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American Pima cotton
Pima Cotton

American Pima cotton, like Egyptian cotton, is an Extra-Long Staple (ELS) cotton (the term “staple” refers to fiber length.) All cotton has a staple: Upland cottons tend to be classified as short to medium staple, which is an inch to an inch and three-sixteenths long; SJV Acala is a long staple, or inch and an eighth; and Pima is an extra long staple, an inch and seven-sixteenths. Anything longer than an inch and three-eighths is considered ELS.

Pima cottons have been grown in the Southwestern U. S. since the early 1900’s, with the First World War giving research and development a boost. The Defense Department was looking for places to grow ELS “American-Egyptian” cottons, which are not only long fibered but exceptionally strong. At that time, ELS was used to make tire cords and high quality fabrics to cover the fuselage and wings of that still-new technological wonder, the airplane. (Goodyear, Ariz., in fact was founded by the tire company of the same name to be close to the source of cotton production.)

The end of the war and major changes in technology put a temporary halt to much of the U.S. research into ELS cottons, as cheaper, easier-to-produce materials found greater favor in aircraft and tires.

But about 1950, Pima cotton got a boost as USDA and other cotton breeders produced an ELS cotton with superior fiber properties, luster and silkiness and unusually high yield. The American ELS cotton was christened “Pima,” in recognition of Pima Indians who were helping to raise ELS cotton on the USDA experimental farm in Sacaton, Arizona.

The successful breeding of today’s American Pima is an interesting if convoluted tale that involves at least three continents and several hundred years of work.

The cotton species Gossypium barbadense, to which ELS cottons belong, originated in South America. However, the original fiber, like the current Tanguis cottons of Peru, was medium staple and fairly coarse.

Today’s ELS cottons trace back to the 1786 introduction of “Sea Island” cotton to the U.S. Cottonseed from the Bahama Islands, a G. barbadense species, (from where Christopher Columbus reportedly took samples to Europe in 1492) produced strikingly different fiber properties from the South American G. barbadense. (The exact origin of Sea Island cotton is unknown, but geneticists suggest genes from outside the species, possibly from G. hirsutum--Upland cotton--improved the raw material.)

The first successful crop of Sea Island was produced on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina in 1790. Production of ELS cotton later expanded into the interior regions of Georgia and Florida, but the best Sea Island cottons were grown, fittingly enough, on the Sea Islands: James, Edisto, John and Wadmalaw, off the Georgia Coast. (Sea Island also would lend its name in a roundabout way to the cottons that were easier to grow and produced not near the coast, but farther up land; thus today’s Upland cotton.)

The evolution of modern-day ELS cottons took another major step in 1825, when Sea Island cotton was taken to Egypt and crossbred with an Egyptian cotton named Jumel. The crossing of Jumel and Sea Island resulted in a new type, Ashmouni, in about 1860. Further refinements were made over the decades to Ashmouni, and Egyptian cottons gradually were improved until they could compete with the quality of Sea Island.

Then in 1908, USDA released an ELS cotton the agency dubbed “Yuma.” Yuma was selected from Mitafifi, an Egyptian type developed in 1887 from a cross of Ashmouni and Sea Island, and introduced into the southwestern U.S. in about 1900.

Meanwhile, back across the U.S., Sea Island cotton continued to be produced until 1920, when a severe boll weevil infestation devastated the crop. Attempts were made to revive the Sea Island industry in the U.S. in the 1930s, but failed. Most of the breeding effort for U.S. ELS cottons concentrated on the west, which was free of the boll weevil.

The first commercial ELS crop—all 375 bales of it—in the U.S. was produced in 1912. Between 1908 and 1949, four additional varieties were developed and released, including the forerunner of today’s Pima cotton.

Arizona, for most of the 20th Century, was the nation’s largest ELS-producing state. However, in 1989, cotton growers of California recognized the growing conditions of the San Joaquin Valley were ideally suited to Pima production and began to cultivate acreage. Over the next decade, Arizona’s production would dwindle to only a few thousand acres while California’s would explode, growing from about 50,000 bales per year to nearly 700,000.

New Mexico and Texas also produce Pima cotton, but to a much lesser degree than the Golden State.

Pima cotton is most readily identified in the field by its bright yellow blooms, which are much brighter and richer in color than the creamy white Upland blossoms.

It’s grown and harvested similarly to Upland cotton, though the growing season is about a month longer. And to preserve fiber quality and length, Pima cotton will most likely be “roller-ginned,” a type of ginning process that forces the seed out of the lint, rather than cutting it loose in an Upland “saw gin.”

The ginning process results in a lint that, to the untrained eye, looks more like wool, than cotton, due partly to the creamy color of the lint. But for the finest fabrics with unmatched strength, only Pima cotton will do.

The difficulty and somewhat higher cost of production, and the relative scarcity of the crop translate into considerably higher fiber prices for Pima. ELS prices are frequently 20 to 40 percent higher than Upland cotton prices, and it’s not uncommon to hear prices being quoted at over a dollar per pound.

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