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Yet most of the cotton in the Planet Money T-shirts was grown in the U. Harvest In 2013, the farm will produce 13,000 bales of cotton — the equivalent of 9. Flowers’ farm also produces other crops. Some of the machinery and staff listed here also work elsewhere on the farm. Genetically modified crops are controversial, but not among U. And when it’s time to harvest the cotton, U. Just last year, Bowen Flowers, the cotton farmer in the video, bought five John Deere 7760 pickers. They’re the size of tanks, but are finely tuned, self-driving machines that sense the cotton plant stalks and twist off just the cotton puffs.
Like the seeds, the pickers get more productive every year as the technology improves. The newest John Deere picker needs just one guy to do what it took five guys to do a couple years ago. One driver can pick 100 acres of cotton a day — and he barely needs to touch the steering wheel. Report Cards Every year, the U.
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Department of Agriculture tests all 17 million bales of cotton harvested in the U. The farmers pay for the testing, and the USDA figures out exactly how fine, long, strong and bright white every batch of cotton is. Cotton buyers all around the world can get a report card that tells them everything they need to know about every bale of U. Here are a few key specs for a sample from Bowen Flowers’ crop.
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Fineness is measured in grams per inch. Length is measured in inches and refers to the average length of the longer half of the fibers. To understand how this keeps American cotton on top, it helps to travel 10,000 miles to Indonesia, where our cotton was spun into yarn for the men’s T-shirt. In the clothing business, people call it yarn. A factory manager there told us that, when he orders U. The spinners have a special recipe for their yarn, and they need exactly the right cotton — exactly the right color, exactly the right length, exactly the right fineness.
The USDA testing means a cotton buyer in Indonesia can order a bale of U. Other countries subsidize their cotton farmers as well, by the way. The government gives taxpayer money directly to cotton farmers, and subsidizes insurance that protects farmers if their harvest is weak or cotton prices fall. One popular option is revenue insurance, which pays farmers if they make less money than they expect. This can happen for a few reasons — cotton prices may fall, or a farmer may have a bad harvest. The latest version of the farm bill, which Congress is working on this month, could change these subsidies. Farmers may get less money in the form of direct payments, and more in the form of subsidized insurance.
If any of that yarn is too thick or too thin, even by a little bit, the T-shirt could start falling apart after just a few washes. Yarn, by the way, is what ordinary people call thread. In the garment business, it’s called yarn. Spinning yarn is high-tech and shockingly complex.
The yarn for the Planet Money T-shirt had to meet dozens of specifications — thickness, tenacity, the amount of twist, the direction of the twist. But even though we ordered thousands of shirts, our supplier, Jockey, wouldn’t tell us exactly what those specs were. Marion Smith, a senior vice president at Jockey. It’s like the secret formula for Coke, but softer on the skin. Here’s yarn from ordinary clothes, as seen under a microscope in the Textile Development and Marketing lab at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. Planet Money Women’s T-Shirt Two words: compact ringspun.
A machine sucked the fibers close together when the yarn for our shirt was spun, creating yarn that makes an extra-smooth shirt. The yarn has relatively few twists per inch, which makes the fabric soft and comfortable. Hanes T-Shirt It has more twists per inch than the Planet Money T-shirt. This makes the fabric more uniform, but rougher to the touch. Denim Jeans Denim yarn is made from shorter fibers than T-shirt yarn, and it has a consistency akin to rope: thick, heavy, and uneven. It’s the toughest and most durable of the yarns shown here.
Dress Shirt The yarn has the most twists per inch of any yarn here, which makes fabric that’s stiff, regular and can be ironed. Fruit Of The Loom Sock This is some big, hairy yarn. It’s soft, cushiony and absorbent, but also irregular in size and appearance. What you get for that money is a factory that can make yarn with incredible precision and consistency, 24 hours a day, 361 days a year. It takes four days off at the end of Ramadan. We worked very hard to make the yarn which has made that T-shirt.
Phases Of Yarn-Spinning NPR’s Robert Smith collected yarn samples at each stage of the spinning process during his visit to the Indorama spinning plant in Purwakarta, Indonesia. After combing, it’s like baby hair. One more step and it’s cotton candy. Jockey’s recipe for the yarn may be a secret, but Agrawal’s factory is using machines that anyone with enough money can buy. Right now, Indonesia is in a sweet spot in the middle of the global T-shirt trade. Wages are lower here than they are in developed countries.