5:13am

Tue December 3, 2013
Business

Planet Money Spins A Yarn And Makes A 'Perfect' T-Shirt

Originally published on Thu December 5, 2013 2:10 pm

NPR's Planet Money team has manufactured a T-shirt. All this week we're following its journey around the globe. Today, the T-shirt makes a detour in the Pacific Ocean. Cotton from America gets shipped to a factory in Indonesia where it gets transformed into yarn.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

NPR's Planet Money team has produced its own T-shirt, and they sent reporters around the world to follow each step in that process.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

All this week on MORNING EDITION and ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, we're meeting the people who put the shirt together. Yesterday, we went to Mississippi, where the cotton was grown.

BOWEN FLOWERS: We're standing on one of my farms; we call Omega.

GREENE: And tomorrow on this program, we'll hear from Bangladesh, where the T-shirt was cut and sewn.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Planet Money. Wow.

ZOE CHACE, BYLINE: These are our T-shirts.

MONTAGNE: But in between the U.S. and Bangladesh, the Planet Money cotton makes a detour, thousands of miles out of the way to Indonesia. Robert Smith reports on how Indonesia grabbed the most secret and obscure part of the T-shirt process.

ROBERT SMITH, BYLINE: We chased our bales of Mississippi cotton through the streets of Jakarta, through gridlocked traffic, and out into the Indonesian countryside. Now, this is a place where rice fields have been turned into Honda plants and satellite farms. This is a busy, crowded place, until we walk into the doors of the Indorama factory. This building is as big as a football field, and there is seemingly nobody working here. It's just row after row of shiny, metal robots.

These are beautiful machines. They are, like, immaculate.

ANIL TEBREWAL: And very expensive.

SMITH: Very expensive. Anil Tebrewal is the chief salesman here, and he says these machines are his greatest sales tool, because this step in the T-shirt process requires perfection.

TEBREWAL: You should have perfect machines, and a perfect culture to produce perfect things.

SMITH: And let it be very clear: the perfect thing that Anneal is talking about is yarn. Indorama spins raw cotton into yarn. Now, whatever image you have in your head of yarn - your grandma knitting a sweater - no, no, forget it. Yarn, in the textile business, is the stuff you and I might casually call thread. Those tiny little lines, if you look at your T-shirt, that's yarn, and it's very complicated stuff. Jockey International guided us on the technical side of this project, and Randy Schelling from the company told us that they spent years developing the yarn that goes into the Planet Money T-shirt. It had to have just the right qualities.

RANDY SCHELLING: You have the twist, the amount of twist, the direction of the twist.

SMITH: They specify fiber content, something called tenacity.

SCHELLING: Newtons per text on the yarn. That's a relationship to the size of the yarn and amount of strength.

SMITH: So, that's if you tug on it, if it's going to break.

SCHELLING: Right.

SMITH: Randy says there are basically an infinite number of different yarns you can create. So I asked him about the Planet Money yarn. Can we have a copy of the spec sheet? Because we want to show our listeners exactly the kind of that's in their T-shirt.

SCHELLING: No, I don't believe so.

(LAUGHTER)

MARION SMITH: That's our special sauce.

SMITH: That was Randy's boss, Marion Smith, at the end there. And that's how big a deal yarn is: It is a trade secret. It's like the recipe for Coke, except so much softer against the skin. The reason for all this obsession and secrecy about yarn is that yarn has to be flawless. There's six miles of it in a T-shirt. And if they get the recipe wrong - they pick the wrong cotton or the incorrect twist, if it's not uniform - your T-shirt could be itchy. It could fit funny. It could fall apart - which is why at the Indorama factory, they use robots, lots and lots of expensive robots.

I watched a machine suck up the cotton and pull it into a long, thick ponytail - an infinite ponytail sailing above my head, in and out. And, suddenly, these machines make it very thin, spinning at 22,000 rotations per minute.

So, I'm actually touching the yarn coming - oh, it vibrates. It's like a violin string.

Yeah. It turns out, this is a huge no-no at the factory. Nobody touches the yarn. My producer, Jess Jiang, and I got a little lecture.

TEBREWAL: No. There is no touching here. Why should you touch the product by hand? You are destroying the product.

JESS JIANG, BYLINE: But what's destroying it? My hands are clean. I washed them.

TEBREWAL: No, your hands are not clean. Dirty hands are bound to touch it, and then - look at this - the yarn is destroyed.

SMITH: They've got to be careful. Indorama puts out enough yarn to make a T-shirt every second. That's enough yarn in a day to circle the globe 24 times. It took a lot to do that math. It is an efficient plant, but it still does not explain the basic question about the Planet Money T-shirt, which is: Why does all of this happen in Indonesia? Why not in Bangladesh, where they actually use the yarn? Or why not in the United States, where the cotton is grown? Because, I learned, Indonesia is in a sort of sweet spot right now in the middle of the global T-shirt trade.

(LAUGHTER)

ANUPAM AHGRAHWALL: I think Indonesia is lucky to be in the middle of the process, but...

SMITH: Wait - luck? You think it's really luck?

AHGRAHWALL: Partly, partly.

SMITH: This is Anupam Ahgrahwall. He is the boss of all the spinning here at Indorama. And he explains Indonesia carved out a cozy little space between those advanced industrial countries and the developing ones. Places like the United States and Europe, they simply have to pay their workers more. Indorama can do it cheaper. Now, developing countries, like Bangladesh and Myanmar, they do have even lower wages than Indonesia, but those countries aren't ready to build a $35 million plant like this one. And they don't have a good supply of what robots need to survive.

AHGRAHWALL: Infrastructure, electricity.

SMITH: But staying in the sweet spot in a changing global economy is almost impossible. You know the drill: some poor country scrapes together the money to build one of these plants. Maybe they figure out how to keep the power on 24 hours a day. They have cheaper workers. Maybe they're closer to the cotton, or to the clothing factories. And all of a sudden, Indorama is undercut. Anyone who could produce this kind of high-quality yarn for a few pennies cheaper will win. And so that's why the folks at Indorama are so obsessed about that strand of cotton. That's how they stay in the T-shirt chain, even if no consumer will ever notice the time and effort they put into the Planet Money T-shirt.

AHGRAHWALL: When I see people picking up a T-shirt, and then just putting it back on the shelf in a store, I'm like, hey, man, we work very hard to make that yarn, which has made that T-shirt. Like, come on, give it some respect.

SMITH: Robert Smith, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: And later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, Planet Money's Zoe Chace takes us into the home of a Bangladeshi woman who sewed the Planet Money shirt. You can follow the T-shirt's journey on video at NPR.org/Shirt. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.