rag dolls and woollies

rag dolls and woollies

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Serious thoughts about cotton

Have you read Cotton: The Biography of a Revolutionary Fiber by Stephen Yafa?

Malca found it for me in a used bookstore and I've dog-eared it badly by reading it so many times. I've only been able to interest two friends in reading this book -- most people do things like 1) get very quiet or 2) become interested in something else in the room or 3) back away -- and sometimes they do all of the above. They don't realize what they are missing.  This 344 page book with notes, glossary and index is a fascinating read--and I heard it was on the NY Times bestseller list for a while.

In addition to fascinating, I found it very disturbing. In cotton's several thousand history - dating all the way back to Mohenjo-Daro in the Indus Valley at the dawn of civilization, cotton has been implicated in the slave trade, child labor, the invasion of India, and excessive use of pesticides worldwide. In ancient times, young girls were recruited to spin cotton into gossamer thread -- so that it could be woven into a gauzy-type of fabric only for royalty and it was said they went blind after working on it after only a few years.

The best known slave trade was to the US for work in the cotton fields. But Yafa also mentions slaves imported to Arab lands as well. The first use of child labor for spinning and weaving cotton in the factories was in the very first textile factory ever -- in Cromford, England. The practice quickly spread all over the industrialized world.

When the cotton gin was invented and cotton could be cleaned quickly, the slave population increased dramatically. We all know about the civil war. And the sharecropping lifestyle that followed it. Cotton spawned one of the most famous bugs in history -- the boll weevil. And when huge farm equipment and
sophisticated pesticides came on the market, thousands of sharecroppers were thrown out of work. He also says that "cotton has been responsible....for an ecological disaster of epic proportions in central Asia...."

The author writes that "no legal plant on earth has killed more people by virtue of the acrimony and avarice it provoked."

It was really disturbing to read all of this! Nobody that I know of fought a civil war with hundreds of thousands of deaths over sheep. I've never heard of vast numbers of people displaced and enslaved over merino or corriedale. Certainly no one has invaded New Zealand in order to control its wool trade. If there are bugs made world famous by sheep, I'm not sure what they are. Certainly sheep have bugs and I imagine there are pesticides used in growing feed for sheep and there is a lot of controversy over preventing fly infestations in sheep by  mulesing which is supposed to be phased out in Australia now. There are bad practices out there but sheep raising seems a lot less destructive.

I read that different varieties of cotton are found naturally all over the world.  Cotton would seem to be out there to make use of (religious overtones left out) but how exactly should we use it? Certainly not in such a destructive manner....which suggests we must use a lot less of it I guess. If we only use what we can grow without pesticides, the global crop would certainly be a lot smaller.

This book really changed my life. I decided I would only use organic cotton in weaving, knitting and doll making. Camomille Connection (http://www.chamomileconnection.com/organiccottonyarns.htm) sells organic cotton for warp for a very reasonable price and it is so much silkier than non-organic! And Dharma Trading Company (http://www.dharmatrading.com/) has a fine price on the organic muslin I use on my doll bodies. I am still using up left over dress fabric which is not organic, but soon I will be in the market for organic, printed quilt fabrics which are my favorites for making doll clothes. Any ideas where to find it?

This artisan/crafting business can certainly be serious stuff!