The Pima Cotton Boom
Around 1910, a revolution took place in a remote, dusty area known as Sacaton in Pinal County. A new type of cotton grew on a sun-drenched field in the Gila Indian Community. Outstandingly durable, this cotton would dominate Arizona’s economy during World War I and change the cotton industry forever.
In many ways, cotton is truly the fabric of our lives. This fiber, used to make jeans, underwear, dresses, towels, and bed linen, once reinforced tires, airplane wing covers, and industrial machinery.
Not all cotton is created equal. The length of the fibers of the fluffy bud of the cotton plant determine the quality of the finished product. A cotton bud with fibers about one inch long is short staple cotton—fine for all purpose use. The last decades of the 1800s saw the rise of Egyptian long staple cotton. Grown in the hot, dry climates of Egypt, its longer fibers added durability and a soft, silky feel to fabrics. High end manufacturers coveted Egyptian cotton’s long fibers over the homegrown short staple varieties, and in a short time, Egyptian cotton had made a name for itself. Industry, too, favored Egyptian cotton for the durability its long fibers provided. American growers tried to domestically cultivate several versions of long staple cotton. Pima cotton is a result of these efforts.
Pima cotton is extra long staple (ELS) cotton. By law, ELS cotton fibers at least 3/8 inch longer than short staple cotton. Today’s Pima cotton crop can top out somewhere around an inch and a half, making it the longest cotton in the world. It can make a material more closely resembling satin than denim. A material made with Supima cotton, the brand name for premium Pima cotton, in outstanding in its silky smoothness.
A Genetic Breakthrough
In the late 1800s, American crop growers formed a hybrid crop from American and Egyptian cotton varieties. It did well enough among pockets of experienced cotton growers of Georgia’s Sea Islands—until the boll weevil decimated the industry to the point where it virtually disappeared around 1920.
Meanwhile, growers turned to the hot, dry southwest, theorizing that the climate mirrored Egypt’s and hybrid plants would grow better. Smack in the center of the Arizona Territory, federal agricultural engineers began tinkering to produce a cotton unseen by the world. At an experimental farm in Sacaton, Pima Indians cultivated cotton hybrids until ideal traits were achieved. In the early 1900s, the scientist Thomas Kearney created a plant that grew well in hot climates with cool nights and produced long, silky fibers for a soft, dense cloth. This long staple cotton was named Pima after the Pima Indians who grew it, and released into the market in 1910.
Goodyear and the Cotton Boom
Back then, long staple cotton wasn’t needed for sheets or luxury blouses. It was grown for its toughness—tough enough for industrial use in airplane wing covers and tires. In fact, cotton was a primary component of tires. That’s why Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company purchased 16,000 acres of Salt River Valley land in 1917, the same year mine bosses arrested striking miners in Bisbee and Jerome.
World War I was escalating, and Goodyear’s foreign suppliers could not meet demand. Meanwhile, Goodyear needed that cotton to make airplane tires for airships. So Goodyear junior executive Paul Litchfield purchased land and the company moved to the Arizona Territory to cultivate Pima cotton. It opened a factory next to the farms. Other manufacturers, like Firestone and Dunlop, followed suit, and by 1920 cotton was by far Arizona’s most popular crop. Alfalfa fields were sewn with cotton seed and rangelands cultivated. The crop covered about 800,000 acres.
Shortly after the war, demand dried up. Government contracts for cotton airplane wing covers evaporated, and tire production dropped. Many of Arizona’s independent cotton farmers were left high and dry. Some weathered the market drought, and some didn’t. But Arizona has never again grown that much cotton.
The Supima Brand
As rubbers and petroleum products replaced industrial cotton, overall demand for Pima cotton fell. In 1954, its farmers branded it with the term Supima (a combination the words of “Superior” and “Pima”) and formed the Supima Association to cultivate its market as a luxury good. Its obvious quality won the hearts of several prominent clothing designers, especially those interested in using a product grown on U.S. soil. Slowly, Supima cotton is fighting its way into the public’s mind as the best cotton money can buy.
By 1980, total cotton production in Arizona (both Pima and short staple) had floated back up to cover 600,000 acres of agricultural land. In 1987, Arizona was supplying 66% of the nation’s Pima cotton.
But Pima cotton is not simple to cultivate. One crop takes about nine months to grow. In a volatile market, that much of a time investment is always a risk. Pima cotton also seems hard hit by a changing climate. The concrete jungles of Maricopa and Pinal counties are holding heat that disagrees with the temperamental crop.
Today, Arizona supplies just 2% of the nation’s Pima cotton. Supima cotton is only grown in America, and primarily in the southwest. A purchase of clothes or linens labeled with Supima cotton supports the national economy, because the product is likely to be domestically produced.