Cotton demand from American textile mills hits a near 140-year low

American mills are on track to process the least cotton this year since ’85.

The year 1885, that is. The same year the Statue of Liberty arrived in New York City’s harbor.

According to an updated U.S. Department of Agriculture forecast released Monday, the nation’s textile mills will feed just 1.74 million bales of cotton into their machines in the 2023-24 marketing year that ends in July, the slowest rate in 139 years. That’s nearly 15% less than last year and even lower than the agency’s prior forecast.

These factories, which turn cotton fibers into yarn and fabric, are among the last bastions of the country’s textile industry after decades of rising competition from cheaper overseas production and synthetic materials. Mill use made a brief recovery in the 1990s, when trade deals encouraged the U.S. to export yarn and fabric to be turned into clothes in other countries before being sent back and sold. The reprieve was short-lived, even as global cotton use by mills increases.

U.S. mill use has “just disappeared,” said Peter Egli, the director of risk management at Plexus Cotton Ltd. Factories in other countries “just operated at much better margins than producing in the U.S.”