Colored Cotton

Story and photos by Kara Fleshman

color-grown cotton

I can’t just say cotton. You’d think I was talking about the white stuff. The fluff on your q-tips. The sheets on your bed. The underwear in your drawer. The crop on the plantation. If it’s not white in this world, we always have to specify.

It surprised me to learn there are plants that make fibers that humans use to make strings. Soft strings of cellulose bursting out of dried bolls that look like hair. Maternal cells that emerge from the surface of hard round seeds. It surprised me even more to learn that there are plants that have been developing bundles of brown fibers, short strands of cellulose—not hollow like the white varieties—but full, each strand’s lumen filled with tannins that make the fiber brown. A built-in mordant that helps the strand hold onto color without needing extra chemicals to dye it. A built-in strength that keeps the fiber resistant to flames. A built-in resistance to predatory pests. A built-in ability to survive in depleted dry soils where other plants would wither. A built-in beauty that terrifies certain farmers, plant geneticists, ginners, spinners, dyers, marketers, and distributors.

There are plants that produce their own colors, and that have germinated, grown, and died for over 7,000 years. There are greens, reds, pinks, yellows, and browns that come through solid and striated on plants that have been discovered, developed, protected, and utilized by humans throughout Africa, South Asia, China, and South and Mesoamerica for thousands of years. And when we hear cotton, we think white.

This information is important. But what is also important is the not knowing, the surprise, the need to specify, the active and passive erasure of this plant’s history, and the incredible beauty and complexity of the cotton plant in all its forms.

The Breeder, The Facilitator

I learned of this cotton five or so years ago—at the same time I learned who Sally Fox was. Sally has been working wherever and however she is able to breed and grow colored cotton seed since the early 1980s, when she encountered the plant while working as an entomologist for a cotton farmer. Last weekend I was fortunate enough to reconnect with Sally as she hosted the second in a new series of courses she has developed to share her knowledge, curiosity, and time-tested methods with younger generations who are ready to take her work seriously.

To breed plants one must be a strategist and be flexible. One must be creative but highly organized. One must be willing to be directed instead of being the director. One must restrain their anxieties and surrender to the natural order of things that we cannot control. Our human inability to design and control nature often causes a strong anxiety that Sally makes a point not allow into her work.

Still, this anxiety pushed Sally and the plants she had been stewarding out of Arizona. It outlawed colored cotton in the San Joaquin Valley. White cotton growers feared the brown crop would cross-pollinate and contaminate their commodity. It fueled the negative propaganda put out against colored cotton by certain ‘conscious’ organic cotton producers. There is always the risk that the genetic purity and uniformity of the white crop will be ‘compromised’ by colored pollen. There is always the extra money it will cost to deep clean the gin so another farmer’s white batch won’t be speckled with rogue brown fibers. There is always the possibility that colored cotton will get all the attention and steal the market. The possibility of not having control causes anxiety.

But as Sally taught us last weekend, the likelihood of cross-pollination is extremely low, because cotton is, under average circumstances, a self-pollinating crop. And, as Sally continually emphasizes, the goal of her work is not to ‘contaminate’ the cotton industry or win credit and compensation for developing and dominating a profitable niche market. Her work is to pay respect where it is due—to the plant and its natural strengths and to the breeders who have developed and safeguarded these genes for thousands of years.

Sally's cataloging system
Part of Sally’s cataloguing system: From each test plot she selects plants representative of the plot. She separates seeds from different locations on the plant and records information like fiber length, # of bolls on plant, color after yarn has been spun and boiled, etc.

On the Historical Origin of the Species

Standing in the midst of Sally’s breeding program is a beautiful experience for the senses. As a breeder, Sally must be organized and precise but also ready to celebrate anything that might express itself in her field. She grows around five acres of cotton, broken up into small test plots. Each plot contains a ‘line’ or variety of cotton that Sally is growing for some particular quality that makes the plant special (fiber length, color, pest resistance, ability to grow in nutrient depleted soils, productive, etc.). Each plot is separated by clumps of sunflowers, sorghum, West African leguminous indigo, and beans.

Sunflower and Sorghum separate cotton test plots
Sunflower and Sorghum separate cotton test plots

Unlike a farm growing cotton for production (although Sally does this too), her research plots showed incredible variety, where the differences between varieties were exaggerated and each plot expressed its own uniqueness. There were plots that had yet to ‘settle down’ filled with straight skinny plants taller than me, right next to short bushy plants producing 1.5-inch-long silky fibers. There were plants whose anthers mysteriously had not burst and who we might find out have grown up sterile. There were plots with fat cartoony leaves and others with fuzzy leaves with skinny sharpened points. We walked through plots selected through Egyptian, Syrian, Sudanese, Russian, Peruvian and Belgian lines. There were lines from Barbados and the Sea Islands. There were lines from the Southern states in North America.

G. hirsutum leaf (left), G. barbadense leaf (right)
G. hirsutum leaf (left), G. barbadense leaf (right)
Sally next to dooryard cottons from Peru, closest to the ancestral G. barbadense that the Sea Island cottons came from.
Sally next to dooryard cottons from Peru, closest to the ancestral G. barbadense that the Sea Island cottons came from

I asked Sally how she was able to casually offer such detailed information about the genealogy of these plants. She got most of these seeds through the USDA and British seed banks, which allows her to access some information about the genetic history of each species, but Sally has done a tremendous amount of investigation on her own, and often hits unnecessary but solid walls in her research. Anecdotal and academic information about specific breeding lines tends to begin in the 20th century and are often exclusively credited to European breeders, effortlessly skipping past the full genealogical history. X European breeder could have never established their varieties without the foundational work of African and later South American and Mesoamerican plant breeders, who over thousands of years carefully developed cotton into a plant that could not only feed animals but also produce fibers for human use. The misrepresentation of history, which locates its beginnings in 1492 when Europe (Columbus) ‘discovered’ the rest of the world, makes it difficult, if not impossible, for us to clearly understand how the different species of cotton developed and spread across the continents before Columbus arrived in the West Indies.

Sally is interested in this problem and drew a map for us to explain what she calls the fundamental mystery of cotton. She tells us this: While there are roughly 34 different species of cotton, 4 species came to be domesticated in different parts of the world around the same time—at least 3,000 BC. Gossypium barbadense and Gossypium hirsutum have tetraploid chromosomes (4 sets of chromosomes) and were domesticated for lint (fiber) and seed in Mesoamerica and South America. Around the same time Gossypium arboreum and Gossypium herbaceum with diploid chromosomes (2 sets of chromosomes) were domesticated for lint and seed in Africa. Although they were domesticated on opposite sides of the Atlantic some 3,1491 years before Columbus supposedly brought the two worlds into initial contact, it turns out that half of the species that were domesticated on the American continent share two sets of chromosomes with Gossypium herbaceum and arboreum, even though neither of these African plants were growing on their own at the time in the Americas. How did the native varieties of cotton growing in the Americas get crossed with fiber producing cottons that only grew in Africa thousands of years before Columbus came to the West Indies and stole American cotton seed (Gossypium barbadense and Gossypium hirsutum) to take back to Europe?

Sally drawing a map

It is not easy to do some basic research and answer these questions. History is defined for a reason, and that reason is to diminish and deny the role (or even the possibility of a role) of non-Europeans in the development of human civilization. The difficulty in learning about the origins and development of the cotton plant is no exception to this rule.

Sally’s 14 year old daughter, Marcela, interjected in the conversation to mention how bothered she was that cotton gets a bad reputation in her middle and high school history classes. She said that it is only ever mentioned in the context of slavery. She says cotton is blamed for the rise of the plantation system and the institution of slavery. As her high school history narrative goes, since cotton is a labor intensive crop and many hands were needed to plant, harvest and de-lint the seed, forced labor was the necessary only option. It’s told as if people just acted within restraints set by the crop. Earlier in the day Sally offered a similar sentiment, commenting on how baffled she was that cotton is constantly chastised for being a high water using crop and blamed by taxpayers for demanding more of the water supply than is worth giving to such a low value crop. It is also blamed for taking away nutrients and resources from more important crops, depleting soils and gaining the title ‘poverty weed.’

The reality is that the cotton plant did not cause the kidnapping and dehumanizing of thousands of people—it was merely fuel in an engine that was already running. It didn’t cause drought or high water prices—in fact it only needs to be watered once every two weeks in Sally’s fields, while the vegetable crops farmed across the street are watered twice a week. And it didn’t steal nutrients and destroy soils—it can be found in those soils precisely because after they have already been depleted, cotton is the only plant that will grow. Sally’s daughter is right—cotton is just a plant, a plant that has been developed alongside human societies due to its beautiful, useful qualities. It’s what people have done with this plant that warrants praise or criticism.

What Now?

Like Sally’s and Marcela’s observations, those who devote their work to developing localized reactions to modern realities (through ‘alternative agriculture’ for example) are susceptible to idolizing people and things in the search to assign blame or find optimism and solutions. Sometimes this looks like people focusing their work on the preservation of native corn seed in response to the increasing abundance of GM seed and corporate control over farmers. Sometimes it looks like the romanticizing of people like the Zapatistas or the housing co-op down the street who work, albiet under very different circumstances and histories, to establish control over the production of their basic necessities and desires. Sometimes it looks like people looking to flax and hemp crops to end our dependence on petroleum-based fibers. Sometimes it looks like myself and other curious minds idolizing individual personalities that have esoteric knowledge to sell to those who can afford it, teaching about small scale methods of textile production from the good ole days in Europe, or from pre-modern peoples Mexico, Thailand, and India.

This tendency, while it often leads people to increase their skill sets and interest in developing active responses to fundamental problems, has the effect of creating hobbies that we get to nickname solutions or movements. There is nothing wrong with a hobby, but it is important not to confuse a hobby with a solution. If a problem already has its solution, and that solution is conveniently fun and maybe even profitable, why continue trying to uncover more of the problem?

I think we must take notice of this tendency to leap at things and people as solutions and saviors in and of themselves. It may be more useful instead to look to these things as teachers—teachers that show us patterns in history, who are moved and make moves within the positions they occupy in this world. Gunpowder can explode fireworks or propel bullets, bullets can propel genocide or advance liberation struggles. Cotton can sustain colonial economies or, I don’t know.

This is what Sally is working on, and her curiosity, dedication, and respect for cotton’s natural qualities has allowed her to develop a practice and seed supply that is ready and capable of being instrumentalized in important ways. For Sally, being known for her unique knowledge is not the goal of her efforts. While we can find her work interesting intriguing and pretty to look at, it deserves to be studied and respected for the doors it holds open and the lessons it teaches us.

Cross pollinating a cotton plant
Cross pollinating a cotton plant

For more detailed information about the breeding process that Sally has developed and the specifics of her current work in the Capay Valley, see the writings of Rebecca Burgess on the Fibershed blog, and Kori Hargreaves on her blog.

To support Sally’s work visit her website.

Plant in the cotton breeding program