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.
In the past, Alabama Chanin has offered 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. 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.
I am so excited to hear that Sally Fox is working on cotton again! Thanks for the great news and the information.
I am feeling energized this morning! I love the naturally colored cotton, and have been a follower of Sally Fox for quite a while. Kate G
I wondered what had happened to FoxFibre… One of my long-term WIPs is a granny square blanket in colour-grown cotton yarns – lots of shades of green, brown, and cream. I love the fact that the colours actually deepen with washing!
It is disheartening but not unusual that in our so-called “free-market” with its lip service to entrepreneurs, that someone like Sally Fox could literally be black-listed. Despite highly publicized new sources of natural gas and oil, we are at the end of the time when resources can be squandered on wasteful/harmful agricultural practices especially given the increase in areas affected by drought every year. Pioneers like Ms. Fox should be consulted regularly and those who would grow alternate fibers such as flax and hemp should be given the same breaks as the giants like Monsanto.
This is fascinating stuff. Now I’m intrigued to use some of these Jacquard fabrics, but I’m unsure what to make. Perhaps you could feature some garments made from these fabrics in a future blog post?
Here’s a link to our Hunter Jacket that we make with our Jacquard: http://alabamachanin.com/jacquard-hunter-jacket
I’m so happy to hear Sally Fox continues to produce colored cotton. Since learning about Alabama Chanin last year I’ve been wondering what happened to her and her cotton. I used to spin and have a small stash of unspun brown Sally Fox cotton fiber waiting to be spindle spun. Perhaps it’s time to dig it out for a small summer project.
QUALITY COTTON!!!!! Great job.
We would love to work with someone in the US for our Cotton needs.
organic cotton, less dyes used, the better.
“and, occasionally, slaves were allowed to grow small plots of colored cotton because plantation owners considered it worthless”
“Slaves”?? They were enslaved, however, they were human beings. Your writing reveals that you do not perceive those who were enslaved as human beings, but instead as property.
Way to represent your brand. True to your “southern” roots.
You are absolutely right. This was a grave over-sight on my part and the post has been updated to read “those who were enslaved and tenant farmers.” It would never be my intention to demean or slander any person on this earth. Thank you for pointing this out to me.
With deepest respect,
I’m a small natural dye dyer in Brazil. Congratulations for your initiative. God illuminate your life and you follow to cath your ambition.
We currently have 15 family members staying with us. Seven are children many who are highly allergic to a plethora of things. It will make my day when we can offer my grandchildren dye free organic surrounds from bedding to bath to kitchen linens
Sally, I worked with you, along with Lawrence Ostrow, some 20+ years ago. I have since lost contact with you and Lawrence. Just found this site on web and was curious as to what is going on in the industry.
I am still living in South Carolina and would LOVE to get back into this as I am now retired and not connected to any industry on the East Coast.
Please let me know how you are doing and if there is anything related here on the East Coast.
where can one buy seeds to grow organic colored cotton. (or at least fiber)
We’ve come across them in seed catalogs in small amounts, more so for ornamental decoration. (You can look for them online in an internet search.) We have not researched sourcing colored cotton seeds in bulk. If you are looking to grow on a larger scale, we suggest reaching out to someone in the industry, such as Fox Fibre, to see if they can provide any direction. http://www.vreseis.com/contact/
Did Sally Fox use farmers in her area to grow colored cotton? Tom Wingo remembers growing blue and light brown cotton in Comer, Alabama in the late 70s and early 80s for a woman.
Hi, Carol! You can find out about Sally and her work on her website here: http://foxfibre.sites.musicwell.org/viriditas-farm/.
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There is no scientific or experiential confirmation of black, red, blue naturally grown cotton. This is definitely true in the modern era and has been confirmed true about ancient Peruvian cotton. For a long time there was a folk tale about red and blue cotton in ancient Peruvian textiles. However, recently these textiles have been examined by electron microscope and the red and blue colors have been discovered to be derived from
cochineal and indigo.