It might have seemed strange when the owners of Bowles Farming Company bought each of its workers a set of bed linens. But everyone who brought home a set of sheets that day knew that it was their work in Bowles Farming’s wide fields of pima cotton that would help them sleep in luxury that night.

The bed linens were part of an unbroken, source-verified supply chain that started at Bowles Farming and four other California growers of premium pima cotton. At the gin, their fiber was misted with a unique DNA marker that remains permanently attached to each thread in the sheets.

A simple test conducted anywhere along the supply chain, from the gin to the spinner in India to the textile mill to the store shelf, could conclusively verify that every Kirkland Signature pima cotton sheet at Costco or PimaCott linens or towels is made solely from cotton grown by one of PimaCott’s five suppliers.

Derek Azevedo, vice president of Bowles Farming Company in Los Banos, California, says PimaCott fiber is traceable “from farmer to fashion.”

Coveted cotton. Most U.S. cotton is called upland cotton, harvested from Gossypium hirsutum. The extra-long, extra-fine fiber of pima cotton comes from the Gossypium barbadense plant, which requires more than a 200-day growing season. Those long fibers allow spinners to create extremely fine thread that feels almost like silk. And because pima fibers are also extremely strong, thread manufacturers can spin them more quickly, which improves efficiency at the processing level, Azevedo notes.

Thanks to those benefits throughout the chain, pima grosses about twice as much as upland cotton.

Consumers pay a hefty premium for the feel of real pima cotton. They need to be assured that they are buying the genuine article, says fashion industry consultant Steve Birkhold, former CEO of Lacoste, Earl Jeans, Diesel, and Bebe.

“Companies are making claims about their products: Made in the U.S., American cotton, organic cotton,” Birkhold says. “All these types of claims become more important to the industry and more important to the consumer.”

At Lacoste in the mid-2000s, Birkhold battled counterfeiters. He also found himself battling lawyers who had created an industry around class-action suits disproving labels like “100% Pima.”

“If you get caught and can’t prove that claim, there’s tremendous liability,” he points out.

Today, Birkhold sits on the strategic advisory board of Applied DNA Sciences, Inc., a leader in DNA testing technology—the sort of tests that are the cornerstone of cop movies and legal thrillers.

As Applied DNA Sciences’ automated applicator sprays DNA markers onto cotton at the gin, it gathers 90,000 data points each day that can verify the source of PimaCott fiber.

Verified. For the PimaCott program, Applied DNA Sciences manufactures a unique genetic marker for each gin every year, says MeiLin Wan, vice president of textile sales for Applied DNA Sciences.

“It’s like a molecular tag or molecular bar code that we attach to the fiber,” Wan explains. “You know the cotton you tagged because you can link the cotton to the bales that were tagged at a specific place, date, and time.”

Each DNA tag has a matching reagent, Wan explains, like a unique lock with just one key. Anywhere along the supply chain, a technician can put a few fibers into a tube with the reagent and analyze it with a real-time polymerase chain reaction (PCR) analyzer. In minutes, the readout indicates whether the cotton is from the right source and whether it has been blended with untagged fiber.

“Portable testing is really the way to enable the supply chain to take responsibility for what they’re doing, and also to reduce the cost,” Wan points out.

The cost is measured in pennies, she notes, while a lawsuit can be measured in millions of dollars.

And Bowles Farming workers can know for sure that their work is keeping them snug at night.

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