor Natural Wall Covering – to absorb heat and sound
  • Zeal Optics Cotton Bioplastic Sunglasses

Cotton has many more uses than those listed here, however, one thing remains true: brands and retailers are gaining more and more interest in using cotton and its byproducts in what they produce. Gorman said consumers can know for sure if a product contains cotton by looking for the iconic cotton seal.

“More than 75 percent of consumers say brands using the Seal of Cotton trademark help them make an informed purchase decision and their shopping experience easier,” Gorman said. “Consumers expect quality in the apparel and home fashions they purchase. The Seal of Cotton enhances the fact that the cotton products they purchase will meet those expectations. Each impression made reinforces consumer recognition of cotton apparel and home textiles and positively impacts the overall demand for cotton and its products.”

Cotton Incorporated and the Cotton Board also continually work to make cotton both known and attractive to brands and retailers through educational efforts that are designed to benefit both the produce of the crop and the producer of the end product.

“The Importer Support Program of the Cotton Board is a critical part of the overall research and marketing activities for cotton,” Gorman said. “Managed by Cotton Incorporated, it is designed to benefit both the importer segment as well as U.S. producers by its contribution to enhancing overall cotton demand. Some major activities of the Importer Support Program include: interactive workshops, educational tools, economic forums, industry summits, and research initiatives that educate brands and retailers on the advantages of using cotton.”

Cotton Incorporated also works with Cotton Council International to help promote U.S. cotton in international markets. CCI partners with the U.S. cotton industry and USDA to educate brands, retailers and textile manufacturers about the quality and reliability of U.S. cotton. CCI supports start-up manufacturers by introducing them to brands and retailers that can market innovative new products.

Finding new and innovative uses for a product that has been used in textiles for centuries is a sure way to make cotton more valuable in the years to come. Whether in textiles or other new and innovative products, cotton has a place in everyone’s life. As the cotton market is ever-changing, other uses for the fiber crop are being developed, ensuring that value will be added to cotton through its supply- chain journey.

“While downturns in cotton prices make headlines, new markets and innovations for cotton have the potential to make history,” Gorman said. “The Cotton Research and Promotion Program continues to cultivate new uses and applications for cotton to make sure U.S. cotton has a place in the market for generations to come.”