Some years before, a Frenchman named Louis Alexis Jumel had come across a neglected cotton plant in a Cairo garden. He marvelled at how well the plant took to the climate, how its long fibres spun easily into soft yarn. He became convinced that large-scale cultivation was possible and persuaded Muhammad Ali Pasha, Egypt’s monarch, of his idea. Grown along the Nile, cotton thrived in Egypt, and Ali steadily turned the country into a cotton plantation. Between 1860 and 1865, Egypt’s farmers increased their cotton production from fifty million pounds to two hundred and fifty million pounds.
Egypt’s production quickly eclipsed that of the U.S., and, by the end of the nineteenth century, Egypt derived ninety-three per cent of its revenue from cotton. It had become “the major source of income for almost every proprietor in the Delta,” Roger Owen writes, in “Cotton and the Egyptian Economy.”
Lawrence Durrell, in “The Alexandria Quartet,” describes the “cotton kings” who lived in early-twentieth-century Alexandria, “the Hellenistic capital of the bankers and cotton-visionaries.” The Alexandria Cotton Exporters Association is adjacent to the Cecil Hotel—a storied Moorish guest house built in 1929, where Durrell’s characters gather to gossip and broker their affairs with the “detachment of Alexandrian brokers planning a cotton merger.” Like the hotel, the association has an unobstructed view of Alexandria’s Eastern Harbor, lined with Venetian-style buildings that curve up to the Citadel of Qaitbay.
Traders were delighted by the quality of Egyptian cotton, and flocked to Alexandria, which was populated largely by wealthy foreigners. Two years before the Egyptian monarchy was forced out, in 1952, only two of the thirty-five registered cotton brokers at the Alexandria stock exchange were Egyptian. As the cotton trade made landowners and foreign traders rich, it impoverished countless Egyptians. Egyptian cotton continues to be picked by hand, to protect the cotton clumps from injury. “It explains child labor,” Mona Abaza, a professor at the American University in Cairo, whose family amassed great wealth through cotton, told Smithsonian. “It was very exploitative and is hard to look back at with any sentimentality.” The school year has historically started after the harvest season, to encourage attendance.
Cotton-textile production is long, complex, and riddled with opportunities for tampering. After it is harvested, cotton is ginned, spun, then woven into fabrics at different facilities, often in different countries. Cheating can start right in the cotton fields, MeiLin Wan, a textile expert at Applied DNA, told me. “I’ve heard stories of how, in the middle of the night, all of a sudden, bales get switched and high-end cotton bales get mixed with Upland,” a cheaper type of cotton derisively known as “hairy.” Spinners and weavers can mix different types of cotton together. “You can see all the weak links upstream in the supply chain,” Wan said.
In 2009, Applied DNA took a survey of apparel and home textiles that claim to be a hundred-per-cent extra-long staple. Eighty-nine per cent had been mislabelled: forty-eight per cent were primarily made with basic Upland cotton, and forty-one per cent were a blend. In January, 2016, Wan took these numbers to a yarn expo in India, where she was met with derision. “All the spinners and manufacturers, they’d come to our booth, and we had these statistics up there, and they all go, ‘Eighty-nine per cent? Ugh, more like ninety-nine per cent.’ They were, like, ‘It’s much higher than that number,’ ” she said. Applied DNA published a summary of the result of their market survey online, in April of that year.
Four months later, Target, Bed Bath & Beyond, and Walmart abruptly pulled hundreds of thousands of Egyptian-cotton sheets and pillowcases off the shelves. Target ran an investigation, which found that, between 2014 and 2016, Welspun, a textile weaver in India, had been substituting cheaper varieties for Egyptian. Target severed ties with Welspun, and Walmart and Bed Bath & Beyond stopped selling the linens in question. The scandal was a P.R. blip for the companies, which are large retailers with diverse merchandise. For Egyptian cotton, it was existential. “It affected us so much,” Nassar, the cotton trader, told me. “The reputation. Now everyone is, like, How can I know whether this is Egyptian cotton or not? A lot of clients ask, ‘What guarantees me that when I sell this they would trust me?’ And I tell them, ‘I don’t know how to guarantee this to you.’ ”
Textile manufacturers that use Egyptian cotton felt a new pressure to demonstrate the authenticity of their materials. Last April, Himatsingka, a large textile manufacturer based in India, partnered with Applied DNA to spray the raw cotton it imports from Egypt with DNA tags. “A lot of sheeting manufacturing in Europe are asking for this,” Nassar told me. “All this came from Welspun.” No one is certain how Welspun was exposed, but a simple look at statistics of Egyptian cotton production, made available by the Alexandria Cotton Exporters Association, would have shown that something was afoot. In 2016, Egypt had the lowest level of cotton production in its recorded history. “You don’t need DNA testing,” Wessam El-Abd, a representative from the association, said. “If the quantity used in the products is this much and you’ve sold that much. All you need is a brain.”
“There was no suitable Egyptian cotton,” Nassar told me. “We had to import. Any spinner here would tell you, ‘If I have the option to work Egyptian cotton or Pima, I would definitely pick Egyptian. It’s easier to work. It’s cheaper.’ ” Yet, according to a U.S.D.A. report, an Egyptian yarn producer told agency staffers that, “even with the high prices of imported Pima cotton, his yarn importers in Europe are requesting yarn produced from Pima cotton and are willing to pay the extra cost due to its high quality compared to yarn produced from the inconsistent quality of Egyptian extra-long staple cotton.”
“The Supima boys are doing backflips and pirouettes on their desks right now,” Ron Lawson, a cotton broker, told Reuters, soon after the Welspun scandal, referring to an association that provides a trademark indicating that cotton products are made with American Pima cotton.