Thanks to everyone who reached out about and/or shared my post on organic cotton last Friday on @EcoSalon.

For the sake of making a plea for organic cotton, here it is again… spread the word.

Pound for Pound:

I am pissed. It doesn’t happen often, but, it does happen.

I grew up in cotton country. My mother and her sisters picked cotton every summer to make money for new school clothes, as they didn’t want to head back in “handmade.” My aunts and uncles raised this cotton. I slept under blankets made from scrap cotton that grows after the harvest has taken place – the dregs that are left over.  I made a film about cotton and rural quilting. For better or for worse, cotton is part of the vernacular of my community, my childhood, and my life. I would venture that cotton plays a large role in your life as well.

Since this fiber is so prevalent in our lives, I think that there are 10 things you should know about it.

1. There are many varieties of cotton along with nine known colors of wild cotton. 90% of the cotton grown today is Gossypium hirsutum making it a monoculture.

2. There are three main farming methods used to harvest cotton:

Traditional Cotton – about a pound of chemical pesticides, fertilizers and defoliants are required to produce a pound of cotton.

Transitional Cotton – grown without chemical pesticides, fertilizers and defoliants but in a field where they were previously used. In these conditions, it takes a minimum of three years for traces of poison to subside – some say seven years for the field to be clean.

Certified Organic Cotton – Certified organic cotton is grown from seeds that have not been genetically modified and the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and defoliants are prohibited.

3. The pesticides most often used for cotton are derived from WWII nerve gases. According to the World Health organization, 20,000 deaths occur each year as a result of pesticide usage, as well as one million long-term acute poisonings. Many of these poisonings and deaths occur in third-world countries and away from watchful eyes.

4. The cotton seed extracted from the fiber is used in a variety of ways and often pressed into oils that are included in many processed foods found in your local supermarket or the seed itself is fed to cows for its rich oils. The seeds from traditionally grown cotton are high in chemical residue and infiltrate our food chain.

5. It takes approximately one pound of chemical pesticides and fertilizers to grow one pound of traditionally grown cotton. That long-sleeve t-shirt you just bought to support your favorite team and have thrown on your body has about one pound of cotton and has used about one pound of chemicals from seed to skin.

6. That lovely designer t-shirt is the most desirable object of the season and you HAVE to have one. Let’s say that in a very small company, school or organization, there could be approximately 12 dozen of the shirts made in a variety of sizes. A typical run might be 12 dozen.

Bad at math?  Let’s break it down:

12 dozen = 144 t-shirts = 144 pounds of chemicals

For a mid-size company, school or organization, the production quantities might be x 100:
1,440 t-shirts = 1,440 pounds of chemicals

For a larger company, school or organization, production quantities might be x 1000:
14,400 t-shirts = 14,000 pounds of chemicals

You don’t need to be good at math to see where this is going. Multiply these numbers by the numbers of companies, schools and organizations that print t-shirts, the number of styles of t-shirts available, and the size ranges from XXS to XXL for each style of t-shirt. It will make your head spin.

7. Skin is the largest organ of the human body.  Everything you layer on your skin is absorbed into your blood. That’s right: the traditionally grown cotton t-shirt with its chemical residues is directly in contact with your largest organ.

8. Organic cotton production promotes biodiversity in every part of the world it is grown. In Africa and other third-world countries, farmers growing organic cotton increase their revenue 50% because of a 40% savings on fertilizers, pesticides, and defoliants. Add to this a 20% premium for organic cotton fiber and organics can determine whether a family will survive or perish. Economic strength has been proven crucial in stopping the spread of HIV. The switch to organic cotton farming benefits entire communities and nations.

9. The fashion industry has been very slow to embrace change on a global scale. We are taught to believe that organic cotton is too expensive. Because of the increase in organic cotton products on the market, this is no longer the case.

10. Why would we NOT buy transitional or organic? As consumers, we are not insisting on transitional or organic because we are simply not informed and suppliers have grown lazy.

Given cotton’s ugly past in the south, we have a chance to make a beautiful story from a shameful history -to grow beauty from cruelty, to grow peace from strife by producing organic cotton.  As a country, we are learning to eliminate harmful chemicals from our food. Why are we so slow to demand the same of our clothing?

In the United States, we grow the cotton when we are not being paid not to grow it. Yet, we insist on producing it using harmful chemical means. Why aren’t we thinking of the supply chain down the road or river? What about the run-off that winds up in our streams? What about the animals that drink that water?

It reminds me of the children’s song “The House that Jack Built.” In this case, the house that we are building for our children is based upon chemicals and pesticides; our hastily crafted house may poison our children and destroy the land upon which it was built. This being the case, why would any designer or company today choose anything other than transitional or organic cotton? Katharine Hamnett presents it brilliantly, “Only pressure from the consumer in the form of boycott” can make a change. “By insisting on organic cotton and fair pay for garment workers and by paying 1% more for a t-shirt, you can change the world and make it a better and safer place.”

In the last two months, my daughter has been given a t-shirt supporting a local sports team, one for Breast Cancer awareness month, a Thanksgiving themed shirt, a pair of pants, and a gift shirt from an airline. And I am willing to bet that every student in her school, and across this nation, has been offered a similar array of items. We make t-shirts to promote coffee and sell products, for anniversaries and 10K Runs. We make t-shirts for just about everything. You do the math.

The next time you are offered a t-shirt, think about a pound of harmful chemicals in the ground. Think about those harmful chemicals in the water that you are drinking, and more importantly, think about the residue on the largest organ of your body, your skin. Think about you and your children drinking up the residue of these chemicals into your entire system. Think about this residing in your liver for years – or a lifetime.

Then, the next time someone offers you a t-shirt that isn’t organically grown, don’t accept it, get pissed, and ask, “Why would I want that?”


*Photos above from Alabama Stitch Book.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Click to read 7 comments
  1. Rebecca West

    OK. That’s it. Thank you. I love fabric and yarn. I buy organic when I see it. I look for it. But . . . I buy traditional, too. I am going to buy only organic fabric & yarn between now and Xmas (and hopefully forever).

    I’ve printed your post and put it on the fridge for daily inspiration and strength!

  2. Monica

    Phew! This is both a beautiful and ground shaking article! Thank you for writing it and helping inform those of us who are SO ignorant of where our materials come from!
    I’ve begun sourcing organic cottons and silks for my wedding dresses and despite the difficulty of that I’ve encountered, your article has me shouting “yes! no more! it’s worth it!” our children and our homes and our country are worth it!

    Thank you Natalie!

    1. Elizabeth

      Thank you Natalie.
      In thinking about both what you and Monica have written: Do you know where to find a listing of sources for organic cotton (both woven and knit). I too would like to source organic but am quite ignorant about how to find it.
      Thanks again for passing along the information.
      Kind Regards,

  3. Abigail

    Stunning! Thank you for this information.
    I am AWAKE and AWARE and trying to expunge chemicals from my life and home. It takes effort, but we must make a decision to get these things out of our lives by boycotting the mainstream, mainline industries that are killing us! My brain has “turned over” and once you wake up and see what is important, the industry will have to change.
    Just get ready to be thought of as WEIRD- even persecuted- for this renewed mind set!
    This happened to me in the 70’s when I started making my own YOGURT! hahahha Now you can get Greek yogurt in Kroger and Publlix!
    So, it will take time, but there has to be those that are willing to be the “point man” for the (hopefully) turn around.
    Bessings from Abigail~

  4. Marijke Bongers

    Dear Natalie, thank you again for sharing your wide knowledge on this subject. I have a question. In my textile studio in the Netherlands I would love to sell your organic cottons but I’m not sure what is best for the environment. Buy linnen or hennep in Europe or buy your cotton from Alabama USA. Do you know the answer? thanks Marijke Bongers

    1. marnie lindgren

      This is very well written, and really hits all points, the consumer needs to ask for organic cotton, and learn to read labels, and know what the real certified organic stamps look like!. Thank you for this and we are sharing it on our blog with full credit to you. Keep up the great work!

  5. Russ Garner

    Love your way of thinking.

    I have farmed for most of my adult life, in some form or another, whether it be scouting cotton in the Delta to pay for college, milking cows, or just plain gardening. This is the first year I have grown a garden organically, and it actually was not that hard.

    Just a few questions:

    Where is organically grown cotton ginned at in the US? Is this something that small farmers in the US could do, say with 3 or 4 acres? Returns? I know you may not know the answer to these questions, but I am very interested in your ideas from the ag side of it.

    Russ Garner