White cotton, colored cotton, organic cotton, algodon, cuyuscate, ixcaco, and kuyuchi – cotton in all its varieties and names has shaped history and culture. This small seed has been secreted in pockets and carried to new lands. It has sprouted revolutions. And with the spread of genetically modified seeds, organic cotton crusaders continue to push back in order to save this heirloom plant.
A Cultural History
Most of us think of cotton as a white fluffy fiber, a bit harder to spin than silk and wool, but wonderful nonetheless. We wear it next to our bodies and clothe our babies in its softness. But the history of cotton is one of color. Strong evidence points to the Andes as the origin of cotton in the Americas some 5000 years ago. The Moche culture in what is now Northern Peru nurtured and maintained a wide variety of naturally-colored cottons that were highly valued in Andean societies. Most of our naturally colored cotton comes from these pre-Columbian stocks created by indigenous peoples of South America.
The industrial revolution here in the U.S. started the decline of colored cottons; the staple length of colored cotton is too short to be processed in industrial machines in factories. White cotton became king and by the 1990s most of the indigenous cultivars grown in the Americas, Africa, and Asia, were replaced by all white varieties.
Revolution and Change
The revolutionary history of cotton and the compelling conflicts surrounding this soft fiber can be found in Stephen Yafa’s book, Cotton: The Biography of a Revolutionary Fiber. Gandhi based an entire independence movement on cotton, spinning and weaving plain khadi cloth to inspire his country, India, to fight for textile workers and break from Britain. The global fight continues as cotton may lead the way to changes in agriculture for years to come. Genetically modified seeds are affecting cotton production around the world, but many groups and indigenous cultures continue to fight for naturally-colored cottons through seed saving and nurturing their ancient cultivars.
Organic and Colored Cottons
Ancient red, green, brown and purple cottons continue to inspire cotton growers today. Naturally colored cotton is organic by nature, being highly pest resistant; it does not fade and some colors offer protection from the sun. No dyes are needed and many colors continue to darken as they are washed and worn. Avoiding insecticides and pesticides, saving water and dyes, makes naturally-colored cotton a friend of the environment.
Cooperatives in Peru, Mexico, and Guatemala are reviving native cotton growing, saving seeds and spinning and weaving with both white and colored native cottons. Read about the Proteje project in Guatemala here.
But right here is the United States one cotton warrior has spent years developing naturally-colored cottons, beginning in the 1980s. Sally Fox has always been way ahead of the curve when it comes to organic farming. She grows colored cottons with fibers long enough for machine processing and has sold her products to major clothing companies. It all began with a few colored cotton seeds that caught her interest and started her down a path that continues to inspire. Her lifelong love of spinning, textiles, insect studies and plant breeding has brought her today to a place of welcome calm on her northern California ranch where she nurtures her naturally-colored cottons, raises merino sheep, and grows heirloom wheat. You can learn more about Sally, her passions and products on the her website http://www.vreseis.com
Sally has a vision for the future as did the indigenous people in Peru who grew their colored cottons in hidden valleys to save the ancient varieties. Cotton has a lot to teach the world and we still have a lot to learn.
Beckert, Sven, Empire of Cotton, 2015, Penguin Random House, New York.
Museo Ixchel, Cuyuscate: Brown Cotton in the Textile Tradition of Guatemala, 2002, Museo Ixchel del Traje Indígena, Textiles of Guatemala, Volume 2, Guatemala.
Yafa, Stephen, Cotton: The Biography of a Revolutionary Fiber, 2005, Penguin Group, New York.