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.