Supima Cotton

Trivia time: What does the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co., Coco Chanel muse Suzy Parker and the current Casper mattress craze all have in common?

All three played a role in the development and current use of Pima cotton. Specifically, a premium variety of the cotton called “Supima” cotton that originates solely from California and parts of the Southwestern U.S. and is found in Brooks Brothers shirts and Levi Strauss & Co. jeans as well as home goods products such as high-end sheets and pillow cases.

Supima cotton garners one percent of the cotton market, is noted for its “soft durability” and is utilized across the fashion apparel, accessories and home goods markets. The cotton is marketed by Supima, a not-for-profit organization that represents Pima cotton growers in the U.S. Supima cotton is positioned as a premium, American-grown extra-long staple, or ELS, cotton that is popular among brands, designers and retailers who utilize the material for its strength and softness.

Supima is the marketing and promotional organization for the American Pima cotton industry. Supima generates awareness and demand for the premium extra-long staple cotton grown on over 600 family farms in California, Arizona, New Mexico and West Texas.

The origins of Supima — the non-profit organization — and Supima cotton can be traced back more than 100 years ago when Pima cotton was first discovered in 1911. Its crop remained small until the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. commercialized the durable and lightweight fiber for use in tire cord for its automobile tires. When Goodyear began to use Pima cotton regularly, the company bought up to 16,000 acres of arable farmland in Arizona, which significantly expanded Pima’s use in automobile, bicycle and airplane wing tires. By the Fifties, there was a demand for high-quality U.S. Pima cotton outside of the industrial arena.

The strong demand for Pima cotton led to the establishment of the Supima Organization, which was founded in 1954. Soon after its formation, the organization shortened its name to Supima, which is a merging of the words “Superior” and “Pima.”

Buxton Midyette, Vice President of Marketing and Promotions for Supima, said this is “a unique story for luxury fibers because [Pima] is tough stuff. It was tire cord.” There were eight pounds of Pima in every single Model T tire and the fiber was used in the fuselage of the plane for Charles Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic, according to Supima.

Supima cotton’s exceptional softness is due to its extra-long fibers that allow for a softer, finer fabric than standard cotton, and its noticeable luster is the result of a smoother and cleaner yarn. The longer fiber length enables it to be spun more tightly, which creates finer yarns. As finer yarns can be woven together more securely, the material is significantly more durable and less prone to pilling and shrinkage as compared to its competitors in the market. Supima cotton’s thin fiber density also allows dyes to absorb more evenly, which creates deeper, more saturated colors that fade less quickly over time.

Supima cotton boll at harvest time. 

In the late Fifties, the organization’s first advertising campaign aimed to solidify Supima as “America’s luxury fiber” by using supermodel and Coco Chanel muse Suzy Parker in its advertising. By the Eighties, Supima cotton was so high in demand in the U.S. market that it launched its international export program, which soon became a choice material for Swiss and Italian shirting mills and high-end spinners.

The organization’s continued success led to the launch of Supima’s licensing program for textile mills, manufacturers and retailers worldwide, that enables all entities to manufacture with Supima cotton and become licensed to gain full access to the Supima brand, which has grown to more than 400 licensees. Brand partnerships include companies such as Brooks Brothers, Uniqlo, Banana Republic, Michael Stars, Splendid, Lacoste, QVC and Levi Strauss & Co. “For each and every one of them, the Supima name stands alone as a unique identifier that brings value to their brand,” said Marc A. Lewkowitz, President and Chief Executive Officer of Supima.

In the early Aughts, Supima cotton entered the premium denim market when leading denim mills in Japan, Italy and Turkey looked to Supima for a sturdy, luxurious material. Today’s “third wave Millennial brands,” such as 3×1 and Stance, are also partnered with Supima, leveraging its high quality and performance to enhance the positioning of their brands. “Millennial brands want to create the best. Their whole initiative is to make an amazing product and to use amazing products to make that product, “ Lewkowitz said.

As a result, denim has become an important segment for the brand. “Denim has been a great area of growth for Supima. It’s kind of unlikely because usually in apparel you think about Supima you think about dress shirts or T-shirts, but denim has been a very exciting area for us. People pay attention to what their jeans are made of and Supima is as premium as you get in terms of the those materials,” Midyette told WWD.

And, Supima cotton extends beyond apparel, as it has also become a popular choice for sheets, towels and home market products. The mattress brand Casper, who selected Supima cotton for its sheeting, touts the cotton as “soft, breathable sheets that are engineered with one of the longest cotton fibers in the world” and Casper praised the fiber for its “soft, crisp and airy” texture. Casper selected Supima cotton for its durability that prevents the material from pilling or wearing thin and its unique ability to improve with every wash, according to Casper. The firm considered cotton type, staple length, yard, weave, thread count and functionality prior to embarking on a partnership with Supima.

Harvesting in California’s San Joaquin Valley. 

Sustainability is another defining characteristic of Supima cotton as all Supima cotton growers participate in Cotton Leads, a program committed to responsible cotton production. Many also participate the Better Cotton Initiative, which aims to enhance global cotton production for the supply chain.

The commitment toward responsible cotton production comes as global cotton market is projected to show a gain in the 2017-2018 growing season, and niche commodities such as Pima cotton face high demand in the market.

“Supima growers are at the forefront of technology and agricultural practices to improve the quality of their cotton while minimizing the impact on the environment,” Midyette told WWD. “All Supima falls under the Cotton Leads program that cover the U.S. and Australian cotton producers showing the efforts being made by the industry to continuously strive for improvements in the reduction of resources while increasing the outputs and improving the environment.”

Supima cotton is a natural, renewable and biodegradable premium fiber that is grown in compliance with strict United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) , U.S. environmental protection agency standards as well as California EPA standards. It is grown in desert environments that have some of the highest standards of control and oversight on agricultural production in the world, according to the brand,” Midyette added.

“Furthermore, the higher strength of Supima results in garments that will wear better and last longer,” he said. “As with all cottons, Supima is 100 percent bio-degradable.”

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