Colored Cottons—Without Dye!

I remember years ago a friend showing me some green cotton he’d picked up while working at the local university’s cotton growing program. I was shocked to learn that cotton grew in more colors than just white. Since then I’ve learned a lot more about naturally colored cottons and even bought a few cones of my own. In her article from the January/February 2018 issue of Handwoven Deb Essen gives a short lesson on naturally colored cottons and where they fit in the world of environmentally friendly fibers. —Christina

It’s hard to admit, but many of our most loved weaving yarns are dyed using techniques and chemicals that wouldn’t be considered environmentally friendly. Consider bleach and other chemicals used as part of the prep process to create more vibrant colors, and the chemicals used to make manufactured yarns soft and receptive to dyes. Then there are the mordants such as iron sulfate and chrome that are used to set dyes. Though the resulting dyed yarn is safe, these substances can be toxic. Even most natural dyes require some sort of mordant to make them lightfast and colorfast. When dyeing, there are reasons beyond having colored fingers for wearing gloves. Finally, many dye processes use a large amount of water, a precious commodity in much of the world. What’s an environmentally conscious weaver to do?

We could use only dye-free colors in our weaving yarns—wool has a nice range of natural colors (white, brown, black, gray), but as I write this, it is 94 degrees outside and the thought of wool leaves me limp. Linen and hemp are great for hot temperatures but the natural color selection (without the bleaching process) is limited to golden tans and grays. While all of these neutrals can be beautiful, I confess to needing more color in my life. That’s where naturally colored cottons come in.

colored cottons

Naturally colored cotton yarns washed in plain tap water.

Naturally colored cottons have been around, well, forever. The naturally occurring cotton colors are shades of green, tan, brown, and reddish brown. So why haven’t colored cotton fibers been on the market very long? The main reason seems to be staple length. Colored cotton fiber has a much shorter staple (fiber) length than the white cottons developed for the clothing industry. Thus, the colored cotton didn’t work well with industrial spinning machinery. Without demand, the farm supply wasn’t produced and colored cottons were relegated to novelty status in home gardens.

Sally Fox changed all of that when she started breeding colored cottons in 1982. Part of her motivation was saving the genetics of the colored cotton plants, and at the same time, she worked to create colored cotton with a staple length long enough to be commercially spun. While some websites claim she “invented” colored cotton, she did not (and she says so emphatically on her website). Initially, she faced a great deal of resistance (and lawsuits!) from traditional cotton farmers under the guise of the fear of cross-pollination with white cotton.

Don’t confuse naturally colored cotton with organic cotton. Organic cotton is any cotton that has been raised with non-GMO seed without chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Farms that raise organic cotton and call it organic, whether white or naturally colored, must be certified organic by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

colored cottons

Naturally colored cotton after one wash in baking soda bath.

And then there is sustainable cotton. The Sustainable Cotton Project, based in California, assists farmers who produce white and colored cotton. The farmers pledge to use non-GMO seed and natural pest management (bugs and birds eating other bugs) and not to use the thirteen most toxic chemicals normally used in cotton production. The cotton may not be organic, but it can be considered sustainable and therefore better for the environment.

Naturally colored cotton for handspinners has been available for quite a long time. Yarns for weavers are a bit tougher to find. A few years ago, I was lusting my way through the vendors at Convergence when I wandered into the Lunatic Fringe Yarns booth and found natural-color cotton yarns! Lunatic Fringe buys the cotton fiber from the Sustainable Cotton Project and has the lint spun into yarn for its Naturally Colored American Maid Cotton Yarn line.

And what yarn it is—sturdy, yet super soft and silky to the touch. I love winding warps of this yarn and use it in several of my kit designs. And perhaps the coolest thing about naturally colored cotton? The colors deepen when washed! Detergent changes the pH of water from neutral to slightly alkaline. That alkalinity interacts with the colored cotton and the natural colors slowly deepen each time the cotton is washed. To make the color deepening speed up, you can handwash your newly woven pieces in water with baking soda added to enhance the alkalinity. I add enough baking soda so the water feels slippery. You can literally watch the colors change in the water bath. It’s like magic!

One last tip about washing cotton: use soda ash, aka washing soda. Have you ever woven a beautiful set of towels that don’t absorb water and just smear the water around on your dishes? This is a result of the spinning and dye processes that inadvertently add chemicals that cause water resistance. Wash your towels in soda ash. Voila! The soda ash removes the residues and you have absorbent towels. Soda ash is not the same as baking soda but is baked baking soda and something best purchased rather than made. (Although historically soda ash, also known as sodium carbonate, was extracted from the ashes of sodium-rich plants, today it is produced synthetically.) Either buy soda ash through a dye supplier such as Dharma Trading Company or buy washing soda at the store.

While weaving with naturally colored cotton doesn’t resolve all of my color lust, it is fun and environmentally friendly, and creates beautiful textiles. Take it for a spin (pun totally intended) yourself!

—Deb Essen

Featured Image: Balls of naturally colored cotton. Photo by George Boe.

PS: If you find yourself wanting to weave with naturally colored cottons after reading this article, check out Sarah H. Jackson’s gorgeous Peaceful Rhythm towels or check out the projects in the January/February 2018 Handwoven! —Christina

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