PIMA, PERFECTED. Shannon, one of our key sourcing managers, was buzzing about her recent trip to Peru, home of the lusciously soft fabric used to create our famous Pima Polos:
"It was beyond amazing," she shared. "Sure, the mills are state-of-the-art, but the farmers - they still hand-pick the cotton. You can feel the passion they have for producing a superior product."
When the assignment came up, it had the ring of adventure—travel to a faraway land, talk to cotton growers, pickers, ginners. “Basically Tom, bring back the secret of Peruvian pima,” my editor implored. So, some 16 hours after departing Madison, Wisconsin I de-planed in Lima. It had been a tiring day of travel and I wasn’t done. Early the next morning I was traveling with my host, Jorge Vereua and photographer Michael Yamashita, 300 kilometers up the coast to the heart of Peru’s pima country.
A PLANT WITH A PAST. Cotton is not new to Peru. It’s a “native”, having flourished in the wild since time immemorial. People in the North began to domesticate cotton as a textile fiber 4,500 years ago. Apart from its genetic ancestor sea island cotton, which is virtually extinct, Peruvian pima is said by some to be the longest staple cotton in the world. That means ultra-fine yarns for luxurious fabrics. To the farmers, Peruvian pima is “suave como el pelo de un angel” – soft as the hair of an angel.
ONWARD, TO THE COTTON FIELDS. To my surprise Jorge has arranged a quick breakfast. Warm bread, thick coffee, papaya juice. It’s still as much night as it is day. But push off we must because the cotton pickers start early. Minutes before daybreak we pull up to the red brick walls of the local ginning mill. We’ve stopped to get directions to “dia de campo”, the field of the day. Soon I see white-flecked fields in every direction. This is Peru’s legendary Piura valley along her north coast, smack dab between the Andes and Pacific, and home to some of the richest cotton country in the world.
FOR COTTON THIS FINE THE OLD WAY IS BEST. Instead of
a single mechanized harvest as done elsewhere, Peruvian pima is handpicked not just once, but three times a season, as it ripens. If the cotton isn’t ready, it’s left on the plant. This is apparent as I watch pickers skip some bolls, while reaching instead for others so ripe it looks like their fluffy fruit was about to drop to the ground. Immature “green” cotton is harsh by comparison and doesn’t take dye well.
A LONG DAY, A BOUNTIFUL CROP. Back at the ginning mill, warm afternoon sun bathes thebuildings with hazy light. Director Trelles explains how each farmer trucks his own cotton to the mill the day it’s picked. Seeing me marvel at the freshly plucked pima I hold between my fingers, Señor Teo Fialo, who farms four hectares and has worked the crop for 45 years proudly says, “El mejor del mundo”... the best in the world. After everything I've seen, I believe it.