My curiosity is sometimes as obsessive as my fabric collecting. What is cotton? Who grows it? How is it processed? Who designs the lovely patterns? There are so many questions to explore. This is the first of several posts exploring the cotton we depend on. I hope you will enjoy these articles, and keep watchingThe CQ Cotton Chronicles for more over the next few weeks.
When playing with fabric, I often think of all the hands that have touched this particular piece. So many people have helped to prepare this fabric for me to sew. We are intimately connected with fabrics—we wear them, sleep on them, sit on them, make bandages from them, dry our skin with them. I am very curious about learning how these fabrics came to be in our lives. I enjoy learning about all fabrics, but for quilters, cotton is the basic material of our craft. The cotton industry labeled it well when they coined the “Fabric of Our Lives©” slogan in 1989 (1).
Cotton has a rich history, covering both the growing and the use of the wonderful fiber. Archaeological records find cotton fabrics in use in the Indus River Valley in West Pakistan as early as 3000 B.C., and in Peru around 2500 B.C. (2). These early cottons were probably prized, as harvesting the crops and picking the fibers away from the attached seeds was tedious work. The fibers were then spun into yarns, or matted. Dyes were made from plants, and often applied to the strands before weaving. Until the invention of the Cotton Gin by Eli Whitney in 1793, mass production of cotton fiber was not possible (3).
Probably the first people whose hands helped to bring my fabrics to me are the farmers and their work crews. Today these people may be anywhere in the world, and the conditions of their farms can vary widely. They may be in one of the 17 states in the U.S. that produce cotton, on a Chinese cotton farm, a South American cotton plantation, or in other parts of the world. Perhaps the particular piece of fabric has cotton fibers touched by hands from more than one country! What an amazing thought.
The farms themselves may be owned and run by a mega-corporation, or by a small organic farming group. Their methods would have similarities, as the actual harvesting of cotton from the seed boll remains labor intensive. Stripping or picking machines may be used to pull the fibers out of the boll, but it may still be done by hand. One farm may strive to keep their fibers organic and natural, while another uses pesticides and herbicides to develop their crop. This makes me even more curious about what has been used to raise my fabric’s fibers, and what effect it may have on the people who harvest it.
But today I am thinking about the actual individuals who touched the ground, the plants, used the farm machinery, harvested the bolls. Who tilled the field and planted the cotton? Who tended the growing crops? Who picked the seeds from the fibers that would one day become a quilt in my home? How different was the farm, and the worker, who created the fibers for my antique quilts?
I thank these growers and workers for their unheralded contribution to my quilts. And I intend to learn more about how my fabric choices may be affecting the quality of their lives. As you handle fabric to sew or to wear, I hope you too will take a moment to think of the people who grew and harvested the cotton fibers that you are touching.
Read Part Two: The Cotton We Love, Turning Fiber Into Fabric
If you want to learn more:
http://www.answers.com/topic/cotton – includes a step-by-step detail of the growing, harvesting, and all pre-mill processes.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Organic_cotton – includes discussion of ecological and health impact of growing cotton organically
http://www.fair-trade-hub.com/fairtrade.html– perhaps most often thought of with coffee, the fair trade movement and various certifications are working with cotton farmers throughout the world to ensure workers are supported in a fair and just manner