Cotton’s colorful history began many centuries ago and in far-flung regions of the world. The original cultivars were developed more than 5,000 years ago by the people of South and Central America, while other varieties were found to be indigenous to Africa and Asia. There are also a number of references to cotton being grown in India, China, Russia, Mexico, and Egypt. At some point, naturally colored cotton made its entrance into America, probably during the seventeenth century.
Historically in America, white cotton was considered “king,” while naturally colored cotton was discussed only as legend. In my research for this article, I found few who had heard or read that slaves were sometimes allowed to grow naturally colored cotton because of its “deficiencies”: a shorter staple, or length of fiber, which made it more difficult to spin into usable thread, as well as its color, which rendered it useless for other desired hues.
Is the story of slave-grown naturally colored cotton true or legend only?Although no one can verify the story, there were confirmed slave activities that point to the possibility. Some plantations let slaves grow vegetables and raise a couple of chickens on a small parcel of ground, occasionally called a “truck patch.” Could cotton plants have been included? In some areas, slaves were allowed to go to town on Sundays to sell and trade goods and to do some shopping for their own needs. Were some of the goods made of naturally colored cotton? The slaves at George Washington’s Mount Vernon could have gained knowledge about making yarn in the plantation’s spinning house. Although cotton didn’t tend to perform well on looms, resources confirm that slave women did knit.
Cotton certainly played a part in the history of America, particularly during the years of slavery, but it’s far less certain whether naturally colored cotton played a role. We do know that for a brief interlude it was part of later U.S. history, and that it has a small role in agriculture today.
Through the years, naturally colored cotton has appeared primarily as a last ditch effort to meet a need. During World War II (1939–1945), for example, there was a shortage of dyes, so green and brown cotton was grown and used. Because the fibers had not been bred for length, after the war, naturally colored cotton fell out of favor again.
Today's Cotton Farmers
In 1982, Sally Fox was working for a cotton breeder when she found a bag of brown cotton and seeds. The cotton, which had come from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, had been part of an effort to promote growing naturally colored fiber. Sally Fox’s more than twenty years of work in the world of naturally colored cottons is ongoing: She began with that small bag and has built a reputation for growing high-quality, longer-stapled cotton of reddish-brown and shades of green. She started with heirloom seeds, but her work has been less preservation than getting the fiber to meet the requirements of the spinning machines. She founded the company Vreseis Limited, which offers Foxfibre organic, naturally colored cottons. She also encourages mills to use naturally colored cotton to cut down on toxic wastes that result from chemically dyeing fibers.
Today, some farmers raise cotton to preserve it. Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa, offers the opportunity for people to exchange and save seeds. The organization publishes an annual yearbook that offers a wide variety of seeds, including naturally colored cotton.
James Bridges and his wife have been raising cotton since 1989. Bridges grows four to five plants a year, working hard to keep the color pure. He has maintained a Green Lint variety, a brown cotton, and a white cotton originally from Kentucky. Cotton requires a long warm season and will cross-pollinate easily, so the plants tend to be more difficult to raise for pure seed. Bridges still hand-picks the cotton from the seeds as was the process before the cotton gin was invented.
Davie Kennedy cultivates four acres of gardens. His seed inventory contains two white and several naturally colored varieties of cotton. He alternates the colors of the cotton he grows to help keep each color as pure as possible. When he was growing up, his family grew cotton, which he remembers picking as a child. Kennedy has collected seeds for forty years, since he was in his twenties. Among his holdings are seeds of Arkansas Green Lint, Texas Green Boll, brown cotton, and some silky, long-stapled Sea Island varieties.
Sandy Dodes has raised cotton in a community garden. She was successful growing green cotton in an open area that was not protected. She started seeds in a greenhouse in January; four germinated. Three plants grew to be about 2 feet (0.6 m) tall; when they matured, she pulled them up, and the bolls eventually opened.
Glenn and Linda Drowns of Sand Hill Preservation Center produce five varieties of cotton in flowerpots for decorative purposes. They grow some of the showy late-season cotton varieties, which provide a lot of color when the bolls open.
Southern Exposure Seed Exchange encourages everyone to try and grow cotton. The company offers six varieties, along with the message that “everyone should grow and harvest a long row of cotton at least once in their lifetime” in order to understand what the slaves endured while harvesting cotton. Northern gardeners can grow cotton, the staff notes, as long as they treat the plants as tomato or pepper plants.
Many of the naturally colored cottons available in the United States are in shades of white, green, and brown. In other places in the world, the range of colors includes mocha, tan, gray, black, mahogany, red, pink, blue, and cream. Peru has a number of varieties growing throughout the country; growers have been encouraged by the Native Cotton Project. The project was created and co-directed by James Vreeland (who had discovered natural pigmentation in cotton in the 1970s), when he learned that the handspinning and weaving traditions of Peru were disappearing, along with naturally colored cotton. Since then, Guatemala and Colombia have developed their own preservation efforts. These seed preservationists, both individuals and organizations in the United States and elsewhere, are among a growing number of enthusiasts who work to save myriad varieties of plants. With its fascinating history and compelling future, cotton is an excellent option for preservation efforts. Join the movement and grow some naturally colored cotton!
- Durham, Ann. “A Cotton-Picking Good Time or How I Discovered a Cotton Gin in My Kitchen.” Spin-Off, Fall 2002.
- Lester, Julius. To Be A Slave. New York: Scholastic, 1968.
- Ordal, Leslie. “At Cotton Clouds.” Spin-Off, Winter 2010.
- Rhoades, Carol Huebscher. “Colored Cotton.” Spin-Off, Summer 2008.
- “Sally Fox, the Organic Cotton Queen.” Living Crafts, Spring 2008.
Colored Cotton Seed Resources
- Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, Mansfield, Missouri, (417) 924-8917, www.rareseeds.com.
- Garden Medicinals and Culinaries, Louisa, Virginia, (540) 872-8351, www.gardenmedicinals.com.
- Sand Hill Preservation Center, Calamus, Iowa,(563) 246-2299, www.sandhillpreservation.com.
- Seed Savers Exchange, Decorah, Iowa, (563) 382-5990; www.seedsavers.org.
- Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, Mineral, Virginia, (540) 894-9480, www.southernexposure.com.
Julia Baratta has a variety of interests, which provide inspiration for her writing. She has tried spinning cotton and looks to experience American history in her garden this summer.
Editor's Note: Looking for more ways to explore cotton? PieceWork celebrates cotton in the July/Aug 2015 issue.