Sally Fox has been called a “cotton pioneer” for her efforts regarding organic, colored cotton. In the 1980’s she was the first one to develop the systems to grow and promote organic cotton in the USA which started the conversation about organic textiles. The naturally colored cottons that Sally works with has existed for centuries and is traced back to at least 4300 years and originated in the Americas.
Heirloom cotton was once abundant and grew in a rainbow of shades including green, yellow, blue and brown. Fox who majored in biology and entomology (insects) at California State Polytechnic University at San Luis Obispo has been a cotton breeder since the 1980’s. She did what no one thought was possible. She hand bred ancient, naturally pest resistant varieties into long staple cotton. These varieties could be grown using organic and biodynamic farming methods. She was able to develop staple lengths that allowed the cotton fiber to be spun into high quality yarn. We use these yarns to make beautiful fabric that is naturally colored and does not need to be dyed.
When Foxfibre® cotton is used there is no need to dye fabric in order to obtain a rich color. This saves the environment from water wastage and chemical exposure in the dyeing process. Toxic chemicals are used to dye cloth in developing regions with little environmental regulations or worker safety protections.
Naturally colored heirloom organic cotton is also more vigorous, drought tolerant, pest and disease resistant and requires less water. A properly stored bale of Foxfibre® can last up to 100 years! Most commercial non-organic varieties of cotton use GMO seeds and have been bred for homogeneous characteristics like white color. They require tremendous amounts of water and are highly dependent on the use of herbicides and insecticides.
During college Sally was teaching hand spinning. She came in contact with a woman whose daughter had suffered irreparable brain damage due to exposure to synthetic dyes. The woman never wore gloves or did enough to protect herself from chemicals and apparently absorbed too much of these harsh chemicals through her skin. Sally, who was studying entomology, (insects) found that companies that made pesticides began by manufacturing the chemical dyes. These two different products had many component chemicals in common. From that moment, she understood the potential danger in commercial dye chemicals. She decided she wanted nothing to do with commercial dyes and started seeking out natural colors for all fibers.
In the early 1980’s, Sally was working with a cotton breeder to help him breed pest resistant cotton. She discovered natural brown cotton growing in the greenhouse. It was the first time she had seen colored cotton. She fell in love with the rich color and wanted to start to breed it to improve the spinnability of the fiber, but maintain it’s inherent pest resistance. Season after season, Sally carefully bred and selected colored cotton in shades ranging from camel to tobacco to dusky green and test hand spun the fiber herself. She cross bred it for many years with long stable and Pima cotton to improve the strength, fineness, length of the fibers and richness of the colors so that it could be organically grown and spun by conventional mills
The consumer demand for this colored cotton grew quickly and was used to make products by many large US textile manufacturers. In the 1990’s when the textile industry migrated to parts of the world where textile wastes were un regulated, the market for this cotton collapsed. US based textile companies that fully complied with stringent US textile regulations were decimated by products that came from countries where regulations on textile safety were nonexistent. Companies that had been in business for more than 100 years were forced to close.
Through all of this turmoil Sally Fox kept her seeds and continues to develop her cotton from her organic farm in California. With a recent rebirth of US based manufacturing and a growing understanding of the need for sustainable and ethical products, Foxfibre® is making a comeback.
Sally says it best when she says, “I believe that it's the suppleness. The smallest amount added in with the white cotton gives it a softness that no white cotton that I have found has. You lay down on those sheets and you feel it. Not only that, these fabrics last a long time, much longer than white cotton.”