Cotton balls, today thought of as white and fluffy, have a surprisingly colorful history: there was a time when cotton came in a variety of colors. Around 5,000 years ago, strains of naturally pigmented cottons were developed by people living in the Andes. Green, red, brown, and tan cotton strains were grown throughout the region and woven into colorful un-dyed masterpieces. These weavings were so lovely, when the Spanish first came to South America they sent some of these pieces back to the royal court in Spain.
Unfortunately, naturally pigmented cotton has some shortfalls. These plants have lower yields and require special harvest techniques. The cotton itself has short staples making industrial level spinning difficult. When chemical dyes became commonplace, colored cottons lost favor and white cotton became king.
Fortunately, while they were close to extinction for a time, many of these cotton strains survived in rural villages of Peru and even in the Mississippi Delta. With people becoming concerned with the environmental impact of their yarns, naturally pigmented cotton yarns are starting to make a comeback through the efforts of dedicated people such as Sally Fox. These colorful fibers need no mordant or chemical dyes, and when grown organically are also pesticide free, making them an ideal choice for the environmentally conscious weaver.