Egypt, the world's largest producer of long staple and extra-long staple, has been in the international cotton trade for about 140 years and one in three citizens there is somehow involved in the cotton industry.

However, only recently have the Egyptian cotton people adopted their own logo and licensing program, taking notice of the promotional success, and competition from, the Supima Association.

The logo, made official in April, consists of a triangle representing the pyramids and having an image of a cotton boll inside. It appeared first on West Point Stevens sheets and towels.

Matt Laughlin, executive vice president of the Supima Association of America, says the Egyptians have been mulling over promotional campaigns for the past 15 years, but about four years ago they realized the need for a focused promotional effort on the order of the association's.

Speaking at the Pima Production Summit in Visalia, Calif., Laughlin said the Phoenix-based association brought out its licensing program this year, at $1,000 a year for use of the Supima logo on products made from 100 percent American Pima cotton.

“But the Egyptians decided to charge more with theirs, $5,000 for signing up and $2,000 a year after that,” he said, adding that the apparent implication is that since they charge more for the license, their cotton is somehow better.

Allowing that Egypt indeed produces some fine cotton, Laughlin said it takes more than a cute logo to deliver top-quality goods and hold a sterling reputation. “They really have their work cut out for them in separating high-quality Egyptian cotton from at best middle-of-the-road mixed with everything else on the low end.”

Mostly inferior

He said 75 percent of exported Egyptian cotton is inferior to American Pima. “It's not as long, it's not as fine, and it doesn't hold up as well. They dilute the quality.”

He went on to explain that the “Egyptian cotton” name long has been used on goods made from Giza 83 cotton, on par with lint from an upland cotton and fetching a bargain price of $4 to $5 for a towel. He wondered why a textile manufacturer would then be willing to pay the steep Egyptian licensing rates.

Although Supima, he said, has kept its brand pure and quality high, it is constantly challenged in the marketplace by other promotions.

Some nations, such as China, produce ELS cotton, but historically at a volume too low for viable export programs.

One exception, and mild irritant for the association, has been promotion by mail-order merchant Lands' End of their polo shirts made of highly romanticized “Peruvian Pima.”

“They have a vertically integrated operation in Peru where they spin, knit, and package shirts and sell them at $21 to $24 each. It's a marketing tool, and it's worked for them.”

In truth, he added, the Peruvian growth, a rank cotton that must be hand-harvested, is rejected by fine-count spinners around the world because of weak fiber and inconsistent yarn.

An irony and balm for the irritation: When the manufacturer runs short on its Peruvian stocks, Laughlin claimed, it supplements with American Pima.

The association can't really stay all that annoyed, since Lands' End, especially their “Coming Home” home-fashions division, is still a good Supima customer.

“Almost every one of their catalogs has from six to nine Supima-branded goods, and they tell the consumer why it costs more and why it is better. Their Supima towel line is still their core product, and they push it.”

And the association does its part: helping Lands' End source product made abroad from Pima yarns spun in the USA and exported. The path to the consumer may be circuitous, but the goods are still from 100 percent American Pima.

“We've been very fortunate that our licensing partners have taken on the responsibility of promoting the Supima brand. We have several other educational efforts going on that complement what our licensing partners are doing on their own,” Laughlin said.

e-mail: dan_bryant@intertec.com