Passion. It takes passion to make a difference. When you truly want something, you find a way to make it happen, naysayers be damned. In the moments when it seems your project is doomed for failure, you carry on. You learn to ask for help and to count your blessings. Our organic Alabama cotton is a story of passion.
Our company is built on the concepts of sustainability, ethical production, and using American-made and local resources. Organic materials are an integral part of our mission and our goals. Though sourcing organic materials is easier than when we began working over a decade ago, it is still difficult to obtain American-made organic materials in the quantity that we require.
Those of you who follow us know that Alabama Chanin seeks to source as much of our raw materials as possible from American producers and manufacturers. There have been a number of times when that supply chain has been stretched to the point of breaking and we have asked ourselves: What will we do if these supply channels close?
And so, our journey toward growing organic cotton began in a rather unromantic way: a discussion with friends about our supply chain. Those friends—Katy and K.P. McNeill, partners in the Billy Reid brand—asked, “What if we could grow the cotton in Alabama? Could your grown-to-sewn in the U.S.A. mission become grown-to-sewn in Alabama?”
After years of struggling to build and rebuild our supply chain, K.P.’s question took us aback. Because while we were both passionate and informed about organic cotton, we were also uneducated about the specifics of how to find organic cottonseed, where to find enough chemical-free farmland to plant those seeds, and who might have the knowledge to help us with the day-to-day physical labor of organic farming. But when you are passionate, you have to be unafraid to ask difficult questions. You have to be willing to fail, keep trying, and perhaps to fail yet again
Luckily for us, we knew people that could help us find answers, friends to stand beside us in the field, and legions of passionate folk who were willing to spend days picking this miracle cotton by hand. Lynda Grose, who works with the Sustainable Cotton Project in California, helped us understand the importance of knowing and working with our farmers. Kelly Pepper of the Texas Organic Cotton Marketing Cooperative ultimately helped us source our cottonseed, or “magic beans”, as we began to call them. The TOCM, who currently grows our Alabama Chanin organic cotton and has years of practical knowledge on what works and what doesn’t, availed themselves to us graciously and without reservations.
While we knew the why and were learning the how of growing organic cotton, we had nowhere to plant and no one to manage our crop. Miraculously, K.P. knew the perfect tract of land—6 ½ acres, untouched and unfarmed—about an hour’s drive from our office in Florence, Alabama. He also knew the perfect stewards for our crop: Jimmy and Lisa, a couple both raised in cotton country and interested in organic farming. The land, when plowed by Jimmy’s Massey Ferguson tractor, revealed a rich, beautiful soil. Eight days after planting our seeds, the cotton began to break through the ground. Shortly thereafter, we began to see tiny butterfly-shaped seedlings lined up in rows.
We watched and waited through a six-week drought, praying our cotton would survive. When rain finally came, its intensity almost destroyed the crop again. But our hearty bolls made it through Mother Nature’s trials. As the plants grew, so did the weeds. Our staff visited the field and pulled weeds for hours. We put a call out for help from able hands and our community did not disappoint. When the time finally came to pick our cotton, we held two “picking parties” and dozens of people showed up to help, filling pillowcases with beautiful, white cotton. We anxiously tracked every step of our fiber’s journey – from Florence to North Carolina, to South Carolina, then home to Alabama again.
At the end of what has been two years of work, Alabama Chanin and Billy Reid can present the results of our fruitful partnership—a limited-edition line of Alabama cotton men’s and women’s t-shirts and socks. It is one of our proudest moments as a company and is a pure reflection of our passion to learn more, do better, and build partnerships in our community.
These beautiful (and well-loved) shirts are a perfect expression of Cradle-to-Cradle design. We preserved our seeds to share with others who might want to undertake their own journey into organic cotton. And our hope is that one day our organic cotton fiber, touched by so many hands, can return to the soil as compost for a next generation of organic cotton to emerge. That would be an ideal example of a “closed loop” system, where the final product is restorative, helping foster new growth and new products. What better way to feed growing organic cotton than with compost from a shirt born of its predecessor?
Agriculture and textile production shaped and grew our community. This organic cotton project helped underscore and remind us all of our ties to the land. This experiment proved that field-to-fiber production can be done. We encourage those who can to preserve valuable organic cottonseed. Our hope is to partner with others to perfect and teach soil-to-soil textile design and manufacturing processes that are efficient, practical, and economically viable. While our company’s organic cotton growing journey may be over for now, our work toward sustainable organic cotton growth in Alabama and America is only just beginning.