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In the Fields with Sally Fox
July 04 2024

In the Fields with Sally Fox

Known for her breeding work with naturally colored cottons, Sally Fox is quietly among the most influential voices in the history of North American garment manufacturing.

Dana Lee Brown (DLB): In my Bowen Island shop, we display samples of each soil-to-loom textile we've developed, along with samples of the raw fibres that make them up. The biggest reactions usually come from seeing your richly-colored brown and green cotton bolls. Almost everyone is surprised to learn that cotton grows (naturally) in colors beyond white. Why has naturally colored cotton managed to remain so unknown by the mainstream?

Sally Fox (SF): It has not always been this way. In fact, in times past many iconic textiles traded around the world were composed exclusively of cottons which produced their own color. The two groups of historic fabrics that I know best are the Nankeen and Khaki fabrics. 

The Nankeen originate in Eastern China and were apparently one of the most imported products by the thirteen colonies that later became the United States. Revolutionary War re-enactors were among the first to purchase fabrics from me for their costumes, and it was through them that I learned this history. The fibres themselves are typically thought to originate from a yellow variety but, a colleague of mine (whom I respect greatly) has theorized they originate from green cottons (which tend to fade to a yellow/gold color with exposure to sunlight). The famous Khaki fabrics were composed of G. herbaceum, the primary species of cotton grown in the Indian subcontinent prior to introduced varieties. Ironically, the very trade route that distributed these fabrics across the world, The Silk Road, is the same route that the whitened American varieties eventually traversed to supplant the original, colored cottons.

In the modern US, the Arcadian people of Louisiana have continued to grow brown cottons for their hand-spun and handwoven traditional textiles. According to the records I have seen, the original USDA certified seeds that my breeding mentor received were collected in 1939 from an Arcadian family in Louisiana. There is also an amazing array of naturally colored cottons grown in Peru. They are one of the few places that has a textile industry that can and will spin their native cottons into yarns to offer on the marketplace. 

Where hand-spinning and handweaving have survived colored cottons typically have as well. All over the world. Almost every truck driver from India or Pakistan that visits my farm to ship my cotton bales for processing recalls the brown cottons they grew in their home gardens growing up. 

Where hand-spinning and handweaving have survived colored cottons typically have as well. All over the world.


DLB: Colored cotton has always been present in nature but was considered commercially non-viable while you were getting started as a classical plant breeder in the early 80s. What were the unique qualities of colored cottons that motivated you to explore their commercial viability at the time? How has your work evolved these cottons to become more usable (and valuable) in modern textile production? 

SF: Professionally, I was drawn to Entomology (the study of insects), Plant Pathology and Integrated Pest Management. My high school biology teacher graciously arranged an internship for me at a research group that was developing non-toxic methods to manage insect pests. My passionate love of hand-spinning, knitting and weaving led me to focus on utilizing only naturally colored fibres in the development of my craftsmanship after discovering chemical dyes were so very toxic. In the end my motivations for working with these cottons of color and vigor centered around these two loves of my childhood life: organic gardening and hand-spinning.

When I started my breeding work, the consensus within the scientific community was that improving the fiber quality of the colored cottons was not possible. Supposedly, the genes expressing color were linked very closely to genes that expressed extremely short, weak fibers. Short, weak fibers were essentially a deal breaker for commercial processing – they couldn’t be spun into yarn or woven into fabric. One serendipitous advantage is that I had already been working with these cottons for many years before I ever read the papers describing their limitations. By then, I had developed my own strategies for improving the fiber quality (strength and length) and I was growing sufficient numbers of the offspring of various cross pollinations to find the one in a million individual who expressed a “crossing over” event. Each little improvement in fiber quality (while continually maintaining the plant’s fundamental pest and disease resistance) led to further little improvements, generation after generation. So, it seemed I had done the impossible.

DLB: You've been described not only as a world-renowned cotton breeder, but also a pioneering advocate for commercial organic farming at a time (the 80s) when organic farming was not such a valued pursuit limiting the financial incentive to do so. Why do you continue to devote your life to encouraging the adoption of organic farming? Why should people more deeply consider organic farming in relation to textiles? 

SF: Cotton was a heavily sprayed crop when I began working in this field. In parts of Arizona and the SE US, twelve applications of insecticides per season were the norm. Plus, herbicides for the weeds, and defoliants in order to get the leaves to fall off prior to machine picking the crop in the late Fall. The cottons that I work with were given to private breeders by the USDA as genetic sources of disease and pest resistance. I thought, “why not use that as the foundation for getting organic cotton production going?” 

When I received the first commercial order for my cotton from Yamada-bo, a specialty spinning mill in Japan, I decided that I was “Not throwing away my shot” so to speak. In order to produce the quantity of cottons required to fulfill the minimums of an actual spinning mill I needed to reach out to production growers. Back then there were no organic cotton growers, but I was able to find farmers who were interested in giving it a try. The first people that I hired in the company that I incorporated called Natural Cotton Colors, Inc., were an agronomist and another entomologist. The three of us worked with the farmers to figure out how to scale what was working within my breeding nursery to irrigated production acres in the Southwest. After six years of hard work areas that had been spraying insecticide 12x/season had thousands of acres of certified organic production, supplying 38 spinning mills around the world with my cottons. At the peak there were 5000 certified organic acres and 3000 acres in transition.

In that time, I spent any spare time that I could find helping to write the standards for organic textile production. Back then, because no dyes were needed for the colored cottons, we were going to have textiles certified with the same standards used for food. But then the textile industry collapsed. every single spinning mill that I was selling to went out of business, and organic cotton went offshore, where all the spinning mills were now located. 

In the late ’90’s I had to sell my business to an angel investor who put up a spinning mill in Richmond, CA. We intended to use this mill to supply the commercial-industrial knitters and weavers who still had pending orders for my cottons, but by the time it was up and running, those knitters and weaving mills had also shuttered. The angel investor closed the mill and gave up. I have continued to keep the vision alive, and work with designers such as you because I still believe in this project.

Large scale production of organically grown commodity crops can help us pull carbon from the atmosphere and store it deep within the soil. Fabrics that we wear and use can be good for our bodies, our climate, and our soils.

I had developed my own strategies for improving the fiber quality–so, it seemed I had done the impossible.

DLB: You've had to relocate your breeding grounds several times before finally settling where you are now, just north of Davis, California. Moving homes is one thing but relocating an entire farm (and all of your research) seems unfathomable. Can you tell us about this?

SF: To be blunt, I do not think I have ever recovered from either of the relocations. The first one was while my business was experiencing exponential growth, giving me the illusion I could make it through such an upheaval unscathed. I learned a lot. The plants had to grow in a completely different environment. I lost about 40% of my seed lines from the shock of the extreme heat of the Arizona climate and the higher pest pressure compared to my previous home in California. Thankfully the plants that did make it through were extremely tough. The financial and personal loss of moving not only my farm, but my business as well, really did not become apparent until the industry collapse of the late ’90’s when the cushion that I could have saved by not moving might have kept my business afloat. I couldn’t help but feel shame for being expelled from not only my home but the home of my plants.  

The second move, from Arizona to this farm in Yolo County was made under even tougher circumstances. The industry was in free fall, I had hardly any cash flow. I traded the farm that I had bought in Kern County (where it was illegal to breed or grow cottons of color) for this farm. This farm had no house, so I just camped out on it for years in a travel trailer with a rented mobile office while I tried to regroup. Infrastructure limitations keep me from doing so many things such as hosting interns or even being able to consider hiring people full time. I continue inch by inch to recover and improve the infrastructure, yet it tends to feel one step forward three steps back in a way. The farm is so large and my cash flow inadequate.

Among the things that I lost were confidence and trust. Aging also tends to be humbling, so the whole result is that I am not bold. I have asked for help from various nonprofits in finding foundations that might support my work, but they say that they do not know anyone and often ask “why don't you just sell more cotton to mills?” Fund the research with my sales… as I always have. The problem for me is that as I am aging, I have to work less. To produce, package and ship all these products on my mail order business and help designers such as you create products, and breed the cotton, and also work with the legacy organic farmer to produce my cottons for the mill in Japan and for my customers here in the US…each one of these is already a full time job. 

The financial and emotional vulnerability created by the moving of farms and businesses twice seems to have pruned my imagination. And opened me to negative thinking. Neither of which are good things. I do a lot of personal internal work to counteract those tendencies and sharing my story was one of the practices that worked–and a reason that I will begin again. It seems to be helping me process these losses.


DLB:  Your current farm is a biodynamic system. Can you elaborate on what this means and why you've chosen this model? 

SF: As a child I recall, more or less, living in an imaginary world. I think that being a severe myopic contributed to this internal life, as well as my preoccupation with insects and other small creatures that I could actually see. Upon viewing stars in the sky (versus in books) for the first time through my first pair of glasses, I was amazed, but also rather abruptly thrown into “the real world”. 

When I began my breeding nurseries I have a lot of fun transporting myself back into my old way of experiencing the world: with an imaginative wonder. My first exposure to Biodynamic Ag brought these sensibilities to bear. They talk about elemental beings and what with all the mixing and spreading of the preps…. it just appealed to me. I like the idea of my farm as a living being. I like that mostly everything is made or grown on the farm–my sheep provide the nitrogen for my plants for example. I am certified organic by CCOF, which is the certification that I pay for, but biodynamic is more or less an extra special thing that appeals to my inner life.

Sally (back right) with her co-founder, and other members, of her high school’s organic gardening club, 1971

DLB: During my visit to your farm in 2022, we shared a couple (very treasured) hours in your breeding field.  What I expected to be a sea of colored cotton turned out to also be a museum of cotton's genetic history with hundreds (?) of varietals, including shrubs of Giza45  (the most luxurious/ rarest cotton variety on Earth). Why do you continue to grow all these different varieties in addition to the colored cottons?

SF: A breeding nursery (which is what I plant when I have the funds to do so) consists of hundreds to thousands of plots. Each of these is made up of anywhere from a few plants that are the seeds from a single hand pollinated flower to a hundred plants–the seeds from a single plant–or thousands of plants–the seeds from a group of sibling plants. 

The historical living museum section of my breeding nursery–home to Giza45 and other famous varieties from the past–is the section that I find endlessly fascinating. I love watching how the older varieties grow and develop, and I use some as parents in various cross pollinations. I learn so much just by observing them. 

At the farms where my cotton is produced at a scale large enough to be shipped for processing, you would have seen whole vast fields of a sinlge variety. To develop an open pollinated variety (such as the “Coyote” brown that you are using), the old-fashioned classical plant breeder (which is what organic farming requires–no advanced genetic editing techniques here) grows hundreds to thousands of breeding plots every year. Variation is initiated by either making cross pollinations and then growing those seeds up, then repeating for as many as ten generations (one generation per year), or exposing them to different environments (one positive from my multiple farm moves-haha!), or both. Variation is what a breeder needs to find individual plants whose growing structure and fiber qualities are somehow better than what is already being grown. There may also be no obvious changes in the plant or the fiber, but perhaps particular plants are able to grow and thrive despite a new soil disease or a new pest. Breeding is about finding the individuals whose uniqueness offers something that is needed to go forward in time. I prefer to consider what I do as a breeder as a form plant/human collaboration, as opposed to the “artificial selection” terminology that extends from Darwin’s work. I am not at all convinced that we who think we are in charge actually are.

Fabrics that we wear and use can be good for our bodies, our climate, and our soils.

DLB: Working with your cotton was my first experience buying unspun fibre to create a custom yarn. My experience with this process and other yarn development since has opened my eyes to the intricacies of spinning, plying, machine weaving & machine knitting. I've learned some interesting things including that there are only two spinning mills in the US that will spin organic (and colored?) cotton. Can you explain why this is? What would happen if these mills closed? What would the effect be on North American fibre farmers if there were no more domestic spinners, weavers or knitters?

SF: When I began my work there were literally hundreds of spinning mills in the US and then there were knitters, weavers, cut and sew operations, etc. The US had the largest textile manufacturing community in the world. The 90’s saw a complete collapse of the textile industry as we knew it, all within one decade–not just in the US, but Europe and Japan as well. Generational knowledge of textile processing gone in the blink of an eye. The mills that you have worked with are among the very last of our once marvelous industry. 

Fiber producers have already suffered for the lack of connection between the buyers and the eventual customer. Should we lose these few spinners who remain in the US, Europe and Japan (we can count them on our hands)–it will become all the more difficult for producers of specialty fibers. And the most creative designers will be left with only working with fabrics that are profitable to produce at the mega-scale level that serves the large brands. 

DLB: What changes would you like to see in domestic fibre farming and how can people support that?

SF: Many smaller designers have grown accustomed to tapping into the legacy of this hyper-efficient supply chain, creating with “deadstock fabrics”–the leftovers from the minimums of the mega-mills. What I wish to see is designers working with these few remaining mills in the US, Japan and the EU to support their survival. Design with their financial health in mind, much as Coco Chanel did for the British Wool Industry when she started out. In my opinion we’ve reached an all-hands-on-deck time to save these few remaining mills. Without them, the ability to design from the fiber up will be lost entirely. When we have no mills, we have no conduit to the creativity that is born from collaboration; this can only arise through communication, via materials, between producers, spinners, weavers, designers, and sewers.

Connect. Honor the mills that remain near to us. They are working so hard to connect to the producers, but they must stay in business to do so. We have the old organic label, support it. Don’t neglect the structures built by so many of us old timers who created all of this on our own, while every government agency around belittled us, or in my case, outlawed my work. We have a small window of time left to fix this disaster created by greed. We may be able to pull the rabbit out of the hat–but to do so it requires respect and support of the few businesses left standing–and their survival is by no means a given. 

I prefer to consider what I do as a breeder as a form plant/human collaboration, as opposed to the “artificial selection” terminology that extends from Darwin’s work.

DLB: Is there anything else you are excited about or would like to share at this time?

SF: This generation of innovative designers who are searching for ways to go deeper into design. Thank you for caring and for working these years on this journey deep into the foundations of textiles.

My hope is that we look at who is making things and how. The best manufacturers are drawn to the best fibers. And like good chefs, the better spinning mills know all about who grows their fibers and even, in some cases, who breeds them.

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