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How to Make a Cotton T shirt in Seven Steps

We are committed to improving the traceability of cotton but, as our recent trip to India confirms, that might be easier said than done. From harvesting to ginning, spinning to dying, knitting to cutting and then onto assembling, there are seven steps between farm and factory in making the ubiquitous cotton t-shirt.

Cotton traceability is harder than you'd think. The cotton value chain is complex but our recent trip gave us a glimpse into the process, from farm to factory.

  1. Cotton seed is planted, cotton is grown and harvested by hand or machine at many different farms, both at an industrial scale and in small family-run holdings, like one we saw in India. Sometimes there is a direct relationship between the farm and factory but oftentimes the raw cotton is sold at a regional market where cotton from a number of farms is combined.
  2. The raw cotton then goes to a ginnery where the cotton bud is separated from the seed and cleaned by hand. Again, some manufacturers will have their own ginning plants (making traceability easier) but most farmers and agents use a regional ginnery, where cotton from multiple farms is combined and baled, if that hasn't already occurred at the market.
  3. From here, the bales of cotton go to a spinning mill. A number of the suppliers we spent time with in India do their own spinning and were able to tell us where their bales had come from. Another supplier was buying thread that had been spun elsewhere and so had less visibility about where their cotton had come from.
  4. We saw three different ways of dying. Either the manufacturer bought dyed thread and/or dyed fabric or they did their own dying on-site either before or after the knitting process.
  5. Irrespective of when the dying takes place, the thread is woven into a fabric using large knitting units. Again, some suppliers were knitting themselves; others bought thread and then outsourced the knitting and dying; and others again were buying finished fabric, ready for the cutting table. Each of these options presents different challenge in terms of traceability.
  6. The fabric is then ready for cutting. Usually this is completed in the same factory as the sewing, but sometimes cutting is completed offsite.
  7. And then onto sewing and assembly, where skilled workers hand sew all the different panels together (along with embellishments, labels and swing tags - all from different suppliers) to make the t-shirt we know.
Over the course of our week in India, we were able to look at six of these seven steps and trace the cotton supply chain, from the factory back to one of the 30,000 cotton farms used by one of our suppliers. This is the deepest we have been able to penetrate our supply chain so far.

It was powerful experience but also a sobering one. Our customers and other stakeholders want to know more about where cotton comes from but achieving this will be easier said than done. Dealing with vertically integrated suppliers does make traceability easier (with up to five of these steps controlled by the same organisation) but even these suppliers have their own traceability issues due to their scale.

So, whether we are trying to trace back through to 30,000 farmers or back through a fragmented supply chain from one farm to one factory, we still have a lot of work to do to understand exactly where our cotton comes from.

We might not have the full answer just yet but we are up for the challenge and have a plan to improve supply chain transparency over the next five years. In the interim, we want to be able to provide an honest answer next time we are asked, where does this cotton t-shirt come from and who was involved in making it? Find out more about our Ethical Sourcing Strategy, by clicking here.

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