Here is a bit of information that may surprise you: not all cotton is white cotton. If you are like me, you may not have always known that natural cotton comes in plenty of hues. In fact, there were originally shades of cotton that ranged from many tones of brown, to dark green, to brown, black, red, and blue. These varieties of cotton were widely used by Native American peoples and, occasionally, those who were enslaved and tenant families were allowed to grow small plots of colored cotton because plantation owners considered it worthless. Colored cotton became obscure because farmers and manufacturers believed it too difficult to work with due to its short staple length, which makes the cotton problematic to spin. As a result, the varieties of colored cotton have dwindled. The Central Institute for Cotton Research in India has cultivated 6,000 varieties of cotton, only 40 of which are colored.
The white cotton we primarily see now was created by planting mono-crop, or only one variety of cotton. This type of cotton requires more pesticides than other varieties and the dyeing of this cotton is a massive cause of land and water pollution (not to mention its human impact). According to the ECO360 Trust, nearly 20% of all industrial water pollution results from textile dyeing and production methods. They have discovered at least 72 toxic chemicals that are present in our water system purely due to textile dyeing.
Cotton pioneer Sally Fox spent much of her life studying, growing, and championing colored cotton. The story goes that she began weaving around the age of 12, buying her first spindle with money from babysitting jobs. Sally studied biology and entomology in college, then traveled to Africa with the Peace Corps to help develop natural ways to fight disease-causing pests. This exposed her, for the first time, to commercial fertilizers and pesticides. DDT, then recently banned in the United States and Europe, had been “generously” donated to African countries in massive quantities. She began holding safety seminars on the pesticide, but she became ill due to the constant exposure to that chemical and had to leave the Peace Corps.
Returning to the US, Fox got a job as a pollinator for a cotton breeder working on pest-resistant plants. There, she discovered some cotton seeds that were pest-resistant, but brown. So, as an experiment, she began breeding brown and, eventually, green cotton. She would select the best seeds that produced the longest fibers, replanting them time and again until she created two colored cottons that were long enough to be spun on a machine. She discovered the tannins that created the color in the fiber made it highly pest and mildew resistant and, if properly stored, would last many decades. Her first crop of 122 bushels was sold to a Japanese mill. She began selling to larger companies and designers under her label, FoxFibre.
In the early 1990’s, Sally Fox and FoxFibre experienced immense success. But, cotton growers began to voice concerns that her colored cotton would contaminate their traditional cotton crops. She relocated more than once, always hearing the same cry: not here. The powerful cotton industry placed pressure on mills to charge her higher fees. Mills began to close and move to cheaper locations. As is evident in our own community, businesses moved and labor was outsourced. So, Sally and FoxFibre withdrew for a while, but not for too long.
Sally Fox is still in the fiber business. Thanks to the recent interest in all things organic, the market for FoxFibre products is growing. Sally concentrates on smaller mills and smaller customers. She is rebuilding her network of growers and has a US spinner for her cotton once again. Fox wants FoxFibre to make a difference and believes, particularly with smaller clients, she can. Once enough smaller clients find success, expansion may begin again. We certainly hope so.
Currently, Alabama Chanin offers three varieties of natural colored cotton fabrics: Brown and Green Popcorn Jacquard, Brown Organic Cotton Jacquard, and Green Organic Cotton Jacquard. Perhaps, as FoxFibre grows, it will be possible to expand our collection to include some of Sally’s beautiful fabric. Sally Fox has been a continued source of inspiration for Alabama Chanin. While we do not use natural colored cotton extensively, we are committed to organic and sustainable manufacturing and dyeing practices. We have a growing collection of natural dye fabrics. Sally Fox is THE proof that natural fiber production can be done in the United States. She is a hero of ours, and we watch with anticipation as the natural colored cotton market grows.