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When Not Just Any Handwoven Towel Will Do, Go Organic
I’ve been on a slow journey to replace many household items with artisan-made ones. At the top of the list, are the functional textiles because they’re used daily. My husband, who does most of the cooking, likes to have dish towels ready to grab no matter where he is in the kitchen. Towels hang from the front of the stove, the refrigerator, the cabinets. Once in a while, I grab old ratty-looking ones and toss them into the rag drawer, only to find them resurfaced. I think about weaving new ones to replace the organic cotton ones I wove years ago, but just haven’t done it. Then, it struck me. I could quickly have new organic, handspun, handwoven, and naturally-dyed cotton ones. All I had to do was cut fabric and finish the edges.
Laos Organic, Handspun Cotton
I made two dish towels using this indigo-dyed, organic cotton fabric from Laos. Lao PDR is quite suitable for small-scale cotton production based on its climate and soils; most of it is used for handweaving. Cotton, called fai, is all hand produced in Luang Prabang where the artisan group Ock Pop Tok is located. Simple traditional equipment is used for ginning, fluffing, spinning and weaving. The planting, drying, harvesting, and seed removal is all part of the preparation for spinning fluffy cotton. The artisans spin cotton on a wheel. The fabric is handwoven of non-plied cotton so the cotton remains soft and somewhat slubby. (Read more about cotton production at OPT by Tracy Hudson.)
With just 24″ in fabric length, two towels can be made by cutting the cloth down the middle, machine zigzagging the edges, and tossing both into the washing machine. I washed the cloth in a regular machine cycle with warm wash and rinse, a mild detergent, and machine dried it. Since this fabric is indigo-dyed, I wanted to make sure there was no bleeding (there wasn’t) and that it would withstand the constant washing and machine-drying that towels take. The fabric also had minimal shrinkage, about an 1″ in width and length. This cloth passed with high marks!
I finished the edges with a row of single crochet using some natural organic cotton yarn from my stash. I could have hemstitched it on the machine but I wanted to have my own hands be part of the process.
Alternatives: U.S. Cotton and Towels
In June, I visited the American Textile History Museum and Boott Cotton Mill Museum in Lowell, MA. Here, you can buy handwoven cotton for towels right off the bolt, hem the ends, and have your own towels woven in the U.S. But the cotton isn’t handspun, nor is it organic. It is close to reproduction of early 20th century American towels.
If you want the slow-cloth route, you can spin and/or weave your own. Sally Fox, the pioneer of growing sustainable organic cotton, offers natural-colored cotton for spinning or ready-spun yarn through her company, Vreseis Limited. It weaves up beautifully and lasts for years with daily use; my last set of towels was woven with it. They still hang around the kitchen and are now joined by my new ones—a joint effort of Lao hands along with mine.