On a clear, blue October afternoon, Gerald White's north Delta cotton field was ready, willing and calling to the picker. But not everyone there saw what White was seeing.

The Marks, Miss., cotton producer saw fluffy, white cotton filling the basket — at close to 70 cents a pound, quite a breathtaking sight. But Alan Dorrell, an apparel manufacturer from Rochester, Ind., saw acre after acre of fabric. Supplier Sandy Haynes and fireman Mike Hill saw uniforms, lots of uniforms.

Dorrell, president of Topps Safety and Apparel, Inc., was visiting Haynes, a customer of Topps uniform lines, to get to know his customer a little better. Haynes, who owns Delta Uniform and Fire Supply in Marks, has significantly increased uniform purchases from Topps in recent years. Topps is the U.S. subsidiary of the Faithful Group, of which Dorrell is deputy chairman. The family operation got its start making uniforms for a regiment of the British army in 1834.

Haynes, in turn, thought it would be a good idea to invite Dorrell, Mike Mehaffie, regional sales manager for Topps, and Hill, deputy chief, Oxford Fire Department, to White's cotton field for a closer look at how the natural fiber is harvested.

It's not often that you see a cotton producer, apparel manufacturer, and the seller and the buyer of the finished product in the same place, exchanging ideas and their experiences with cotton.

“We're seeing something produced here in Mississippi that makes the full circle back to the city as a finished product,” said Haynes, who sells industrial uniforms for firemen and policemen.

Of course, it's impossible to track exactly where cotton goes after it leaves the city, but the cotton harvested here in Marks is of the same quality that goes into the fabric that Dorrell turns into uniforms, which Haynes sells to Hill.

So who's to say that some of the cotton fiber in the shirt that Hill is wearing might not have come from White's field. Why couldn't cotton travel from Marks to mill, to apparel manufacturer, then back to Marks?

At any rate, it's increasingly rare to hear of cotton grown, spun and made into apparel without ever leaving the shores of origin. For whatever reason, the United States is exporting a lot more raw cotton these days and has lost much of its textile mill capacity.

Dorrell, who is originally from Worcester, England, is doing his part to keep domestic mills in business, purchasing his raw fabric from Springfield, based in South Carolina. And he noted that his firewear fabric supplier, whether it's Springfield or some other mill, will likely remain of U.S. origin because of the National Fire Prevention Association's strict requirements on firewear.

“It's a quality assurance, certification process,” Dorrell said of the NFPA requirements. “Every batch of fabric produced has to be subjected to performance testing (its ability to resist radiant heat up to 500 degrees F and to self extinguish).”

“The testing is best done stateside. It would be very expensive to have the fabric made in Asia, then brought to the United States, unpacked, certified and packed back up.”

According to Hill, firewear worn by shift personnel in Oxford has to not only conform to NFPA, but be tough and comfortable. “A fireman is constantly going through training, so we have to have a product that is going to last through training on a weekly basis to prepare him for everything he has to do to fight a fire.”

Fire department shift personnel wear a firewear uniform that is 45 percent cotton and 55 percent man-made, flame-resistant fiber, noted Hill. The bulky turnout gear, which firemen wear when fighting fires, is 100 percent flame-resistant fiber and does not contain cotton. It can be worn over an everyday firewear uniform.

As Dorrell climbed down the ladder of White's John Deere 9976 cotton harvester after a spin through a cotton field, he was clearly impressed with his new perspective on raw cotton. “It's amazing to see this,” he said. “I've been selling cotton all my working life, nearly 30 years. I know all the properties of cotton and all the sales spiels, but I had never really seen cotton close up like this. We don't see it in the field, only when it's in a roll of fabric.”

“How many acres are out there?” Mehaffie asked, looking across White's cotton field. No one had an immediate answer since White was in another vehicle. But Hill chimed in with an answer, “I don't know. But it's a lot of uniforms.”


e-mail: erobinson@primediabusiness.com