Who moved my classic cotton?

Mitali Parekh | Updated on June 13, 2014

A worker dries coloured cotton yarn at a small-scale weaving unit near Kochi, Kerala

Changing fabric: An Anita Dongre creation - the designer is among those experimenting with new forms of synthetic georgette and polyester

Changing fabric: FabIndia is among the handful of shops that still rely mostly on cotton   -  Mahesh Harilal

A fashionable set at an upmarket mall in Delhi sporting synthetic fabrics   -  S Subramanium

Why are apparel stores flooded with synthetic fabric even in the peak of summer? Time to take stock

Aquick meander around any high-street store and there’s something amiss — shuddh swadeshi cotton, as also its other avatars such as mul. Replacing them on the racks are new synthetic polyester blends. Fashion labels such as Zara, Mango, Chemistry, Vero Moda, Promod, Forever 21, W and Forever Young have, for the past few seasons, been saving their cottons for basic merchandise such as T-shirts, blazers, spaghetti-strap tank tops and vests. Even summer collections, which used to be dominated by gossamer muls and cottons, are populated by chiffon and georgette. The last bastions of muls are indigenous brands such as Anokhi, Global Desi, Cotton World, FabIndia and The Shop. Their aesthetic and prices are not in sync with the frequency of global trends.

But it’s not that ’70s show again. The new polyesters may not absorb sweat, but can draw it away. And this preference is not discouraging cotton either. A quick commerce lesson: India is the second-largest producer of cotton after China, and contributes to 18 per cent of world’s cotton. Then what explains fashion’s current infatuation with nylon, polyester and acrylic? Wasn’t cotton’s war against synthetics won in the ’70s and ’80s, after terylene and its shiny ilk made us sweat through the decades? The reversal is effected by two factors: the shooting price of cotton and polyester’s evolution into a fabric we don’t want to tear off our body.

Dear, dear

Like many other global issues, this one too can be traced to China. Recession raised dollar prices and cotton yarn producers in India preferred to export instead of selling locally. “When the dollar touched ₹65, cotton prices went up by ₹20,” says Pranay Srinivasan, a garment exporter and proprietor of Source Easy.

Spotting the potential, cotton began to be traded as a commodity on the Multi Commodity Exchange (MCX) in 2004. And speculated interest raised its price. For good reason too. During financial 2012-13, cotton yarn export was expected to touch an all-time high. It had risen by 15 per cent in 2011-12 from a year ago — 827.68 million kg (720 million kg).

While exports were capped in 2011 to leave some cotton for domestic markets, there was no such limit in 2012, leading to costlier yarn prices for domestic users.

Textile commissioner AB Joshi had been reported saying that about 1,000 million kg of yarn was expected to go out of India in 2013. In the first five months, according to a news report, cotton yarn exports had touched 590 million kg. China took, and wants, most of it, to process into garments and pump back into the market. Bangladesh, a country we cannot ignore as a garment exporter, also demands a high share. Together, they account for 60 per cent of our exports. This has the garment industry stakeholders in Tirupur, our knitwear and garment production capital, worried enough to ask (through the Tirupur Exporters Association) for a three-month cease on cotton yarn exports and price rollback.

Cotton production, and consequently the price, fluctuates between years as it is dependent on the vagaries of nature. “Cotton is subject to commodity prices and this could change from month to month by ₹5-10. Cotton is also cheaper in the south of India than in the north,” says Source Easy’s Srinivasan.

Futures trading in cotton ostensibly gave farmers and traders an opportunity to cover their price risk. Now, as the speculated interest in a commodity rises, so does the price. In the case of cotton, it also fluctuates a few times a year. This makes it hard for buyers and brands to fix a profit margin.

Fibre frontiers

Pankaj Ruia, a fabric exporter and supplier to brands such as AND and Global Desi, says his clients ask for synthetics mainly because it lends itself to fashion. Brands and ‘approachable’ designers such as Anita Dongre are exploring other avenues, including the production of natural fabrics such as rayon, viscose and modal. A variety of such fabrics is produced from natural and sustainable sources such as wood-pulp, bark, bamboo and banana fibre. Some brands use these alone, while others combine them with polyester. AND and Global Desi, for instance, are heavily marketing their Liva fabric — a kind of viscose made from wood-pulp, which is wrinkle-free, has sheen, breathes and is lightweight. Cotton World chooses Modal — made with beech-wood pulp — for its prints, as it absorbs colour like cotton but doesn’t bleed after a wash.

Final stitch

The crux of the matter is that cotton is expensive to produce. Polyester, clinically labelled a petrochemical product, can be produced as much as needed. Through a new procedure called wicking, it has been made more wearable. While it still doesn’t absorb sweat, it draws it away from the body. This makes it desirable for sportswear, together with its strength and durability. This new polyester also has the stamp of approval from some designers. Anita Dongre’s team has been testing new forms of synthetic georgette and polyester, and finds it hard to distinguish them from natural fibres. The designer will wear it on her person for six months until she is convinced it can be included in her labels.

Its old qualities — vibrancy of colour, lack of fading, sheen, weightlessness and fluidity, and low cost of maintenance — are in keeping with fashion’s current affair with prints and sheers. “Even though dyeing synthetics is more expensive — the colour has to be injected into the molecules of the fabric at 130°C (cotton is just dunked into a vat of colour and it absorbs it),” says N Srinivasan of Saks Fashion, “it’s still more lucrative for brands to rely on synthetics as they cost less to maintain and the colour doesn’t fade like with cottons. They’re cost effective in the long run.”

The good news is that there is no replacement yet for linens and mul. But for the foreseeable future, polyester is here to stay in affordable fashion.

( Mitali Parekh is a Mumbai-based writer)

Published on June 13, 2014

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