Spinners break open the dense bales of cotton shipped from the cotton gin and fluff up the fiber, which then passes through a series of drums that card and comb the fibers so that they lay parallel to each other. Once combed, the fibers are 'drawn' into a long snake like fiber tube called 'roving'. From there, the fiber can be spun by hand or machine and drawn into a range of different thicknesses called 'counts'.
After spinning the yarn is shipped to the weaver or knitter to make fabric. It is generally at this stage where the fabric is dyed into different colors (piece dyed). Yarn can also be dyed before weaving or knitting into fabric. This enables stripes and patterns to be achieved. If you are wearing a plaid, checked, or striped shirt it was most likely yarn dyed.
Other means of coloring occur at the very beginning of product development, including dyeing the fiber before it is spun (stock dyed). This enables spinners to blend different colors of fiber together before spinning to create 'melange' or 'heather' effects. In contrast, garment dyeing, occurs at the very end of product development - finished garments that are a raw white color are immersed fully into the dye bath. Generally speaking garment dyeing uses the most water and is the cheapest means by which to color a product.
Fabrics go through a tremendous amount of finishing. Each brand is competing to attract the attention of the consumer, and so different fabric qualities are constantly developed to create a marketing edge. Whether it's a coating, a shrink-proofing application, a weathered appearance or a soft hand-feel, each finish requires energy, water and/or chemicals to produce. Asking your favorite brands about the energy, water and chemicals used in their garment production as well as the carbon footprint of their garment will help create more and more transparency about garment processing.
Once the fabric is finished it is shipped to the cut, make and trim (CMT) factory to be made into garments that are then bagged and shipped to a store near you.
This long process of converting a cotton fiber into finished garments is called the supply chain and is extremely complicated. Each stage - spinning, weaving, knitting, garment making - often occurs in a different mill, with the yarn, fabric, garments and trims shipped between each stage to the next producer in the chain. This complexity is further amplified by a global fashion industry, where each stage typically occurs in a different country! Imagine the many components that comprise a full garment (buttons, interfacing, fabric, yarn, dye stiff) being shipped across the globe at any one time. When this is extrapolated across the hundreds of styles a company produces in a season, and millions of units per style, it's easy to imagine how complicated and challenging managing a supply chain is for an individual brand. Most often, this logistical complexity requires a central person to co-ordinate (known as an agent) to ensure quality requirements and timely delivery of the product. Most brands therefore interact with their agent to buy a finished product, rather than with individual manufacturers in the supply chain.
This long complex and opaque supply chain structure is one of the largest hurdles that the Sustainable Cotton Project (SCP) faces in bringing Cleaner Cotton™ to market. Brands simply don't have the means or the time to track exactly where their cotton fiber comes from and what products it goes into. And without that transparency and accessibility, it's difficult to utilize a new kind of cotton fiber.
Clothing brands research and listen to their consumers closely because their businesses depend on selling more products. The consumer is 'king'. Letting your favorite brand know that you want more information on where the fiber in your clothes comes from, and asking for locally grown Cleaner Cotton™ will prompt them to spend more time on supply chain transparency, and will help us bring Cleaner Cotton™ fiber to market.