By Katie Gilman, Phase II Fellow
The first time I ever laid eyes on a cotton field, I was so awestruck I made my mother pull the car over so I could hold some in my hands. I tried to imagine what a laborious process cotton harvesting and processing must have been pre-industrial revolution, in order to turn hundreds of pounds of cotton into something wearable or useable. I found an article about a woman in Texas still doing the whole process by hand. My hat is off to her!
The cotton fibers are picked from the cotton bolls (see image below) on the plant which are painfully sharp and located at a back-bending level on the plant.
Curious about how much cotton it takes to make a piece of clothing? The cotton industry has adopted a standard for a bale of cotton - 55 inches tall, 28 inches wide, and 21 inches thick, weighing approximately 500 pounds. A bale meeting these requirements is called a universal density bale. This is enough cotton to make 325 pairs of denim jeans.
This year at the AMI Urban Farm, we are growing cotton. Not the white stuff that you would find in massive, mono-cropped fields in south-west Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina though. We’re growing colored cotton - Mississippi Brown is its name.
In the days of ‘king cotton’ in the US, white cotton was exclusively grown by white folk - plantation owners. African American slaves were only allowed to grow colored cotton, namely green, blue, yellow, red and several shades of brown, as it was thought to be inferior. White cotton was most likely viewed as superior because it had been breed for longer and stronger fibers, 1-2 inches compared to colored cotton fibers at about 3/4 inch.
Naturally, colored cotton never looses its color. It can be boiled at any point in its life and the color will be rejuvenated. (If you grow colored cotton, spin it, and weave it into a garment, when/if the garment’s color fades, you can boil it in a pot of water and the color comes right back to life). White cotton must be dyed and inevitably looses its color with no way of returning it.
*Note to consumer: today’s cotton industry is ridden with toxic herbicide and pesticide use. Just as you may absorb chemicals sprayed on foods through your digestive system, you can also absorb them through your skin- they are both permeable surfaces on the body. I apologize for the doom and gloom
Southern Exposure Seed Exchange provided us with the Mississippi Brown cotton seeds. This is how they suggest growing them:
Culture: Cotton is an annual plant that requires a long, warm growing season to mature properly. Needs full sun. In zones 8-10 it can be sown directly after the last frost. In zones 5-7, treat like tomatoes, start seed indoors and transplant out 4-8 week-old seedlings after last frost. Seed germinates in 7-21 days at 70 degrees F. Plant 18-30 in. apart in rows 5 ft. apart. Plants start flowering in mid-summer. Bolls take a few more months to mature; warm late summer weather is necessary for a good crop. Plants grow to 3-7 ft. tall.
Harvest: Wait for bolls to split open before harvesting.
Seed Savers: Isolate varieties by 1/8 mile for home use, or 1/4 to 1/2 mile or greater for pure seed.