The Story of the  Foxfibre® Cotton

Four species of cotton were domesticated roughly 5500 years ago in both the “New World” (the Americas) and the “Old World” (Africa/Europe/Asia) each sporting many colors of lint. The spinning quality of the cottons from the “New World” were so superior that their seeds were brought by ship and then by land via the silk road to India and China shortly after the big voyages across the Atlantic in 1492 replacing the “Old World” cottons within 100 years. The inventions of mechanical spinning and processing equipment along with the development of inexpensive chemical dyestuffs favored white cotton production on an industrial scale. This left the naturally colored cottons growing in the gardens of those who still appreciated their special beauty and texture. This breeding program began with seeds saved by people in the Southeastern United States that were being kept alive in the USDA cotton seed bank in the late 1970′s. Dr. Angus Hyer, USDA Agronomist, encouraged breeders to consider using them as sources of natural pest and disease resistance due to their vigor. Their gorgeous and eye soothing colors captivated my interest and I began trying to improve the fiber quality for handspinners and color consistency through classical plant breeding as soon as I was able to work with these cottons. Along the way colorfastness and color range presented themselves as variables as well, and the fun just goes on and on.

 

Cotton Breeding

  • Experimental breeding plots
  • Cotton normally self pollinates, but the billions of bees on this farm in the Capay Valley have added an unexpected wild card
  • Separated from production rows by sunflowers and sorghum
  • Individually selected plants are described and their lints analyzed to decide if their seeds should be planted the next growing season

Cotton from the selected individual plants are carefully collected and analyzed for fiber strength, length, color, growing condition requirements, plant size, potential yield, and other attributes.  Beginning in 1982, the breeding program represents over 20 generations of selected individuals of the multiple thousands of specific cross pollinations.

Prep – Plant – Grow

  • Sheep graze and fertilize field
  • Tractor discs and turns the soil
  • Seeds planted and watered
  • Weeding, ‘roguing’
  • Alternating plant types attract insects
  • Predator insects protect, bees mix things up a bit

Crops are alternated between fields and in between the sheep process stubble and enrich the soil in the process.  Preparing the soil before planting helps prevent weed growth and usually saves a lot of hard work.  Some weeds do help shade the soil to hold in moisture early in the season, especially mustard flower, with minimal crowding to cotton plants. But mostly, weeds need to be either cultivated with the tractor or hand pulled. After weeding, it takes an especially trained eye to properly rogue the more uniform production areas.  The taller sorghum and sunflower rows also separate brown and green cotton from each other so the bees are discouraged from cross pollinating while buzzing about.

Harvest

  • Breeding rows are carefully hand picked
  • Machines harvest plots larger than an acre
  • Cotton leaves and stems are shredded up and by way of the sheep and soil microbes become sources of nutrition for the next crop.
  • Defoliation chemicals are never used

Either picked by hand or by machine, the seed cotton is put into bags or trailers or modules and taken to be ginned. What is on the farm now are small research gins. Next goal is to have a single gin stand from a proper production gin so that all the cotton grown on this farm can be ginned here.

Gin

  • Seeds are separated from cotton ‘lint’ and sent on to be delinted for future planting or sent to cattle as a deluxe feed supllement
  • Gins have to be paid extra to clean between and not to mix seed types
  • This year’s goal is to get a single gin stand up and operating on my farm to be able to avoid seed mix-ups

For naturally colored cotton, it can be difficult to find a gin that will process it because of fears of mix-ups. Now that GMO cotton is the predominant white cotton grown in the USA, sending Foxfibre® to the gin represents an unacceptable risk of gmo contamination as well.  If special care is not taken to really clean the gin, white GMO seeds can become mixed with colored organic seeds.  For planting, the seeds are stripped of their fuzzy linters so they will be able to be planted by machine more easily.  The cotton lint is packed into bales and sent to a mill.

Mill

  • Foxfibre® cotton presents the same challenges at the spinning mill as at the gin
  • Efforts must be made to keep the naturally colored fibers from mixing with white cotton
  • Foxfibre® cotton takes up dyestuff more readily than white cotton does
  • Some is simply left as “card sliver” and shipped back to the farm to be sold to handspinners
  • Longer and stronger fibers are spun into thread or yarn

Some of the yarn or thread is sold directly to weavers.  Other cotton is left in long cleanly combed strands of the rope-like ‘sliver’.

Manufacture

  • comfy socks can be made from the yarn
  • some tailors make one of a kind garments
  • designers sew together prototypes with the cloth
  • shops sew together a run of their design

Individual design houses and custom weavers tend to purchase most of the Foxfibre® produced as it is more costly than regular organic cotton.