(Repeats to add link to FACTBOX in second section)
By Chris Prentice
NEW YORK, March 13 Cotton is no longer king of
the U.S. apparel industry as lower prices fail to revive
consumer demand and once-mocked man-made fibers take a permanent
place in American wardrobes.
U.S. imports of synthetic clothing may overtake cotton
garments for the first time in decades this year, while U.S.
mills increasingly use artificial blends amid an unexpected
revival of the threadbare domestic textile industry.
After a decades-long battle with its man-made foe, cotton
will in the long term likely hold a smaller share of the growing
clothing sector as lower-priced synthetics appeal to designers
and consumers' love of natural fibers fades.
Market forces propelled the shift as cotton prices spiked to
historic highs three years ago. Equally significant has been a
change in technology, marketing, and consumer sentiment around
synthetics. Gone is the shiny polyester leisure suit.
"Polyester yarn has evolved immensely. I believe
fashion-savvy consumers in general are completely comfortable
with it and wearing it," said designer Yoana Baraschi, whose
clothes are sold at retailers including Neiman Marcus and Saks
The change in sentiment is reverberating along the supply
Last October Georgia's governor announced that the No. 1
U.S. miller, Parkdale Inc, which alone accounts for more than
half of U.S. cotton demand, would spend $85 million to convert a
plant -- which for years made 100 percent cotton yarn for iconic
Hanes Brand T-shirts -- to blend synthetic fiber.
When cotton prices shot to more than $2 per lb in 2011,
their highest level since the U.S. Civil War, mills scrambled to
find alternatives, hoping they could curb costs without
alienating consumers. As it turned out, American and other
buyers are no longer quite so fussy about their fibers.
"When cotton got to $2 a lb, we found there was a lot of
clothing being made out of cotton where buyers didn't have a
preference," Anderson Warlick, vice chairman and chief executive
officer of Parkdale, told Reuters.
Parkdale, based in Gastonia, North Carolina, has seen a huge
uptick in polyester demand across its product lines in recent
years that is unlikely to be reversed, he said.
The switch to man-made fibers has accelerated in recent
years as demand for cotton stagnates even though prices have
fallen back to less than $1. The reason: synthetics in China,
the world's top textile market, are still cheaper.
In China, polyester prices traded at about 68 cents a lb,
less than half the price of cotton, during the week ending March
6, according to the National Cotton Council of America.
For the first time in 20 years, imports of clothing made
chiefly of synthetic fibers, such as polyester and viscose,
almost rivaled those of cotton clothing in 2013, according to
data from the U.S. International Trade Administration.
(For a graphic see: link.reuters.com/juw47v)
U.S. buyers imported 12.29 billion square-meter equivalents
worth of cotton apparel last year compared to 12.04 billion sme
of apparel made of man-made fibers. The trend is clear:
synthetic imports have risen by more than 20 percent over the
past three years; cotton imports have fallen by 14 percent.
Designers like Baraschi, who has been working with more
synthetic fabrics, say man-made fibers offer flexibility.
"Stretch is key, it has become a part of the way we dress as
well as the way we move in clothes and of what we expect from
what we wear in our daily existence. Man-made fabrics are now
very breathable and pleasant to wear also," Baraschi said.
(For a video tour of two North Carolina mills, click on: reut.rs/1cCepMC)
To be sure, cotton is still cherished for its premium
quality. After years of shirking cotton in favor of
high-performance synthetic materials, sports clothing company
Under Armour Inc., for example, has developed a cotton
Cotton Inc.-- a marketing group launched to promote cotton
over synthetic fibers -- has boosted its efforts to capture
younger buyers' attention, enlisting actress and singer Hayden
Panettiere in its most recent advertising campaign.
The now tiny U.S. textile industry is enjoying an unlikely
revival thanks to lower-cost and reliable energy and shifting
trade flows, with a wave of investment by foreign and domestic
firms across the textile heartland from Virginia to Tennessee.
Four foreign companies have announced plans to break ground in
the last six months.
(For factbox on recent investment boom, click
But some say the U.S. textile industry's renaissance does
not necessarily bode well for cotton.
"Cotton's losing market share. Period," said John Bakane,
chief executive officer of Frontier Spinning Mills.
The Sanford, North Carolina-based yarn producer, Parkdale's
biggest domestic competitor, is boosting the amount of synthetic
fibers in its yarns.
Cotton's supporters say a decline in the price of the
natural fiber could boost its appeal. Rising U.S. output and an
end to Beijing's strategic stockpiling program which has
bolstered prices for the past three years, will likely increase
global supplies and push down world prices.
Even so, that is unlikely to stem the tide.
U.K.-based textile consultancy and research firm PCI Fibres
has forecast fiber mill cotton consumption in the United States
and Canada to drop to 776,000 tonnes by 2020 from 802,000 tonnes
in 2015 and above 2 million tonnes in 2000.
Synthetics have several advantages over their natural rival:
without the threat of weather or disease, quality and supplies
are more consistent, prices are more stable and technology has
cut costs and increased efficiency.
"With polyester pricing where it is, there's no reason to go
back. I don't see that switching," Parkdale's Warlick said.
CHANGING CONSUMER TASTE
Cotton's wild price fluctuations helped fuel the switch, but
there has also been a big change in technology and consumer
High-end clothing brand Peter Millar launched its first
clothing line of man-made fibers in its stores in upscale
locations from the Hamptons to Palm Beach in 2012 in response to
growing customer demand.
"What we noticed was that the technology of synthetics had
really improved. There are benefits to performance fabrics,"
said Michael Bowers, vice president of design and merchandising
for the North Carolina-based clothing maker.
Synthetic fibers fend off wrinkles and wick away moisture
better than cotton, making them appealing to travelers and
athletes, he said.
He declined to specify numbers but said the man-made fiber
collection has grown "dramatically" since its launch, taking
significant market share within the company's growing golfing
"There is room for both cotton and synthetic materials in a
gentleman's wardrobe," Bowers said.
(Editing by Josephine Mason and Ross Colvin)