Sept./Oct. 2016 California Bountiful magazine
Story by Ching Lee
Photos courtesy of PimaCott and Cannon Michael
Science helps assure quality of premium cotton products
Merced County farmer Cannon Michael walks through his cotton field planted with pima, which is used to make high-end fabrics.
Chances are, your closets and linen cabinets are stocked with cotton textiles. You might be wearing a few garments made from cotton right now. It's the world's most popular fiber for fabrics, but different kinds of cotton have different qualities. In the world of luxury sheets, designer apparel and high-end fabrics, pima cotton has earned a reputation as one of the finest.
Characterized by its extra-long fibers, or what are known as "staples" in the business, pima cotton commands a premium price. It's also in limited supply: It accounts for only 3 percent of the cotton produced in the nation, with California farmers growing the bulk of it.
But you might be surprised to learn that for years, there's been concern that some spinning mills have been blending pima with less-expensive and lower-quality cottons, while still labeling goods as 100 percent pima. To assure the quality of their products, leaders in the business have turned to some cutting-edge technology. DNA testing allows them to screen the cotton for impurities, as well as tag, track and trace their products to guarantee authenticity.
A hidden problem
"So much cotton goes overseas after it leaves the growers' fields," Merced County cotton farmer Cannon Michael said. "And in the past, you had absolutely no clue where it was going to end up exactly, or what people were going to do with it."
Michael grows pima cotton for the American division of Himatsingka, a manufacturer and distributor of home textile products. The company received startling news from scientists at Applied DNA Sciences in New York. ADNAS was testing fiber samples of U.S. textile products and notified Himatsingka that a pima product the company was selling wasn't the real thing.
CEO David Greenstein said he initially didn't believe the claims. But after realizing that ADNAS was actually illuminating problems in his supply chain, he went back to the company to try to find solutions.
ADNAS currently uses two patented technologies to tackle the problem. The first is a fiber test that detects the cotton's DNA. Scientists can then tell if the fiber contains Gossypium barbadense DNA found in extra-long staple pima cotton, Gossypium hirsutum DNA found in standard upland cotton, or both.
Supima, a promotional organization for pima cotton that licenses use of its brand name to mills, manufacturers and retailers, has been using DNA fiber testing to spot-check the integrity of products carrying its name. The group, which comprises pima growers from California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, started working with ADNAS several years ago, following a tip from some of its longtime yarn manufacturers. They told Supima they had strong suspicions that some spinners were diluting Supima fiber with other cottons.
In fact, ADNAS found that some 89 percent of U.S. textile products it tested didn't comply with their label claims, said MeiLin Wan, ADNAS vice president of textile sales. A more recent study the company conducted included samples from around the world and found that 60 to 70 percent of textile products had inaccurate labeling.
"It's almost like a perfect crime, because cotton bolls look the same," Wan said.
But she also said many consumers catch on when they've been sold fabrics that don't match the label. When a product doesn't hold up after just a few washings or doesn't look quite right, they often know something is wrong, Wan said.
For those who know cotton and work with it, there is no mistaking fabric that's pure pima, which Greenstein describes as softer, stronger and brighter. In fabric tests, Wan said pima "blows everything out of the water" because of its durability, color and performance.
"When we finally followed the cotton all around the world back into the U.S., we were looking at the fabric and the manufacturer was like, 'Wow, we didn't even know what 100 percent pima looked like,'" she said. "It was like silk—the luster, the smoothness, the performance."
Harvested cotton is tagged with SigNature T, a synthetic DNA that sticks permanently to the fiber. Once the cotton is marked, it can be traced and authenticated from the gin to the finished product through a simple DNA test, above.
Assuring quality with science
In order to follow its cotton, Himatsingka is going one step beyond fiber testing. To assure quality, the company is using DNA that ADNAS has botanically engineered to track cotton from the field through all the steps of its entire supply chain.
Through a misting process, the DNA—detectable in minuscule amounts—is applied to the cotton after it leaves the field, marking it so it can be traced and verified from the gin to the finished product. The DNA sticks permanently to the fiber and is not affected by dyes, bleaches, finishing chemicals or other manufacturing processes. Once fibers are tagged, companies such as Himatsingka can identify its fibers with a simple DNA test commonly used in forensic labs and hospitals every day, ADNAS President and CEO James Hayward said.
"This is the future of global trade," he said. "Everyone wants to know where their stuff comes from—and they want to know that their stuff is what it claims to be."
Greenstein noted that while the DNA tagging material is expensive to make, shoppers won't notice much difference in their price. That's because so little of the material is needed. Only 1 gram of DNA material is needed to mark 1 billion grams—more than a ton—of cotton. Tagging and testing cotton is necessary not only as a deterrent for those cutting corners along the supply chain, he said, but also as an assurance to his customers that "we say what we mean."
"It's like having a 'Beware of Dog' sign on the front door," he said. "But you have to have a dog, too. So it's a combination of the deterrent and testing that we think gives us the closest chance to get pure."
Himatsingka has been rolling out its PimaCott brand for pima cotton products that have been tagged and verified using this DNA technology. The brand first hit store shelves last year, and Greenstein said more products bearing the label will arrive in stores this fall. PimaCott uses only pima cotton from San Joaquin Valley farms and now contracts with 11 California farmers.
"It's almost going to be like a new product in some ways, because people haven't had the ortunity to really know what pure pima cotton products feel like because there's been such widespread cheating," farmer Michael said.
With DNA technology and the measures PimaCott is taking, Wan said shoppers can now pick up a textile product in the store and know that the cotton was produced by California farmers.
"That, to me, is the revolution in the industry," she said. "It closed the loop and brought the farmer closer to the consumer."