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Cotton prices force cost of clothing up in Tampa Bay

Wrangler, J.C. Penney, Brooks Brothers, Levi Strauss and Co. and Nike all say they will increase clothing prices as the cost of cotton inches up.

Associated Press

Wrangler, J.C. Penney, Brooks Brothers, Levi Strauss and Co. and Nike all say they will increase clothing prices as the cost of cotton inches up.

It's something we take for granted. Sleeping on soft sheets, wearing underwear that breathes, slipping into perfect jeans.

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Cotton.

The touch. The feel. It's the fabric of our lives, after all. It's in our Q-tips and boat sails and tote bags and gauze and quilts and socks. But what is soft and fluffy on the surface is experiencing some roughness beneath it.

The price of cotton is at an all-time high, doubling in the past year.

Clothing makers have tried to cut spending in other areas, using more blends and keeping embellishments to a minimum. But even synthetic fabrics got more expensive and options ran out.

Now experts predict clothing costs will go up 10 percent in the next few months, with the biggest increase coming in the second half of the year. You'll be spending more dollar bills, which, incidentally also contain cotton.

The grim news comes at the height of New York Fashion Week, an opulent showing of the world's best fashion designers. Throughout a depressed economy and global woes, fashions have veered toward natural "green" materials and bold, special aesthetics to attract glum shoppers. But with prices rising, that could be hard to maintain.

"It takes a lot to produce something that's perfectly eco-friendly," said Tampa Bay fashion designer Ivanka Ska. "We're all on a budget at this moment. We're already used to it, but it's going to change more and we're going to look at different fabrics and find fabulous artists to make this into a next step for the future."

Still, Ska said, it makes her sad.

"I want to wear 100 percent cotton underwear, don't you?"

Wrangler jeans, J.C. Penney, Brooks Brothers, Levi Strauss and Co. and Nike all say they will increase prices. It won't be so drastic you need to stock a fallout shelter with jersey knits. Think $5.50 for a simple T-shirt instead of $4.99.

The price of cotton rose to $1.90 per pound Friday, according to the International Cotton Advisory Committee. It hasn't been that high in 150 years. The record set during the Civil War was $1.89 per pound, but that number isn't adjusted for inflation.

Bad weather has damaged cotton harvests in China, Pakistan, the U.S. and Australia, and exports from India have been restricted. Some factories in China, the world's leading cotton supplier, have shut down.

In January, the Wall Street Journal reported that some Chinese farmers are hoarding huge supplies of cotton inside their homes and warehouses, holding it hostage as prices inch up and up.

Robert Mims owns Florida Shirt Company in Tampa, supplying tees, polos, sweatshirts and tote bags to government agencies, schools and businesses like Lee Roy Selmon's Steakhouse. His basic T-shirts have gone up 50 cents each in a big order of, for example, 100 shirts for a company picnic.

He hears about China a lot, but says it's not just issues overseas. It's investors randomly betting on commodities like metal, oil, pork bellies and, yes, cotton. Shortages create "hot" commodities and good news for traders. Amid the cotton crisis this month, regulators began requiring traders to prove they actually need cotton contracts and aren't just hoarding.

"This isn't just all about the fact that emerging countries are using more cotton or that the dollar is worth a little less this month," Mims said.

Kona cotton, a 100 percent natural material favored by quilters, went up $1 last week at Jay's Fabric Center in St. Petersburg, rising from $5.79 to $6.79. Some other cotton prints have also gone up by a dollar at the store, a colorful labyrinth of fabric bolts.

"Most people understand," said employee Betsy Cook. "They know it's the nature of the beast. They still want it. They still need it. So it doesn't really stop people."

Besides, she said. People who sew are already saving money.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. Stephanie Hayes can be reached at shayes@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8857.

Cotton prices force cost of clothing up in Tampa Bay 02/14/11 [Last modified: Monday, February 14, 2011 10:06pm]

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