Woven in time: Cotton’s complex story could have a happy ending

When is cotton not just cotton? And why does it matter? Our oversimplification between ‘organic-good’ and ‘non-organic-bad’ cotton only scratches the surface says sustainable fashion designer, and Henri CEO, Henrietta Adams. Native crops could hold the key to a more eco-friendly way to produce fabric. She swaps her shirt making in London to meet the people in her supply chain face to face, and pulls at the thread of cotton production to discover a heritage story that can help the planet.

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Under a floating pink sun we set off. The chilled morning air whipped through the jeep and smothered the sweet dust of this ancient land into our hair and clothes. Stopping for roadside chai masala, we looked out at the flat arid landscape growing a rather special crop – Kala cotton.

Organic’ is a word we’re seeing associated with fashion more often due to the rising demand for sustainably produced cotton. As a designer it has always been a priority to source 100% GOTS certified organic cotton to ensure that my products have as little negative impact on the environment as possible.

This globally recognised certification ensures that the cotton has been farmed without the use of dangerous pesticides or chemical fertilisers along with responsible water usage. Sitting behind a desk in London it seemed that cotton was either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and I was committed to using only the ‘good’ stuff.

My recent trip to India quickly opened my eyes to the reality of cotton production.

Cotton farming is a vastly complex issue, one that is impossible to begin to grasp from the UK.

Visiting farms in Gujarat and speaking to the farmers themselves was fascinating and truly grounding. The realities of farming in India are tough and for cotton farmers caught in ‘conventional’ farming (the use of GM seeds and harmful, expensive pesticides and fertilisers) it can be a gruelling profession. 

Such reliance on chemical intervention has seen traditional farming methods lost along with the decline of indigenous varieties of cotton plant.

Image Fashion designer Henrietta Adams travelled to India to meet her cotton growers – with surprising results

Natural vs GM – why does it matter?

So what are indigenous cotton seeds and why are they important?

These are the seeds that have existed in their respective regions “since the start of time” as one farmer put it. They are the natives, the robust seeds that have grown with the land and can withstand attacks from pests and even drought in some cases. The local soil is their home, they can survive and thrive.

The recent introduction of GM seeds is like planting tulips in the desert. They won’t naturally grow, but when pumped with enough artificial fertiliser, water and protected with pesticides they might be able to grow. 

Not a natural method of farming by any means. 

“The recent introduction of GM seeds is like planting tulips in the desert”

Why is Kala cotton different?

Kala cotton is an Indian variety of cotton that is indigenous to the area of Kutch, the desert region close to the border of Pakistan. Having been farmed in this region for 7,000 years, Kala cotton has proven its resilience to the harsh desert climate making it an extremely reliable crop.

One of the fields we visited had produced 10,000 tonnes of cotton with no rainfall or irrigation. 

Considering it takes 2,700 litres of water to produce one cotton T-shirt with conventional cotton farming, this seems just short of a miracle.

With changing global weather patterns and global threat of desertification, it is without a doubt that Kala cotton could be highly relevant in today’s market.

Image Kala cotton is dyed naturally and handspun to make a hardy, zero waste, carbon positive fabric

How can seeds affect fabric?

In a world of anonymous fashion how does this indigenous cotton seed affect the final product?

The answer I find truly fascinating. Fabric made from the Kala cotton seed feels coarse and quite rough against the skin, a direct relation to the landscape it has grown in. You can quite literally feel that this crop has grown without water and for those of us who hold this value dear, it’s a beautiful thing to find in a product.

The texture and colour reflects the dusty, dry land and the colours that Khamir use are achieved using natural dyes. Being a short staple variety of cotton, Kala is typically used for denim, however exquisite results can be achieved by weaving it on traditional wooden looms.

In the villages that surround the cotton fields of Kutch, hubs of spinners, weavers, printers and dyers can be found working from their homes in a new wave of encouraged self-employment. 

“The fabric tells its own story so vividly, you can feel the desert landscape in its texture”

Each village has its speciality and the Khamir (the suppliers) are working hard to support these communities following the devastating earthquake that hit the region in 2001. We were lucky enough to spend some time with the spinners and weavers of Kala and the weaving process in particular was enough to get the creative juices flowing. After an in depth explanation of the lengthy process of setting up the looms we were shown the live action of weaving a particularly complex design.

It was awe-inspiring; the time it takes to weave fabric in this way, the skill passed down from generation to generation and incredible patience needed throughout the whole process.

The experience was overwhelmingly positive and it brought a change in my attitude towards the my supply chain at Henri.

It’s hard to grasp the time and effort that goes into creating this beautiful fabric and to appreciate the true beauty of its story is essential as a designer.

Having travelled to Kutch from London we had landed in a region of ancient history where technological developments have yet to touch its communities. Perhaps it’s because time has stood still in this part of the world that the products it’s producing are of the upmost relevance in today’s market. Traditional skills and indigenous seeds have not yet died out in this area, in-fact they are making a come back.

After visiting Khamir I now feel a deep connection to this fabric. From its history and ability to grow economically without rainfall to the way it is spun and woven so beautifully by age old looms. The fabric tells its own story so vividly, you can feel the desert landscape in its texture and see the intense labour through its fine weaves.

I hope to provide continued demand for this cotton, which is much needed, along with spreading the word to others, so that this special part of the world can continue its heritage trade for years to come.

For more on Henri’s adventures in India see here.