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THE 17,000-MILE

By Claire Whitcomb

The label says Made in USA, but this organic cotton yoga tank is a global citizen. It travels to three countries and two continents, logging 17,000 miles before it reaches your store.

Join us as we journey from field to factory, following just one of the many threads in our complex global supply chain.

Read More:

Interview: The Arizona Farmer
Interview: The Organic Spinner
Going the Distance for Fashion

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Ninety-five percent of what we do is conventional,” says Martin Kägi, Bühler’s CEO, “Organic is a niche market.”

1. A seed is planted in Arizona.
Our yoga tank starts with a seed. A seed with a pedigree that dates back to the early 1900s when extra long staple cotton was first bred by the USDA, on land borrowed from the Pima Indians in Arizona. The government, eager to create a crop that could be grown in the long hot summers of the Southwest, crossed American cotton with Egyptian cotton and produced a cultivar called pima. Today, US pima cotton is often marketed under the brand name Supima. What isn’t as commonly touted is that 62% of Supima cotton seed is genetically modified and treated with chemical fungicides. The seed for our yoga tank is simpler. It is just a seed.

In April, it is planted in the warm Arizona sun. It sprouts, leafs and grows, nurtured by compost. Workers roam the rows, hoeing weeds by hand, a labor-intensive alternative to chemical herbicides. To deter bugs, they spray essential oils—cedar, citrus and neem—and set out pheromone traps, low-tech contraptions that lure bugs with sex hormones.

Seven months later, the field bursts with ivory-colored cotton. It’s October, time for the harvest. But first the cotton plants need to shed their leaves. On a conventional farm, chemical defoliants clear away the leaves. On an organic farm, nature does the work. “I wait for the frost,” says the Arizona farmer who grows this crop. When the leaves have fallen, huge mechanical harvesters roar through the fields, stripping the plants and picking the fields clean. The cotton is then ginned, baled, packed in 40-foot containers and trucked to the Port of Long Beach in California.
Time lapse: 11 months

2. Across the Atlantic to a Swiss river town.
Yarn spinners with the expertise to work with organic extra long staple fiber are a rare breed. None exist in the United States. And in Europe, there is just one: Hermann Bühler, located in Sennhof, Switzerland, where the River Töss has contributed hydropower since 1858.

The setting may be bucolic, but inside the mill, complex machines whirr like a cacophony of Swiss watches. Bühler spins yarn at the rate of a million kilometers—per day. “Ninety-five percent of what we do is conventional,” says Martin Kägi, Bühler’s CEO. “Organic is a niche market.”

It is a niche market that requires considerable extra work. When it’s time for the mill to do an organic cotton run, quiet—or at least relative quiet—descends. Production halts while key machines—the cotton mixer, the carder, the comber—are cleaned to ensure that no conventional fiber contaminates the organic cotton yarn. To achieve certification from the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), Bühler must meet a strict set of rules that cover everything from cotton warehousing (separate quarters only) to machine lubricants.

The end result: fine yarn that is wound on cones the size of an ice cream bucket. The yarn is visually and chemically indistinguishable from its conventional counterpart. Only a Bühler label and a GOTS certificate set it apart.
Time lapse: 1 to 2 months travel, 1 month spinning

3. Four thousand miles to Montreal.
Our portion of the farmer’s harvest—a 20-foot container with six tons of ivory- colored yarn—travels by ship from Rotterdam to Montreal. From there it is trucked a short distance to Tricots Liesse, a knitter EILEEN FISHER began working with when we introduced our yoga tank in 2004. The factory takes the undyed yarn—”greige” in industry parlance—and knits it with a stretch yarn on a machine that produces very little waste. The yardage is then carted to a separate wing to be dyed.
Time lapse: 1 month travel, 2 weeks knitting

4. Down the hall to the dyehouse.
At many dyehouses, color comes with environmental hazards. Tricots Liesse says it uses responsible dyes purchased from the best European manufacturers, an assertion EILEEN FISHER took at face value for many years. But as more and more of our product has become certified at the dyeing stage, we’ve begun asking Tricots Liesse, along with other mills, what it would mean to have their dye process meet the bluesign® standard.

“In today’s world of transparency, the only way to assure the consumer that a product uses safe chemistry is through third-party verification,” explains Shona Quinn, EILEEN FISHER Sustainability Leader.

“The financial burden of certification isn’t something a mill is eager to undertake, especially if it already follows good environmental practices and complies with strict local environmental regulations. Our role is to help a dyehouse see the benefit of being an environmental leader.”

While EILEEN FISHER and Tricots Liesse are talking, Organic Cotton Stretch Jersey is being dyed with our custom colors and packed in containers for shipment to New York.
Time lapse: 2 weeks

5. By truck to Long Island City, Queens.
Jump on the M subway train, get off at 36th Street in Queens and you’ll emerge in a multicultural neighborhood with brick warehouses, one of which houses Apex Cloth Cutting. After an overnight trip from Montreal, huge bolts of Organic Cotton Stretch Jersey arrive at Apex, where they are unrolled on banquet-sized tables for cutting.

The yoga tank’s four pieces—the scoop-neck front, the racer-back, and the front and back self-bras—are puzzled together on a computer-generated pattern called a marker. Wearing protective gloves, workers guide precision cutters along the marker’s blueprint lines. A day or two later, the yoga tank pieces are bagged and ready to be trucked to Eternal Fashion in Manhattan’s garment district.
Time lapse: 1 day travel, 2 days to cut and truck

6. A Manhattan moment.
Take the elevator to Eternal, one of three bustling factories operated by Gauge Lee, and you’ll find a sunlit Manhattan loft. Its Eighth Avenue views are perfect for a trendy apartment, but this space is still designed for manufacturing. It houses dozens of sewing machines, steamers, pressers and the tools of the textile trade. Chatter, mostly in Chinese, crisscrosses the room.

At the front door, a shrine to the Chinese god of prosperity keeps watch. Eternal’s workers are immigrants, largely from Asia and Latin America. Here, with a few simple seams, the farmer’s organic cotton undergoes its final metamorphosis: into a yoga tank with a Made in USA label. Once folded and packed, it is sent by truck through the Lincoln Tunnel to New Jersey.
Time lapse: 5 to 6 weeks

7. Across the Hudson to Secaucus, NJ.
Once known for its pig farms, Secaucus is now famous for fashion outlets. Since the 1980s, companies in New York’s garment district have moved their distribution centers from Manhattan, attracted by Secaucus’s easy access to rail and truck routes. EILEEN FISHER has been part of the trend. Drive along Enterprise Avenue, a street of look-alike warehouses, and you’ll find both our Company Store and our Distribution Center. What you won’t notice is the warehouse roof covered in solar panels that generate 60% of our Secaucus electricity usage. What you will see is trucks. The one pulling up with its load of yoga tanks is joined by dozens of others, each bearing clothes from all over the world.
Time lapse: A half hour, depending on traffic

8. Next step: your closet.
Once unloaded in Secaucus, yoga tanks in all sizes are logged and shipped out to our stores—it’s 8.7 miles to Madison Avenue in Manhattan, 2,849 miles to Seattle, 3,458 miles to London. Once the yoga tank reaches your closet, a whole new set of travels begins. Those, of course, are up to you.