When we think of tweaking the properties of various materials, we normally envision scientists tinkering with beakers in a lab. But cotton maven Sally Fox does her tweaking in the field, literally, and has been since the 1980s.
The creative Fox's lengthy and interesting story is here, and I recommend you read it if you have the time. But for the purposes of this blog entry, the bottom line is Fox is a master cotton breeder. In 1989 she first achieved the breakthrough of creating colored cotton, through wholly natural means, that could be machine-spun into thread.
Fox had been tinkering with natural brown cotton, which was then considered useless for commercial applications as its fibers were too short to be spun. "After only three years of plant breeding," she writes, "I was stunned to find that the brown color was actually hiding green, red, and pink. These unexpected cotton lints were given to handspinner study groups who helped me discover other unique qualities. My plant breeding program took on the task of not only improving the fiber quality, but also increasing the color spectrum."
Today Fox is producing Foxfibre Cotton Yarn in a multitude of colors—including a brown that, interestingly, exhibits natural fire-resistance—that have unusual properties for cotton: The colors get more vibrant after the first 20 washings, rather than fading. Even better, Fox is dedicated to sustainable agriculture, so all of the cotton she produces across her entire operation is certified organic. "My goal to develop organic methods that are suitable for large-scale production of Foxfibre cotton has been achieved," she writes.While Fox has greens and browns down, the reds and pinks are proving more elusive, but she hopes to broaden the rainbow of what she can produce in future. "New seed material given to me by spinners and most recently by public seed banks has proven to be a source of optimism in my quest for new colors," she explains. "I am looking forward to the many years ahead with hopes of new discoveries. It is my belief that with continuous, patient labor, a treasure of natural color will be found."