Prilla Mills in Pietermaritzburg is one of the largest of southern Africa’s eight cotton spinning mills – four in South Africa and one each in Swaziland, Lesotho, Swaziland and Mozambique. But size was not what convinced Enrique Crouse, Managing Director of Prilla, to join the Sustainable Cotton Cluster initiative as a member. The big picture did.
“I take note of what happens in the world,” says Enrique. “I attend an international conference every year and sit on the international spinners committee. So I have seen the trend of sourcing in close proximity to the market gain momentum. The concepts of ‘near-sourcing’ and ‘quick response’ have shaped our industry globally, and is an influence South Africa cannot escape.”
For Enrique, the Sustainable Cotton Cluster presented the opportunity to help South Africa respond to these influences. “It was strategically important for us to get onto the bus right at the beginning.”
The other reason for Prilla’s involvement is South Africa’s longer term stability and prosperity. Enrique points out that all the developed countries, and the significant developing ones, used to have or still have significant textile and clothing industries. This is due to these industries’ capacity to absorb labour, thanks to the low cost of creating jobs and, as a result, create social stability.
“It was important for the country to prove that if things were done efficiently in the local value chain we could produce a product that is competitive,” says Enrique. “We need to reignite the textile and clothing industry to help address the horrendous unemployment that plagues our nation. This is the Sustainable Cotton Cluster’s long-term potential spin-off.”
Spinning’s place in the cotton value chain
The spinning mill converts cotton fibre into yarn that, in turn, will be processed into fabric through knitting, weaving or towel making. The quality of the yarn determines how efficient and cost-effective the fabric formation stage will be. It sounds simple enough, but the hundreds of PhDs already done on the impact of fibre and process variables on the quality and appearance of fabric prove that it’s not.
“Cotton is a natural product,” emphasises Enrique, “which means that it is not uniform.” For example, in a batch of 28mm cotton fibre, it can be expected that as much as 8% of the fibres will be shorter than 12mm. The spinning mill therefore tests the length, length distribution, strength, maturity, fineness and colour of the fibre it buys, each of which has an effect on the process. Only with a thorough understanding of the fibre, can the blending be done that ensures the mill produces a consistent product efficiently.
Consistency of blending is particularly important in the knitting industry, given that cotton absorbs colour differently depending on type and maturity. “Knitting exposes poor spinning because it highlights differences in colour uptake,” says Enrique. If the spinning mill does not blend the cotton fibre properly, the colour of the knitted fabric will be stripy, or “barre” in industry terms. “We have to make sure this doesn’t happen. The appearance of the fabric depends on the quality of the yarn we produce.”
In addition to the characteristics of cotton fibre, the multiple stages in the sequential production process (each impacting on the next), as well as the machine type, condition and maintenance further add to the complexity of producing high quality yarn.
Different spinning mills produce different products for different customers. These include ring-spun (compact, combed, carded), open-end and folded yarns. The latter, for instance, is used primarily to make towels.
“The range of cotton products is enormous,” says Enrique. “As a spinner you have to make sure you use the right cotton for the product you make. If not, your product would be sub-standard or you could end up over-engineering your product, which will increase your costs.”