Monday, 13 November 2017 13:57

Organic Fabric and Dyes

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So, is organic cotton fabric important?


Yes, hugely.

It’s very important, because cotton is a plant and, growing organic means positive things. Cotton is currently grown on 25 million hectares around the world, mostly in India, China, Pakistan and the US. Other countries growing much smaller amounts of GM cotton are South Africa, Burkina Faso, Sudan, Uzbekistan, Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, Columbia, Turkey, Mexico, Costa Rica, Burma, Australia, and Egypt.


GM (genetically modified) cotton is engineered with one of two traits; one makes it resistant to herbicides such as Monsanto’s Roundup, while the other stimulates the plant to produce its own toxin that kills the bollworm, one of the crop’s primary pests. This pest-resistant cotton is called Bacillus thurengiensis or Bt, and it’s the common choice.

Farmers were promised that Bt cotton would reduce the amount of pesticides farmers need to buy to control pests and increase harvests and farm income by reducing crop losses due to pest attacks.

Initially, farmers were happy to see that in the first few years after Bt cotton was commercialized in India, for example, they were using less pesticides and the crop yield had improved. However, crop failures began to increase due to the poor quality of seeds, new pests, bollworm resistance and the biggest factor being that the Bt technology was developed by Monsanto in the US, which does not have the same climate conditions as India. Farmers also require more water to grow these GM crops.

The promised wonder-seeds meant that farmers stopped saving their own cotton seeds and instead, bought seeds from the company. For example, just a decade ago, Indian farmers saved 80% of their cotton seed and had over 1500 varieties of cotton to choose from. But now, farmers can’t find non-GM seeds on the market.

Monsanto holds a virtual monopoly over the seed market, and seeds are expensive, and so are fertilizers and pesticides. Farmers borrow more money from banks or independent moneylenders, but as the cotton yields began to decline or fail, the farmers were unable to repay their loans; intensifying the cycle of debt and poverty.

             Cows grazing in a cleared cotton field


Although Monsanto-Mahyco’s promise to farmers was that Bt cotton would reduce pesticides, government data shows that in the last 10 years, pesticide usage has remained the same. This has occurred because insects have developed resistance to the cotton. The cotton bollworm has become resistant to the toxin produced by the Bt cotton, forcing farmers to use more pesticides for control.

Now, secondary pests are becoming a problem. With the bollworm being reduced initially, mealy bugs, aphids and thrips have become more prevalent; leading farmers to use more toxic pesticides to control these new pest problems.

Impact on Health

Farmers began to notice their livestock fell sick or even died after grazing on plant debris from cleared Bt cotton fields. One report compiled by veterinary scientists and local farmers’ associations showed that over 1800 sheep died in only 4 villages after grazing in Bt cotton fields. However, no government-funded studies have been conducted on livestock or human mortality in Bt areas.

Farmers and farm workers who pick Bt cotton have complained of skin rashes and respiratory allergic reactions; but again, no government studies have been published. Independent scientists and researchers are conducting these studies.

         Organic cotton. Doesn’t it look lovely?

Organic Benefits

If organic cotton is grown in accordance with the environmental principles of organic agriculture, synthetic pesticides and fertilizers won’t be used and the land would be managed according with soil health and independent certification standards.

No more skin rashes or respiratory difficulties from toxic fertilizers and pesticides; and farmers can use less water.

Organic products do not use GM seeds, so the environment is cleaner and the farmers and farm workers are healthier.

Read the Label

If the label says the cloth is organic, it’s only referring to how the cotton is grown; not how the fabric is dyed, finished or processes. When you think about it then, organic cotton is a better choice for baby clothes or for people who have sensitive skin or allergies because the chemical processing methods don’t exist.

The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) can help us learn about certification, licensing and labelling. This is their mission statement;

Our vision is that organic textiles will become a significant part of everyday life, enhancing people’s lives and the environment. 

What’s there to lose?

Seeking out organic cotton doesn’t mean that your projects will be devoid of colour; the increased popularity in natural dyes means that the range of colours, prints, styles and textures is constantly growing.

Speaking of Natural Dyes …

Sarah Bellos, (2004 graduate of Cornell University Agriculture School) operated a small-batch textile dye business in Nashville, Tennessee that provided natural dyes for independent fashion designers who wanted to avoid the petroleum-based dyes used in most clothing; designers and customers wanted a more transparent and ethical supply of dyes. What’s important to know is that 17% of industrial water pollution globally comes from the textile industry through dyeing and finishing. Natural dyes could be a huge part of the solution, but it was difficult for North-American designers to find natural colourants at the volume and consistency they needed.


Indigo is a broad-leafed, knee-high plant that gives blue jeans their traditional colour; the colour comes from the leaves, not the pink flowers. Sarah began growing indigo on her own small farm for five years, just to see if it could thrive in her climate. Over the course of years, she researched and tested the crop to identify three desired strains of indigo and began to create a unique partnership with local farmers; she believed it would be a viable option for former tobacco farmers looking for a new, healthier crop to grow.


Sarah Bellos


So, in 2015, she approached Jay Head, a tobacco and row crop farmer to grow indigo for her dye company, Stony Creek Colors. At first, he thought she was “…on a wild goose chase… but it caught on … this can be a big industry for the county”.


Jay Head with his crop of indigo

It’s a good partnership; Sarah and her team provide seeds or seedlings and the farmers plant and tend the crop. The indigo leaves are harvested mechanically; leaving stems and roots to be worked back into the soil as nutrient-rich fertilizer. Home-gardners know this is a perfect way to feed the soil after every harvest.

The leaves are taken to the manufacturing facility where the blue-purple indigo dye is then extracted from the leaves using a water-based extraction method. About 70,000 pounds of indigo plant material is processed per day in the huge building that once housed a tobacco factory.

Like other crops, farmers are paid by the acre to grow the indigo, but Sarah’s dye company manages the entire agricultural chain by letting the farmers grow the crop while Stony Creek Colors breeds the plants, deals with the engineering the process, markets the indigo and makes the dye.

Farmers note that growing only two acres of indigo is far less work than growing most other crops, and farmers are always looking for different ways to make additional profits. For example, if a farmer grows a row crop and has a bad year due to weather or pests – the profit is lost. But, when a guaranteed price per acre is offered, all the farmer needs to do is plant the seedlings and keep the crop weed-free. Cone Denim, a denim manufacturer in North Carolina was a good costumer; providing top quality denim since 1891; and now, with domestic natural dye. However, American-made denim seems to be disappearing with the closure of this once-great company by 2018. Hopefully though, the fashion industry will continue to support Sarah's efforts.


This year, in 2017, 16 local farmers are growing a total of 160 acres of indigo; many for the first time. More farmers eager to partner with Stony Creek Colors are on the waiting list as the company reaches for its goal of managing 20,000 acres by 2021. No doubt Sarah is proud of her crop and the farmers who have helped create this success and hopes her example will provide further encouragement for other industry professionals interested in moving towards safer bio-based chemicals.

Ultimately, the consumers will control these industries; as we call for more organic fibers to work with and more organic dyes to colour our projects; more companies like this one will emerge.


Thanks to Elaine Lipson and Craftsy Blog; Canadian Biotechnology Action Network; Nancy Henderson, Tennessee Home & Farm publication; Stony Creek Colors. Next time; The Costume Museum of Canada; take care, and thanks for reading. Rae

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The Costumer's Notebook,

The book The Costumer's Notebook is a 295 page comprehensive handbook for Costumers for stage and film including a full Glossary of stage and film industry terms. Sections include methods and tricks for laundry, dyeing, breakdown, Dresser guidelines and protocols for Stage or Film and various size charts for men and women from shoes to gloves. Other Sections include diagrams showing How to Iron A Shirt, How to Tie a Tie and How to Tie a Bow Tie. Costume fittings, costume lay out and costume storage are also discussed.