Slow Sewing: Organic Cotton Farming

on September 20 | in Products, Sewing Trends, Slow Sewing | by | with 11 Comments

Gina Pantastico, Director of Operations for Cloud9 Fabrics, joins our Slow Sewing series with her second post on slow and healthy organic fabric production. Part One covered farming and Part Two focuses on harvesting, printing/finishing and social compliance.

We’d love to hear your thoughts on organic fabrics and organic farming practices too. Add your comments below!


After reading Part I of my article on slow and healthy organic fabric production processes you should now understand how seeds, soil and insect/weed control differ between organic and conventional cotton. Today I would like to talk a bit about the harvesting process, fabric production, printing/finishing the fabric and how social compliance plays a role.

Harvesting: Once the cotton crop has matured and the conventional cotton farmer sees a fair number of cotton bolls (the soft, fluffy staple fiber that grows in a protective capsule around the seeds of cotton plants) opening naturally, the defoliation process begins. Defoliation is the premature removal of grass parts (in this case it is the leaves of the cotton plant). Leaf loss makes the cotton boll much easier to see. What triggers the loss of leaves in a cotton crop? The application of toxic chemicals via air or ground. These chemical are very harmful to humans, domestic animals, fish, etc. As a matter of fact, every single chemical cotton defoliant comes with this disclaimer on its label! Extensive studies have shown a drastically increased number of cases of fatigue, eye irritation, rhinitis, throat irritation, nausea and diarrhea for individuals living or working near sprayed cotton fields. Yet, these chemicals are used in great quantities on every continent that produces cotton.

Cotton plants at a conventional cotton farm.

When harvesting organic cotton, there are no chemicals used to trigger and expedite the defoliation process. The use of water management or natural defoliation from freezing temperatures are the methods used on organic cotton farms. This not only protects the health of the local population of humans and animals, but it also eradicates pollution to the soil and local water supply.

After defoliation has occurred the cotton bolls need to be removed from the plants. Most organic farmers pick their cotton by hand which reduces waste and pollution, in contrast to the conventional cotton farmer who uses large harvesting machinery which compacts the ground and reduces soil productivity.

At the conventional cotton farm plants are virtually dead due to
spray by chemicals to expedite the defoliation process.

Fabric Production: Once the cotton has been harvested several cleaning steps are necessary to separate the cotton fibers from the plant material and debris. Then the spinning process begins, where cotton fibers are spun into yarn. This is the ONLY step in conventional cotton production where cotton is untouched by chemicals or oils.

After spinning, the weaving or knitting of the fabric begins. With organic cotton special attention is given to ensure there is no cross contamination with conventional cotton. This is accomplished by organic cotton producers having weaving/spinning machines that are allocated ONLY to organic cotton fibers. No conventional cotton can be spun or woven on these machines.

Printing/Finishing: The fabric now needs to be whitened in order to prepare for dying/printing and finishing. Organic cotton producers use safe peroxide to clean their fabrics. Conventional cotton producers employ highly toxic chlorine bleach, which eventually is released into the environment in the washing process.

Then the conventional cotton is either printed or pieced-dyed, most often with formaldehyde fixing agents and heavy metals. Additional washings are necessary to remove these hazardous fixing agents and dyes which, again, just pollute the local environment, not to mention waste water. The toxic residues found in the waste water can cause problems of the central nervous system, respiratory system and skin, as well as head-aches, dizziness and eye irritations. In contrast, organic cottons use only eco-responsible low impact dyes for printing and dying and require water regenerating equipment in order for the dyes to be reclaimed and used for future printing. This equipment also recycles the water and does not pollute the local water supply.
The final step is finishing, where most conventional cottons are treated to reduce shrinkage and wrinkling. One of the chemicals used in this process is formaldehyde, which is applied to the fabric and then locked in with an exposure to extreme high heat. When the heat is applied these chemicals become permanently bound to the cotton fibers and cannot be washed out. Organic cottons are finished with a soft scour in warm water and sodium carbonate.

Social Compliance: Everyone has heard of the horrifying working conditions garment and mill workers around the world have to struggle with. Fires, building collapses, unhealthy work environments and physical abuse are just a few of the issues facing these employees. We work closely with mills that are committed to ethical and responsible conduct. Over the past twenty years I have traveled extensively throughout Asia and it was during these trips that I became dedicated to the human rights of factory workers. My main concerns, when sourcing mills for Cloud9 Fabrics, is to ensure that all vendors are committed to ethical and responsible conduct; this includes respecting the rights of all individuals, a devotion to sustained social compliance and an accountability to the environment.

As you can imagine organic cotton is a time consuming, labor intensive farming and production process and costs more to harvest, yet yields a crop that is much healthier to our earth and its inhabitants. The Slow Food movement opposes fast food, industrial food production and the globalization of sustenance; similarly, organic farmers (and those that support these farming methods) encourage the slower, more wholesome approach to fabric production. As you embrace the Slow Sewing movement please also consider the origins of the fabrics you select and the methods used to produce them. There is simply no way to quantify all of the benefits of a more holistic choice.

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11 Responses to Slow Sewing: Organic Cotton Farming

  1. gina says:

    Hi Lamonia, In response to #1: There is special machinery that organic farmers use to heat their crops. In response to #2: In order for frost to occur the temperature needs to drop below 32 degrees Fahrenheit, which is freezing. I am not offended by your questions! I am happy to see that there are people that actually want to learn more about the process. Please feel free to email me directly at gina@cloud9fabrics.com or you can call my office at 908-272-8200 should you want to talk further. Thank you for your candid comments!

  2. Lamonia Kohler says:

    Thanks Gina for answering. 1) i really cannot understand how a field of cotton can be exposed to 300 degree heat. 2) Frost is not freezing…..if the cotton must be picked after the first frost then you are not waiting for freezing….Frost and freezing are two different temperatures.
    I’m sorry Gina I do not mean to pick apart your article but as I said this does not make sense.
    Thanks Lamonia Kohler

  3. Melissa Q. says:

    Thanks so much for this article! I love having all of this amazing information, totally eye-opening and will definitely influence my purchasing decisions. Thanks Gina!

  4. Gina Pantastico says:

    Hi Lamonia, I am happy to see that you read my article. There are actually quite a number of natural alternatives for defoliation that do not use chemicals. I could write an encyclopedia’s worth of information regarding this topic, but I tried to keep it short and sweet. Thermal defoliation is yet another natural defoliation process that I did not even include. Essentially you expose the cotton plant to very high temperatures (over 300 degrees farenheit), which prompts leaf loss. As for your question of defoliant by freezing, please understand, that the crops need to be harvested immediately after the first frost. As you know cotton is highly sensitive to changes in temperature and the immediate response to the first freeze is the onset of defoliation. Again, as mentioned in my article, organic farming is a highly labor intensive crop and the organic farmer must act at once should he choose to wait until the first frost, rather than using water management or thermal defoliation options.

  5. Sara says:

    Very informative, eye opening for me. I have a cotton farm 1/4 mile from where I live and never thought twice about if they are organic or not. crazy! Thank you much for sharing:)

  6. Lamonia Kohler says:

    Please tell me how cotton can be picked after freezing temperatures….that would mean the cotton had been exposed to numerous changes of weather after opening and prior to freezing. This baffles this old generation Alabama farmer. The cotton would be full of mildew and mold and elements should it be thus.

  7. Lamonia Kohler says:

    If a cotton farmer from Alabama of my generation (age 72) reads this he will be dumbfounded.
    Waiting until the leaves of the cotton stalk freezes to pick the cotton?? That is just one thing….Times change but this is just plain weird.

  8. Beth says:

    Thank you so much for such a well written, informative article. I feel better having the information so that I can explain to others why organic is the choice we should all be making. Just one of the facts you have taught me, such as the fair treatment of workers, would have been enough to make organic the compelling choice. The overwhelming number of benefits for our environment, and therefore our selves, is incredible and makes organic a must when I vote with my pocketbook for the world I wish to live in and leave behind for the next generation. I hope many people will read this and I thank you for your dedication to a better world.

    Beth

  9. Ingrid says:

    This has really touched a cord with me. Since I started making my own clothes I’ve increasingly reflected on where ‘fast fashion’ comes from, how it’s produced etc. I can’t say that as a seamstress I’m without guilt though – cheap fabric is as exciting to me as cheap clothes used to be. What you are writing here has really made me think, and hopefully I will shop fabric accordingly going forward. I’m also interested in how to encourage a ‘make do and mend’ attitude – people throw away so much good clothing. I wonder if nudging people towards even a little bit of DIY sewing skills might not be good way of avoiding that waste?

  10. Gcb X says:

    This is my first time pay a visit at here and i am genuinely impressed
    to read all at one place.

  11. Mandi says:

    Thank you for this 2-part series. So very interesting to read! I had no idea! I think I’ll focus on organic cottons from now on.
    Thanks again for helping us learn about our fabrics’ origins!

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