Alabama Pioneers


Photo by Rinne Allen

Photo by Rinne Allen

Alabama designers begin the Alabama Organic Cotton Project, which dares to change the way Alabama thinks about cotton.

By Shaina Shealy

 

I crack the cotton boll’s protective shell, so tough that the muscles in my fingers cramp as I ply the encasement apart. Its edges jab into my skin, relentless in shielding the warm, brown fiber inside. I pull at the fiber; it feels different than the smooth white cotton I’m used to seeing on store shelves.

I held the boll of organic cotton in the semi-arid region of Kutch, India, with Rakeshbhai, a local farmer who had recently returned to organic cotton agriculture from Bt cotton, a variety of genetically modified cotton. As we walked through his farm barefoot, Rakeshbhai paused to run his hands through the earth. I asked why he had returned to organic from conventional cotton agriculture.

He looked down. “With Bt [cotton], the earth hurt my feet,” he said. “The soil did not belong, and the bottoms of my feet turned hard. I came back to [organic] Kala cotton and walked comfortably. The ground is better now. I understand it.” He planted his feet in the earth for emphasis. “There is nothing more that I need. My land is pure.”

***

Before I examined cotton agriculture practices in Kutch with KHAMIR, a grassroots development organization, my perception of the word organic evoked scorn for overpriced face creams and neurotic moms worried that their kids’ insides would rot from high fructose corn syrup. My research with KHAMIR contributed to a project that reintroduces a closed supply chain between local farmers, spinners, and weavers to convert raw organic cotton into handmade textiles. It showed me that organic ensures standards that can guide my choices and change the impact of my everyday purchases from enslaving to freeing, from degrading to empowering.  I saw the matted fibers of organic cotton spin the lives of farmers, craftsmen, and consumers into a fabric bound by global exchange.

Nearly two years later, at home in Birmingham, Ala., I found my cultural competencies halved between two continents and my global impact as a consumer wholly intact. I came across the state’s first documented organic cotton crop, handpicked in a small northern Alabama town, Trinity, in the fall of 2012. The Alabama Organic Cotton Project was initiated by Alabama designers Billy Reid and Alabama Chanin; its fiber was combed into the first organic cotton textiles cultivated from seed to apparel.

Alabama Chanin and Little River Sock Mill, which uses yarn spun from the cotton to make socks, carry the same environmental and social values I was moved by in Kutch; they remind me that my dollars can circle full orbit to elevate the labor of farmers, sustain traditional livelihoods, and empower women. These homegrown Alabama companies affirm for me that organic is a stamp of the world’s interconnectedness.

***

The farmers in Rakeshbai’s family wear white cotton suits. Their pants scrunch at the ankles and balloon at the hips, tied underneath jackets with high shoulders. The suits are a thick weave of cotton so white that from a distance, the outlines of their bodies look like doves weaving through the thirsty rows of just-planted cotton crops. Rakeshbai’s family farm in Kutch is one of few that cultivates the Kala cotton, a hardy breed yielding a coarse, stretchable fiber. His neighbors cultivate Bt cotton, a seed owned by Monsanto that makes up the bulk of the world’s conventional cotton agriculture. Bt cotton is said to improve short-term yield, but often backfires with soil deterioration, high-risk monetary investments in synthetic inputs, antibiotic resistance, and immense health hazards for farmers and their families.[1] In India, Bt cotton is often associated with farmer suicides; it requires hefty investments for which farmers often rely on local moneylenders or invest the bulk of their savings. Every 30 minutes, a farmer in India commits suicide, [2] typically by ingesting large amounts of pesticide. It all seems to be a part of a different world than I am, but when I returned home after one year in Kutch and swapped my bright pink salwar kameez for blue jeans, I remembered that my ancestors had worked the cotton fields, too.

Long stretches of fields dotted with white fluff lace my memories of childhood car trips down to the Gulf Coast. I would beg my dad to pull the car to the side of the road, and we wormed our ways into the cotton fields and snuck away with two or three fresh bolls in our pockets. He told me about calluses he acquired while tending to his own family’s small cotton crop when he was a boy: “We’d hoe it, put boll weevil poison on the plants by hand, pick it, and take it to a gin about three miles from home. After paying for the ginning with part of the crop, we made only two or three bales a year.”

Alabama’s state coin is embossed with a cotton boll, a vague remnant of its roots that are entangled in a tumultuous history of freedom. As I trade these shiny quarters for just one more blouse of the season, I think about the current global cotton industry. Farms around the world are plagued with human exploitation and environmental degradation, and it causes me to wonder what our role is today.

***

IMG_9724Fashion designer and founder of Alabama Chanin Natalie Chanin mulled over this question years ago when she returned home to Florence, Ala., from New York City after discovering that her hometown was one of few places she could find the hand-stitching skills needed for her designs.

When Chanin landed back in Florence in 2005, she put an ad in the local paper for seamstresses. She received calls from women who had lost their jobs when the local textile manufacturing industry shifted overseas and quickly identified a gap in employment opportunities for women in Florence. In 2006, she founded Alabama Chanin, a high-end clothing designer and manufacturer of hand-sewn products that sustain local tradition and contribute to the community’s economy.

Alabama Chanin employs approximately 25 artisans as independent contractors, all living within a one-hour radius of its base. The business model reflects the cottage industry method. It empowers local women to work from their own homes as stitchers and seamstresses, run their own businesses, and be in charge of their own lives. Alabama Chanin’s designs reflect the South’s tradition of quilting circles and are open-source; that is to say, anyone can access the company’s patterns, instructions, fabric, and notions to reproduce the apparel.

In Alabama Chanin’s initial phase, textiles were produced with only recycled materials. In 2007, Natalie Chanin considered organic cotton. She found that domestically cultivated organic cotton was not available in sufficient quantities and worried about supply chains (possibly fraught with unfair labor practices) of imported cotton. She obsessed over the possibility of cultivating her own.

Three years later, Alabama designer Billy Reid, community farmers, and Natalie Chanin hoed the first seeds of the Alabama Organic Cotton Project. In the fall of 2012, Chanin’s dream matured into two bales of Alabama’s first organic cotton (enough to produce about 2,800 men’s T-shirts) from 6.9 acres of farm land. With the cotton, Alabama Chanin produced a small collection of textiles and teamed up with Fort Payne’s Little River Sock Mill to produce a modest bundle of knit socks. This initial batch of Alabama organic cotton socks will not be available for purchase, but all involved are eager to expand production for a consumer market.

Chanin hopes that the project will spark consumers to consider the sordid history of Alabama cotton agriculture in the context of today’s global agriculture challenges such as slave labor, environmental degradation, and farmer insecurity. In her company’s online journal, Chanin writes, “Hard to imagine the days in Alabama heat where people were not allowed out of the field…. But I live today and I want to grow organic cotton in the state of Alabama today…. Makes me think about how things were, how things are, and how things will be.”

In 2012, Chanin wrote about organic agriculture’s global impact: “[It] promotes biodiversity in every part of the world it is grown. In Africa and other third-world countries, farmers growing organic cotton increase their revenue 50% because of a 40% savings on fertilizers, pesticides, and defoliants. Add to this a 20% premium for organic cotton fiber and organics can determine whether a family will survive or perish. Economic strength has been proven crucial in stopping the spread of HIV. The switch to organic cotton farming benefits entire communities.”

“For better or for worse, cotton is part of the vernacular of my community, my childhood, and my life. Our company is based on age-old techniques; history is woven into every garment we create,” Chanin says.

***

A kindred spirit to Natalie Chanin, Gina Locklear is the mind behind Little River Sock Mill. When I visited her family’s sock mill in September 2013, she placed her hand on a wall in her office where she plans to frame the first pair of Alabama organic cotton socks.

With dizzied excitement, Locklear explained her hope for the expansion of Chanin’s local cotton cultivation so that all of her products might be knit with Alabama’s pride. “To know the whole footprint of production takes place in Alabama will complete our story…it will tie everything together, ” Locklear says.

In 2010, Locklear founded Zkano, a Fort Payne company that manufactures organic cotton socks in her family’s mill. She grew up in Fort Payne, a town once bustling to the beat of the hosiery manufacturing industry. Most of her family and friends were linked to the hosiery industry until 1994, when NAFTA was implemented to open trade barriers within North America. Since NAFTA was signed, the number of manufacturers in Fort Payne has dropped from more than 300 to around 7. Locklear explains that friends and family members were laid off from their jobs all at once: “It seemed that everything changed overnight after NAFTA was signed.” Outsourcing diminished Fort Payne’s textile tradition and its former title, Sock Capital of The World.

In founding Zkano, Locklear was motivated to spread awareness about the importance of US manufacturing in small communities like the one she grew up in. A launch pad for discourse for the made-in-America movement, Locklear promotes other small companies manufacturing goods in America. Her attachment to organic cotton is embedded in her concern for health and human rights. When she first thought about starting a textile business, light research into the cotton industry introduced a disturbing reality. “I was set on fire by stories of kids picking cotton in Uzbekistan and the health hazards associated with conventional cotton agriculture,” she says.

As Locklear probed today’s narrative of the global cotton trade, she learned about tragedies associated with conventional cotton agriculture including unjust labor standards, the loss of seed diversity, vast health implications of genetically modified crops and synthetic chemicals, and farmer suicide. Conventional cotton agriculture requires the most hazardous pesticides on the market; according to the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries, pesticide-contaminated runoff from cotton fields killed a minimum of 240,000 fish in Alabama in 1995. Locklear notes the human health compromises implied by conventional cotton: “In the U.S., farmers use machinery in the cotton industry, so they’re less impacted by chemicals than people in other countries who use their hands. But even Alabama cotton farmers talk about how crazy the chemicals are. One time, I received an email from a local cotton farmer’s wife saying how much she appreciated the organic cotton in our socks. She explained that each year she dreaded cotton [cultivation] season because of how sick her husband gets from the chemicals.”

Locklear is committed to organic cotton, but could not avoid importing it from countries such as Turkey. American production is important to her, but domestic organic cotton is scarce. “That’s why Alabama Chanin’s organic cotton project is so special—it’s almost impossible to find domestically grown organic cotton,” Locklear explains.

Zkano has flourished since 2010. Now, Little River Sock Mill introduces environmental and social values to a market that is less obvious than Zkano’s consumers, who may already be aware of the importance of American manufacturing and organic agriculture. Little River Sock Mill celebrates Alabama’s unique heritage of craftsmanship with sophisticated design and high-end organic cotton socks. Locklear is proud of Little River Sock Mill’s “Made in Fort Payne” labels, which speak to the progress happening in Alabama. While her business educates consumers about a host of complex global concerns, Locklear reminds me that on the most basic level, her company is “good people trying to put a product out there that makes consumers feel as good about their purchase as we feel about production.”

“I am so proud that we’re creating a sock manufactured from start to finish in Alabama. Alabama Chanin’s project will bring our mission full-circle,” says Locklear as she lifted the world’s first spool of Alabama organic cotton.

***

I know that an organic pear almost always tastes better than a conventional pear and that organic cocoa is harvested less harmfully than conventional cocoa. But these assumptions aren’t enough. I buy blouses when they flatter my body, and I throw them away when they wear out. I eat food that is convenient. The dozens of labels that certify pesticide and chemical-free products are easy to ignore. It’s even easier to forget the breadth of their reach.

In Kutch, I met farmers dedicated to organic without exposure to marketing schemes designed to fuel the fears of worried mothers and health conscious consumers. The farmers in Kutch refer to what we call “organic” as Ram Mol. Ram translates as God, Mol as crop. Literally, the crop is from God. It is insurance and growth, balance, harmony, enough.

Alabama’s Organic Cotton Project exemplifies organic farming as a tool for sustaining tradition, the environment, human health, and local economies. Little River Sock Mill and Alabama Chanin pioneer textile products that narrate ethical production, craftsmanship, community collaboration, and southern tradition. “Given cotton’s ugly past in the South, we have a chance to make a beautiful story from a shameful history—to grow beauty from cruelty, to grow peace from strife—by producing organic cotton,” Chanin says. “As a country, we are learning to eliminate harmful chemicals from our food. Why are we so slow to demand the same of our clothing?”

One Response to “Alabama Pioneers”

  1. Rebecca says:

    Where can you get cotton seed. A few years ago I wanted to grow some so that my children could see it, and couldn’t find seed anywhere. Then realized the control that Monsanto had over cotton.

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