There’s nothing like curling up next to a roaring fire wrapped up in a warm sweater, soft blankets and furry pillows on a cold day. As we bundle up for the remainder of the winter season, we can give thanks to global trade for gifting us with some of today’s trendiest and coziest items – Sherpa wool coats, Mongolian lamb fur pillows and cashmere sweaters, Giza cotton sheets, and Turkish towels.
The United States imported $110 billion worth of textiles and apparel last year, with China, Vietnam and India as the lead exporters. These larger economies dominate overall textile and apparel imports, but specialty products from smaller economies are making a name for themselves with American consumers this holiday season. Before you buy “faux” versions, read on to get the skinny on the originals.
Sherpa from Nepal
Sherpa wool coats, sweaters, and scarves are everywhere this holiday season. Once a high-end statement piece, trendy Sherpa items are now available at varying price points at your local mall. While most of the Sherpa in your closet is likely the faux variety made from polyester, acrylic or cotton, the real deal is inspired by wool clothing worn by the Sherpa people living in the Himalayas.
There are some 150,000 Sherpas residing in the mountainous regions of Nepal, India and Tibet. Many make their living today guiding climbers and tourists up the dangerous summit of Mount Everest as expert mountaineers. But they’re also well-known traders of salt, wool and rice.
The United States is Nepal’s second-largest export market. Top imports include carpets, handicrafts and antiques, animal feed, textiles and apparel. In 2015, the United States established a stand-alone trade preference program with Nepal as part of the Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act to help support Nepal’s economic recovery following disastrous earthquakes that year. The program established duty-free access for 77 categories of products including carpets, shawls, scarves, handbags and suitcases through 2025.
Although Nepal may have started the Sherpa trend, we get most of our wool products from elsewhere today. U.S. wool apparel imports topped $3.1 billion in 2018. China was the top source at over 42 percent, followed by Italy, Canada and Vietnam.
Fur pillows and cashmere sweaters from Mongolia
Fluff up your indoor space by throwing a trendy Mongolian lamb fur pillows on your sofa. (These pillows are all the rage with teens and millennials.) While faux versions are likely a mix of acrylic and polyester, the real ones are made from sheared sheep wool from Mongolia.
Mongolia is home to some 14 million sheep. They graze year-round on Mongolia’s vast plains, accustomed to severe winters, steep mountains and poor vegetation.
Mongolia’s sheep aren’t the only grazers sought after for their soft coats. Mongolia is also home to some 27 million goats that produce 9,400 tons of soft cashmere each year, making Mongolia the world’s second-largest producer of cashmere behind China. Top destinations for Mongolian cashmere include Italy and England. It’s the country’s third-largest exporting industry and employs over 100,000 people, the majority of whom are women.
Exports account for more than half of Mongolia’s GDP. Its economy has traditionally relied on herding and agriculture, but in recent years has gotten a big boost of foreign direct investment in its mining sector which seeks to extract rich deposits of copper, gold, coal, uranium, tungsten and more.
Giza cotton sheets from Egypt
If you’ve ever been up late skimming the TV channels over the holiday break, you’ve likely come across a mustached man happily hugging his “MyPillow”. Mike Lindell is now legendary for his infomercial success, and his company has expanded its product line beyond its namesake pillows to offer dog beds, towels and more.
One of the latest product lines from MyPillow is “Giza Dream” sheets and pillowcases made with 100 percent Giza cotton. In one of his infomercials, Lindell explains how he made his signature sheets: “I started by using the world’s best cotton called Giza. It’s only grown in a region between the Sahara Desert, the Mediterranean Sea and the Nile River. It’s ultra-soft and breathable, but extremely durable”.
MyPillow’s first infomercial aired in 2011, but Giza cotton has been around for centuries. Known for being both extra fine and extra long, Giza cotton is planted in Egypt every April and harvested in September. It’s then hand-picked to ensure its properly matured. But issues with deteriorating quality of privately produced Giza cotton led the Egyptian government to intervene in recent years to help restore the reputation of Egyptian cotton.
In 2017, the Egyptian government unveiled a 19-step plan which included taking control of the production and distribution of cottonseed. It’s already led to increased yield and quality, according to a 2019 report by the U.S. Foreign Agriculture Service. The plan also seeks to prevent seed mixing, enforce bans on prohibited varieties, and develop Egypt’s local spinning and weaving industries.
In 2018, Egypt’s total lint cotton exports were estimated at 220,000 bales. India was the top importer of Egyptian cotton, responsible for over 50 percent of total exports. Other top importers include Pakistan, China and Turkey.
Turkish towels are a summer must-have for sunbathing, but they’ve also made their way into American homes for use after showering, as tablecloths, and as blankets. Usually striped with fringes on the end, these trendy towels are known for being super absorbent, lightweight and getting softer with each wash.
Turkish towels are made with premium Aegean Cotton, known for its extra long fibers. Called “Peshtemal” in Turkey, Turkish towels have a long history dating over 600 years. Turkey is widely credited with inventing the first towels as part of a ceremonial bathing routine for new brides in Turkish hammams.
The Turkish textile industry is one of the leading sectors in its economy, accounting for 16 percent of exports in 2018. According to its Ministry of Trade, Turkey was the world’s third-largest supplier of bed sheets, fourth-largest supplier of towels and bathrobes, and fifth-largest supplier of bedspreads in 2016. Of its top exports markets for home textiles, the United States ranks second behind Germany.
Unwrapping gratitude for trade
Nepal, Mongolia, Egypt and Turkey are inspiring some of the coziest products we’ll unwrap this holiday season.
Even if these products are enjoying the fruits of a fad-induced surge in American demand, their histories date back centuries while also representing an important source of employment and exports for their respective economies today.
Lauren Kyger is Associate Editor for TradeVistas. Prior to joining TradeVistas, she was a Research Associate at the Hinrich Foundation focused on international trade issues. She is a Hinrich Foundation Global Trade Leader Scholar alumna, earning her Master’s degree in Global Business Journalism from Tsinghua University in Beijing. She received her Bachelor’s degree from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.