One one-hundredth of an inch. If you look at a ruler, you'd be hard-pressed to divide an inch into a hundred parts. For sure, you'd need a magnifying glass to do it.

But that very, very short length is how much 1.5 million bales of 2003-crop Memphis/Eastern territory cotton missed being classed as staple 35, which international buyers now say they want for quality spinning, instead of staple 34, which in international trade is usually discounted.

“The world is sending us a clear signal in terms of pocketbook issues — 35 staple is what they're paying for,” says Mike Watson, vice president of fiber quality research for Cotton Incorporated, the producer-supported cotton promotion and research organization.

“Looking at the staple length distribution of the 2003 Memphis/Eastern cotton crop of nearly 11 million bales, based on USDA HVI classing, nearly 1.5 million of those bales were classed as exactly 1.07 inches,” he told members of the Southern Cotton Ginners Association at their summer conference at Lafayette, La.

“Those 1.5 million bales, classed as staple 34, missed being staple 35 by just 1/100 of an inch. If, through dryer control, optimized cleaning, or having your third shift know exactly what they're doing, you could have added 1/100 of an inch to that cotton, based on loan value, you could've added $7 to the value of every bale,” Watson says.

“We need improvements in quality to meet increasingly higher standards internationally and domestically, and you can be a part of that. As ginners, there are a lot of things you have no control over: variety, weather, producer management, etc. But you can have a positive impact on the cotton you gin, because incremental improvements, as small as 1/100 of an inch, can be critical.

“If I'm an international customer, and I'm going to pay a premium, I want 35 staple, and we're beginning to see this reflected in pricing.”

Cotton today is segmented into three markets, Watson says:

  • Middle of the road, what has traditionally been the domestic textile mill customer, turning U.S. cotton into mass-produced goods for mid-level retailers. They've generally bought staple 34 cotton, mainly Memphis/Eastern cotton.
  • The international market, with high-speed spinning equipment that turns out quality products for more demanding consumers. “Instead of spinning equipment running at 30 yards per minute, new machines run at over 300 yards per minute, with very high productivity. The absolute minimum for this market is 35 staple.”
  • Bottom feeders — mills that use lower quality cotton for denim, print cloth, canvas, “anything they can make from cheap cotton.” They target high discount cotton and are all competing against each other.

“One of the most modern denim mills I've seen, in Thailand, has state-of-the-art equipment, and this is the cotton they use,” Watson says. “In 2002, they bought a lot of high micronaire, light spotted cotton; in 2003, they didn't buy any. The owner said, ‘Your quality is too good.’ These buyers may clean up your mess in a bad year, but they have absolutely no loyalty in a good year.”