Ooooh…Cotton. How I love thee.
And what a boisterous history you have.
Cotton was once thought by Europeans to come from a plant that had lambs attached to it that, as the lambs grew and got heavier, the stalks would bend and allow the lambs to eat. What?! At the time, cotton was exclusively imported and the only fiber they could compare it was wool…which came from sheep. Strange, but true.
Cotton grown traditionally (as in not organic) uses a lot of insecticides and fungicides to prevent insect infestation. Many of these are sprayed from the air which is an inaccurate method that allows for chemicals to land on places they should not be. Cotton requires more water to grow and be manufactured than any other fabric (see Sustainable Fashion & Textiles by Kate Fletcher) and almost as much energy as polyester to create. In many areas, up to 60% of water intended to feed cotton plants never reaches the fields properly increasing water waste. Since so rivers, streams and even seas are diverted to feed the plants, this water waste can directly effect millions of people.
Cotton is also one of the most versatile fabrics and is relatively inexpensive. It can be soft, crisp, thick, thin, dyed, undyed, gauzy, textured, smooth… you get the idea. It can be grown in many parts of the world and there are increasing numbers of organic and low-chemical cotton growers (there will be a future post on that). Costs are increasing though, especially since the floods in Pakistan. Pakistan was one of the biggest producers of cotton, but most of the fields were wiped out when they flooded in summer 2010. Since then, costs of cotton has jumped.
Personally, I love to dye cotton. It soaks up the color in ways that silk can’t. It’s also breathable and relatively strong and great to wear. Scarves, skirts, jeans and more can be made with cotton, as well as home decor items. Cotton is fairly strong and durable, so a good material to make a wardrobe investment in.
Pros: Natural fabric that’s versatile and easy to wear, great to dye, can be grown and manufactured responsibly.
Cons: Uses more water than any other fabric and diverts water from communities that need to drink it, chemicals used to prevent bugs can get into the water supply, uses more oil/energy than most other natural fibers.