The Very Long Journey Of A Cotton T-Shirt Before The Fabric Is Even Woven

Over at NPR’s Planet Money, they’ve had a dream for a few years now. That dream: to make a t-shirt for their listeners, and sell it to them. Not just to design and make a t-shirt, but to follow the entire supply chain from the cotton farm to the final silk-screening. This year, they finally achieved that glorious and nerdy dream.

When you look at a piece of clothing, you probably don’t think, “Hey, this shirt consists of a vast length of very fine thread, knitted into a cozy yet soft and durable fabric.” Thread? That’s what you sew clothing together with, isn’t it? The cotton knit fabric that t-shirts are made of doesn’t sprout fully formed from the ground, though. Cotton fibers first must become yarn. In the case of the Planet Money t-shirt, the cotton yarn was spun from American cotton at a factory in Indonesia.

What the farm and the yarn mill had in common: machinery. Cotton farming and cloth-spinning were once very labor-intensive tasks. Today…not so much. Planet Money reporters were stunned to watch a cotton farmer who could monitor the ongoing harvest from his iPad. A farmer with an iPad!

It was the same halfway around the world when that same cotton was spun into thread. There was a vast room full of machinery…but hardly any people.

Episode 496: Where The Planet Money T-Shirt Began [NPR]

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