Attempts in the South: can cotton be grown again in Italy?

Cotton: the most cultivated plant in the world for non-food use. Twenty thousand liters of water are needed to produce a kilo of cotton - the equivalent of a t-shirt and a pair of jeans
The continuous demand for cotton has changed its cultivation. It is the most processed plant in the world for non-food use. To guarantee its maximum yield, over the years the cotton crops have been controlled and monitored through treatments with fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, large quantities of water and artificial defoliation. This causes environmental damage, lower soil fertility and physical damage to those working in the fields. Twenty thousand liters of water are needed to produce one kilogram of cotton, equal to making a t-shirt and a pair of jeans. Organic cotton is an alternative that currently represents only a small percentage of global cotton production, but which aims to become the standard in the textile supply chain. To be considered organic, cotton must be certified and controlled in all its processing stages. It must not come from genetically modified seeds, it must not be treated with polluting or harmful materials for the plant or the soil, it must respect crop rotation and promote a healthy working environment.
A holistic approach that meets the standards of the Better Cotton Initiative, a global supply chain sustainability program that involved 22 percent of global production in the last harvest season. From sowing to harvest, from ginnatura (the selection of cotton immediately after harvest) to dyeing. «Cotton is the fiber that is obtained from the fruit of the plant when it ripens in the sun. The characteristics of this fibre, which then give it its value and final use, are length (lime), fineness (micronaire), resistance to elongation (pressley), colour, degree of impurities and dirty. The quality of the fiber depends on the type of seed, the type of cultivation, the irrigation, the environment in which it is grown (which can vary following storms or a too hot climate). The same variety of fiber can give different yields based on how the soil is treated» , explains Ilario Bregolato, spinning manager of Candiani Denim. «The quality of the cotton is the basis for building a yarn and a fabric that lasts over time. In textiles we have always tried to blend cotton to keep quality standards constant. Usually, not just one type of cotton is used, also because the plant is seasonal – to ensure uniformity on an annual production and at an industrial level, requires the blending of the cotton fibers» , underlines Bregolato.


Textile companies buy cotton from different countries based on the type of fiber needed for the fabric (greater fineness for a quality yarn, white color for shirts, strength for denim). For this reason, controlling the entire supply chain, from the fields to the arrival of the cotton bales at the company, is a complex operation. Candiani Denim buys around ten thousand tons of cotton a year: « Most of our cotton comes from Brazil (over fifty percent), then there is organic cotton from India (which comes from many small farmers) and American cotton ( from cultivations of Texas and California). We also source from growers in the Ivory Coast and recently we also have a new partner in Uganda. It is impossible to get cotton from the same place, because each fiber has different characteristics» , explains Danielle Arzaga, sustainability manager of Candiani. One of the company's objectives is to trace the biological origin of the cotton starting from the selection of the seeds. « Our goal is to get to the origin of those who grow cotton and to use non-polluted, organic raw materials. This also applies to dyes and chemicals used in dry cleaning. We worked on the creation of a hybrid seed (not genetically modified but engineered) designed to have a fine but resistant organic cotton and above all cultivable in different regions», underlines Arzaga , «the idea is to obtain raw materials that come from the earth to then bring them back to the earth, to close the circle of sustainability».
Cotton by its nature is an inelastic fiber. To make stretch denim it is necessary to combine the cotton fibers with a synthetic fiber derived from petroleum such as elastomer.  Candiani has found an organic substitute, a natural rubber, which allows to obtain the same softness and elasticity of the fabric . Coreva is an organic, stretch denim fabric.
Also in Lombardy, in the province of Bergamo, in Albino, is Albini Group, a textile company engaged for five generations in the production of high-end fabrics and the leading producer of shirting fabrics in Europe. In 2012, following the need to have a research and development center to produce ever finer and more controlled fabrics, the parallel company to the I Cotoni di Albini group was born, which closed 2019 with a turnover of twenty-eight million. «We started looking for raw materials directly from the farmers. Until then, only the yarns were bought» , explains Daniele Airoldi, managing director of I Cotoni di Albini. The natural selection of the raw material is done precisely for the intended use. Shirt making requires the processing of very fine yarns (with a high micronaire). « This reduces the pool of suppliers to a few. Ours are concentrated in three countries: from the niche of the Caribbean Sea Island, to the fine cottons of Egypt (Giza 44 and 87) and the United States (Supima). Organic cottons require a complex agreement, you sit down at a table and speak directly with the grower. It takes about two or three years of direct agreements with the farmer to have organic cotton» , explains Airoldi. To obtain the GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) certification, at least three years of organically cultivated land are needed. Sowing and harvesting, in the case of Egyptian cottons Giza 44 and Giza 87 are done by hand, while American cotton is harvested mechanically.
« Organic cotton is the natural evolution of cotton production, the conversion process has begun but there are many constraints. We need to find the partner who wants to do it and the land to do it, we need organic land. In Jamaica, for example, organic production does not exist. It is difficult to find GMO-free seeds and soils. Three years ago we started with the United States, where there is controlled food production (such as tomatoes and garlic) which can also be a fertile basis for organic cotton, through crop rotation. In the United States, we have selected growers working regular Supima – a long cotton quality known for its long, fine white fibers – to which we requested conversion. The first was in New Mexico four years ago, two years ago we selected one in California and last year in Texas. This year we will make our largest production of white organic cotton», says Airoldi.
After years of research to ensure the traceability of the finished product, I Cotoni di Albini has developed a fingerprint of cotton in collaboration with Supima (American farmers association) and Oritain, world leader in forensic science. Analysis begins directly with the collection of cotton samples in the field of origin and continues at any stage of the supply chain. Only an exact match, in terms of fiber quality, will tell that the cotton has not been substituted or contaminated. « We don't want organic to become a niche, but to become the standard. Last year we produced one thousand two hundred bales of cotton, this year one thousand five hundred », underlines Airoldi.

WEBalbinifilatura 3


At the same time, I Cotoni di Albini is developing a recycled cotton product, Retwist, which aims to create a new yarn made with regenerated cotton by combining a part of waste from the first organic spinning mill with a part of American organic cotton. The most polluting part in the production of cotton yarn is that of dyeing. Albini together with a partnership with Next Innovation Hub (headquarters in the Kilometro Rosso of Bergamo) is carrying out tests on mineral colors totally of natural origin, derived from lands from Italian and European quarries. «We know everything about a piece. It is an expensive and demanding exasperation that has now entered our DNA. Now we can no longer go back and indeed, we must cultivate it more and more» , says Airoldi.
Making organic cotton yarn requires more expense because the raw material costs three times the normal one. « We are using organic cottons which assume that the seed has not been modified at the origin and that the cultivation has not used pesticides or other harmful materials. The quality of organic cotton, in terms of fiber yield, is still low compared to traditional standards, the price is high because production is lower and the risks associated with productivity are high", says Roberto Bonino, purchasing and raw materials manager of the cotton mill Olcese Ferrari. Historic cotton mill founded in 1904 in the Brescian Valle Camonica with two production plants in Adro and Piancogno.
If the search for the raw material is already an articulated path, the creation of the cotton thread requires several steps. When the organic cotton arrives on the farm it is divided into cotton bales. These are opened, the cotton flakes are taken and divided by the machines according to the blend recipe to be made. In this phase the cotton is pressed and cleaned from the improper part still present (such as sticks, wood or leaves). Then we move on to carding, a phase in which the fibers are directed in the same direction and from which a veil conveyed in a ribbon is obtained. More ribbons are put together and neatly prepared for combing. The combing machine will select the best length fibers which will then be combined into a single sliver in the drawing frame. After these steps, the ribbons gathered on the slivers are passed, twisted and stretched again up to the spindle park, which prepares the bobbins for the spinning frame, from which the cotton thread that will be woven will be obtained. The cotton from Cotonificio Olcese Ferrari is purchased in various parts of the world, based on the quality and characteristics of length, fineness and resistance required. From Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan to Greece to Egypt and the United States (California).


Why isn't cotton grown in Italy? Until the seventies cotton was still produced in Sicily, and in Capitanata, the northern part of Puglia, then the crops were interrupted or they were dedicated to the cultivation of cereals, wheat, tomatoes and sugar beets. Michele Steduto and Pietro Gentile, engineers in love with their land and with the agricultural past dedicated to cotton in the Capitanata region, have decided to restart the tradition and start an experimental cotton cultivation. « We want to create an alternative to agriculture in our area and a short, very short supply chain of totally Italian products », explains Steduto, managing director of Gest. Their goal is to produce high-end shirts entirely made with organic cotton grown in Puglia, a stone's throw from the Gargano. « The first sowing was done on May 8, in full lockdown, after months of research and seed selection with the help of expert agronomists. We decided to follow three different types from Spain and Greece, and the choice is linked to the possibility of growing with temperatures more similar to ours. The seeds are not genetically modified and no fertilizers or pesticides have been used. We hoed three times to prepare the ground. We aim to obtain the GOTS certification but to obtain it, following all the standards, it takes at least twelve or eighteen months », they explain. Three cultivated hectares which in September, harvest time, should yield around one hundred and fifty quintals of cotton which will be woven, for the time being, by another company.

WEBFields Cotton Manage


« Eight steps by hand are needed to make our tailored shirts. Initially they considered us aliens. Now that the field is green, beautiful and vigorous, people have changed their minds. We have become half human. We hope to become human with the harvest. Recklessness sometimes helps and makes things possible, everyone in the industry didn't feel like it, we did. And now they are watching us, they are all waiting» , they say.