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Now wait just a cotton-pickin' minute
May 9, 2008 2:20 PM   Subscribe

"King Cotton" created a huge demand for land and (slave) labor that changed early America's borders, population, and economics. But just as cotton affected history, history affected cotton: the story of naturally colored cottons -- brown, green, yellow, mauve, and reddish cottons -- has almost been lost.

Slaves in the American South, forbidden from planting white cotton lest they sell it for profit, grew this colored cotton in their gardens to spin their own clothes. These heirloom varieties, and colored cottons being grown in the former Soviet Union, were considered too difficult to spin commercially, and were almost lost until an untrained textiles enthusiast named Sally Fox single-handedly pioneered the revival of some of these cotton colors. Her cotton plants are grown organically (amazing for cotton, the most pesticide-dependent crop in the world!), drought tolerant, and their fibers require no toxic bleaching or highly carcinogenic dyes.

Undyed colored cotton, raised organically in Peru by artisans through a collective called Pakucho, is also sold online here (Knitter's Review likes it a lot). And on a fun note, companies like Levi Strauss & Co. have now come full circle -- the original Levi's jeans were made in both the traditional indigo-dyed white cotton and in natural brown cotton, the latter of which fell out of favor. Now Levi's makes jeans out of Sally Fox's cotton.
posted by Asparagirl (16 comments total) 38 users marked this as a favorite

 
incredible post. Thanks.

I knew that the dying/bleaching process for cotton used a lot of awful chemicals, but never thought of cotton more than one natural color.
posted by dubold at 2:27 PM on May 9, 2008


Yeah - awesome post. Great stuff. and sooo soft...
posted by GuyZero at 2:31 PM on May 9, 2008


Yeah, the bleaches (chlorine) and dyes (arsenic!) are pretty awful -- one of the Sally Fox links up there mentions how her friend's daughter, a textiles teacher, suffered permanent brain damage from too much exposure to the dyes. And Sally herself had to leave her Peace Corps assignment after getting very sick from local crop pesticides.
posted by Asparagirl at 2:32 PM on May 9, 2008


Amazing—thanks, Asparagirl!
posted by languagehat at 2:35 PM on May 9, 2008


Do these natural colors ever bleed out of the fabric and alter the color of the wearer's skin? Because, you know, in Soviet Russia....


Awesome post, but I'd like to see more pics of stuff made from these fabrics.
posted by gurple at 2:35 PM on May 9, 2008


Do these natural colors ever bleed out of the fabric

No, but unlike our familiar dyed cottons that eventually fade in the wash, the colors of natural colored cottons actually get darker over time! Details here.
posted by Asparagirl at 2:40 PM on May 9, 2008


Huh, here I was just going for the cheap joke and I learned something new!
posted by gurple at 2:42 PM on May 9, 2008


wonderful - thanks much, Asparagirl
posted by jammy at 2:47 PM on May 9, 2008


A few years ago, I offhandedly said to my mom, "Get your cotton pickin' fingers off of that". I stopped and suddenly realized the racist subtext of that phrase for the first time. When I was a kid, it just always seemed like an old-timey and cliche idiom; I had never before thought about where it came from.
posted by jpdoane at 2:53 PM on May 9, 2008


Fantastic post Asparagirl. It's a rare FPP that I read every word in every link (and then some).
posted by nax at 2:56 PM on May 9, 2008


Nice post, Asparagirl!

jpdoane: I'd lean toward a classist insult: lots of poor whites picked cotton, too. Cotton was one of the few field crops in California that white immigrants picked because they were already familiar with the crop.
posted by oneirodynia at 3:21 PM on May 9, 2008


What a cool post, thank you!
posted by headspace at 3:26 PM on May 9, 2008


I love buying naturally colored organic cotton yarns. I'm delighted that it's also helping save an heirloom crop.
posted by padraigin at 3:34 PM on May 9, 2008


As with cotton, so also with wool.
posted by IndigoJones at 4:33 PM on May 9, 2008


Very cool! I learned something new today!
posted by The Light Fantastic at 9:47 PM on May 9, 2008


Thanks for posting this - there's so much diversity in the natural colored cottons, but the plain white stuff just gets planted everywhere.
posted by WormSpit at 1:05 PM on May 10, 2008


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