When I was only three years old and living in southwestern Oklahoma, cotton was the major agricultural crop. This was during World War II, and housewives, school children, even prisoners of
war who were interned in our small town, were all recruited to bring in the crop. It was hot, sweaty work for my ten-year-old brother, who could pick forty pounds a day. Better than sitting in school! I loved playing with the stray boll–picking it apart, making little nests for ladybugs and wigs for clothespin dolls.
We took cotton for granted. My flour-sack dresses and Sunday School batiste pinafores, my baby brother’s diapers, our dad’s khaki work pants, the chenille bedspreads with their cunning little tufts–all 100 percent cotton. It was our world.
I was much, much older before I realized how truly vast the world of cotton is. I’ve seen it growing in India, Egypt, Central and South America. I’ve even seen it growing in the Galapagos Islands–a special native variety called Darwin’s cotton with very small light tan bolls. I’ve seen Monsanto GMO cotton and wild Mexican tree cotton and Louisiana brown cotton.
Cotton has a fraught history: driving slavery, depleting the soil, causing wars, justifying child labor. But it’s also been the stuff of great beauty and comfort, of economic development and global trade. Pulling together its diverse threads made for an editorial challenge and a reader’s delight in the new issue of PieceWork. My favorite story is “Letters from the Asylum”–and yes, the title is accurate. So human, so poignant. Of course, there’s much more–deep history, projects to make that are both sturdy and delicate. Knitting, crocheting, tatting, embroidery, even Turkish oya-making; cotton is the supreme material for fashion and household goods.