The Cloth of Kings
By Basil Springer

"Sea Island Cotton is considered the grandfather of the highly desirable Egyptian and American Supima cottons, though superior to both"

The successful development of Singapore and Japan, countries not blessed with natural resources, is an example for the rest of the world. In the Caribbean Islands we are blessed with the small is beautiful‚ syndrome; sun, sand and sea; the potential for tourism linkages with other sectors; some mineral resources; yet we have not systematically been able to exploit them, on a sustained basis, to impact poverty reduction and to set us on a path towards developed country status.

Why are Guyana and Jamaica, countries which were regarded as having tremendous potential when they became independent in the 1960s, not up there with Singapore, which was a sleepy fishing village in 1959 when Lee Kuan Yew‚s party took over? The Caribbean countries under the American sphere of influence‚ have thrived through tourism and financial services. King sugar‚ provided some stability and growth but alas commodity sugar is now in the sunset phase of its cycle. Only now that we are under the stress of the fading sunset environment, quite paradoxically, we are now beginning to see the light and are looking at sunrise industries as alternatives.

In Barbados, a big effort is being made in terms of resuscitation of the West Indian Sea Island Cotton (WISIC) industry, where we have, at last, begun to recognize the value of this unique product and to do something about it ourselves. Of course, WISIC has been around for centuries but we have been at the mercy of foreign masters, who have paid us as little as possible for the lint and then proceeded to reap the bonanza from the retail of finished goods. This new thrust is being led by Exclusive Cottons of the Caribbean Inc. (ECCI) a recently incorporated company.

ECCI Chairman, Mr. Anstey Scott, who has just returned from a working vacation, drew to our attention to an article in the British Airways Highlife Magazine (May 2004). It was entitled „Welcome to Cotton Country‰ and went on to describe American Pima cotton as the Cadillac of cotton. This article pointed out that traces of cotton fabric dating back nearly 7,000 years have been found in Mexico and today the world uses more cotton than any other natural fibre.

The world‚s largest cotton grower is China with 42 million farmers making 23 million bales per year. In the U.S. 30,000 farmers grow 17.3 million bales per year. Five types of cotton are grown commercially: Upland, Asiatic, Egyptian, Sea Island and American Pima (a Sea Island/Egyptian hybrid, also called Supima). Pima has long, strong, yet very soft fibres and is known as the extra long staple‚ or ELS (which accounts for only 3% of the world‚s entire cotton production). Sea Island and some types of Egyptian cotton also fall into this category.

Pima cotton is used throughout the fashion industry from cat-walk to high street, thanks to its exceptionally soft feel. A bale of Pima cotton is like pussy willow to the touch. One of the biggest designer users is Ralph Lauren who uses it throughout his casual men‚s wear range, including his famous polo shirts, as well as in his home collection of bed linen. Hugo Boss uses Pima for its lounge wear and crewneck T-Shirts. Justin Oh, the Malaysian born designer whose shows at London Fashion Week makes wearable modern classic in Pima. Bodas underwear has a Pima range of cotton basics for women available at Harvey Nicholls. In Arizona, cotton is referred to as white gold‚ but the profit margin is narrow because 1 lb. of lint can sell for less than US$1.00 in the commodity cotton market.

However, the secret is that Sea Island Cotton grown in the Caribbean islands produces the cloth of kings‚ in the context of the lushness of sheen, the staple length, its tensile strength, micronaire and ultimately its feel. In recent years the lint has sold for US$10 per lb. in comparison to the $1.00 per pound, stated above. Unfortunately, for us in the Caribbean, we have allowed WISIC to be blended to enhance the quality of other cottons on the market. We have been unable to preserve it comprehensively as a 100% pure product and exploit that exclusive market.

The only entity in the world that has aggressively marketed 100% pure finished goods from WISIC, produced in the Caribbean, is Gulf Stream Trading Ltd. out of North Carolina. ECCI has samples of GST finished goods made from Barbados lint. GST trades under the Carstarphen brand and has been able to command prices for its finished goods which reflect the regal status as manifested by the feel and touch of up-market consumers of high quality cotton products. ECCI‚s thrust to present a Caribbean face to the global market for 100% pure finished goods could have its foundation in a partnership with GST and the Carstarphen label. The Government of Barbados is fully behind the ECCI initiative and strongly supports the concept of production, processing and marketing partnerships to exploit this natural unique Caribbean island resource.

(Dr. Basil Springer GCM is Change-Engine Consultant, Caribbean Business Enterprise Trust Inc. (CBET) -