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A cotton-picking moment

August 2, 2013

This lovely flower in my garden is from the common cotton plant. It has an extremely long growing season (~140 days) which is problematic in Zone 6, where I live. But I started it indoors early, and I’m optimistic that I can get bolls from the plant if I finish it off under cover when temperatures drop.

This lovely blossom in my garden reminds me of a Georgia O'Keeffe painting.

This lovely blossom in my garden reminds me of a Georgia O’Keeffe painting.

Notwithstanding the beautiful blossoms, why grow cotton? I’m a weaver and a spinner, and I’m extremely interested in the new field of what I can only describe as fiber politics. In Bangladesh, the collapse of Rana Plaza on top of the 1000-plus garment workers who toiled there in squalid conditions was the moment when most in the West realized that the Asian garment industry has no regard for human health or safety; but those of us in the fiber arts community have been aware of this for years. A growing number of weavers, spinners and knitters are beginning to make their own clothing from handspun locally-sourced fibers in order to eliminate the specter of slave labor from their closets.

With the cotton experiment, I hope to grow out the seeds contained in some stale cotton bolls I’d been given in order to get more seeds for next year’s optimistically-larger crop. I know I can’t grow enough cotton to make myself a garment, but I was hoping to get enough fiber to at least crochet a kitchen washcloth. A boll of cotton makes a surprising amount of thread; I spun six or seven yards from a single boll last night, spinning right off of the seeds with no problem. A cotton gin is not necessary, believe me! nor does the fiber need to be carded. By mechanizing the processing of cotton in the 1700s and 1800s, we placed ourselves at a machine’s distance from the fiber, despite the fact that it’s a very accessible material to spin by hand, up close.

Sally Fox was one of the first cotton researchers to understand that commercial cotton has an extremely large environmental impact due to the mechanical processes of de-seeding, carding, spinning, and dyeing. Dyeing today is done in far-off countries that generally have few environmental protections in place, and little governmental oversight. The result is that deadly toxins are regularly dumped into rivers, causing illness and death to those who live downstream. Sally began doing research with naturally colored cottons after discovering that cotton originally came in many colors but was selected to be white for dyeing purposes. But why dye it when it comes naturally in soft shades of cream, tan, brown, even muted reds and pinks?

This image of FoxFiber cotton fiber is copyright Sally Fox.

This image of FoxFiber cotton fiber is copyright Sally Fox.

Colored cotton, however, has a much shorter staple (fiber length) compared with white cotton. Although Sally had been told it couldn’t be done, she crossed long-staple white with the colored cotton and spun off the dried bolls herself, by hand, to see whether they were easily spinnable or not. She then used the seeds from the eaisly spinnable bolls to plant as next year’s crop, and within ten years had succeeded in creating long-stapled colored cotton. Her FoxFiber colored cottons hit the market with a big impact around the beginning of the 1990s, but that was right when the fiber economy began to be outsourced to Asia. She was also effectively chased out of southern California by commercial cotton growers who feared that the pollen from her plants would “contaminate” their crops, and this happened again in Arizona. Although FoxFiber cotton appeared nationally in the L.L. Bean catalog one year, her business unfortunately followed the model of “boom and bust.”

Sally Fox has decided to give it another try, however. Today there is a far greater number of people who seek environmentally clean, organic American-grown fiber. She has launched a crowdfunding appeal on IndieGogo to raise $20,000 to get her cotton business relaunched. (See She will accept any donation from $5.00 on up, and has a variety of perks available to donors. I donated $25.00 and asked that my perk be one of her colored cotton bolls. I will be extremely happy next year to grow my own white cotton in the garden alongside genuine Sally Fox colored cotton. I urge you to support American fiber by supporting her campaign.

Sally's cotton farm is now located in northern California. Image courtesy Sally Fox / Indiegogo.

Sally’s cotton farm is now located in northern California. Image courtesy Sally Fox / Indiegogo.

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