Imagine two boxes of pencils. In the first, the pencils are all the same length, perfect in every way. In the second, each pencil is different, some are short, some long, a few are broken. Your objective? Market the second box to consumers.
This is similar to the challenge that cotton fiber faces every day, says Mark Messura, senior vice president, global supply chain marketing, Cotton Incorporated. Cotton fiber varies in length, thickness and other properties, synthetic fibers don’t. Insert cotton’s unique characteristics into a supply chain that can change on a whim, and you can see why spinners and apparel manufacturers are sometimes inclined to push toward higher blends of synthetic fiber.
Thankfully, the cotton industry sustains a strong push in the opposite direction. Most producers know about the agronomic research carried out by Cotton Incorporated’s Cotton Research & Promotion Program. But not many know about the program’s involvement in trend setting and textile innovation.
For example, the program employs a team of trend forecasters, based in New York City, who fan out around the world, looking for the emerging trends in color, style and fashion. They forecast these trends two years into the future, and offer to help to companies design their products at the earliest stages.
Noted Messura, “Those products you see on the shelves today were ideas two years ago. That’s the cycle in apparel. We have to be two years in advance in our thinking, showing people why they should look at certain trends and just as importantly, how they can be linked to the use of cotton.”
Perhaps cotton’s biggest textile innovation is its entry into the performance apparel market, long a mainstay of polyester. Polyester has traditionally been preferred over cotton because of its ability to wick away perspiration.
It was a tough market to crack until Cotton Incorporated researchers created a moisture management technology for cotton, which allows moisture to move outward through the fabric and away from the skin. Under Armor markets this technology through a brand called Charged Cotton. It’s been one of their most successful products.
Cotton Incorporated researchers also want to make sure they stay innovative even in markets long thought to be the sole domain of cotton, like denim.
“Every other fiber wants a piece of that market,” Messura said. “Our message is that real denim is made from cotton. But we have to be innovative. So we developed products like Storm Denim, which has a water repellent surface that is still breathable.”
The same technology has been introduced in hunting apparel, which also had been primarily a synthetic market. “It’s comfortable. It’s also quiet, not like polyester,” Messura said. “The deer can’t hear you coming. Your wife can’t hear you leaving.”
Not a bad argument for that second box of pencils.