Wearing the Colours of the Sun

When we imagine cotton, a ball of white fluff instantly comes to mind. But, in reality, the plant naturally exists in multiple colours. Archaeological evidence shows that various shades of colour-grown cotton have blossomed wild across South America and Asia for the last 5,000 years. The pigments, which range from greens, tans, and rusty reds, result from condensed tannins accumulated in the cell layer from sun exposure (1). A Mayan name for colour-grown cotton is “k’o reumeq’enal” meaning “loaded with the warmth of the sun” (6). Unfortunately, these beautiful tinted fibers are widely unknown and unseen, as white cotton monocultures and synthetic dyes dominate the industry.

In 1856, the discovery of chemical dyes and the Industrial Revolution completely transformed the textile industry, and the traditional cultivation of naturally coloured varieties was almost entirely abandoned. Our OCC Brazil project works to re-establish these varieties in the textile ecosystem by incentivizing their cultivation and supporting the farming community. 

Cotton accounts for 22% of global fiber production and only a mere 1% of this is organic (for now) (2). Our colour-grown cotton is not only organic and regenerative, but the bleaching and dyeing process, the most polluting step in textile production, is eliminated. As almost 20% of industrial water pollution worldwide comes from textile dyeing (3), we see how these fibres could play a major role in reducing environmental degradation by the fashion industry, and support organic farming communities along the way. 

In 1987, James Vreeland, a researcher studying archeological remains in the Lambayeque region of Peru, came upon important findings. When the Lord of Sipán tomb was uncovered in a temple, the 250 CE Moche kingdom ruler was found shrouded in gold, silver, precious stones and strikingly, colourful cotton plants. Its clear significance to the region’s culture, sparked research into the fibre and led to the shocking realization that descendants were still farming the crop in small amounts. At that point, the crop was believed to be extinct after a 1949 Peruvian government ban on growing native cotton due to fear it may be a threat to Pima variations (5). Following this discovery and a rise in environmental activism, naturally coloured cotton experienced a boom of interest in the early 90s, largely spearheaded by plant breeder Sally Fox and her company Foxfibre® and Colorganic® product. In the story of colour-grown cotton, James Vreeland and Sally Fox are names that must be mentioned due to their enormous dedication and effort.

Naturally color-grown cotton has been considered undesirable because of its original short and coarse fibre. However, breeding practices have since increased its length and spinnability, we have perfected our production process to ensure the highest quality yarns in a stunning array of natural colours. Before spinning, our cotton is compacted and combed, and then the varieties Branco Aroeira (ecru), BR Verde (green), and BR Rubí (reddish-brown) are delicately combined to produce thread.

The scientifically proven benefits of color-grown cotton have too long been ignored. They are tolerant to drought and salt, and have many insect and disease-resistant qualities, requiring less pesticide use (7). Bales stored properly can last up to 100 years due to the tannins that make the fiber more resistant to pests and mold (8). Furthermore, It is inherently flame retardant with a higher Limiting Oxygen Index value than white cotton. Lastly, unlike many natural pigments which fade by washing, Colourgrown cotton incredibly deepens in shade (7). 

In the current conventional system, a brown cotton sweatshirt may be grown from a genetically modified seed that forces farmers into pesticide dependence, then bleached to remove any discoloration, then dyed with synthetic, fossil fuel-based pigments, possibly containing chemicals proven as carcinogens, irritants, and hormone disruptors. Lost in this toxic spiral, the fact that cotton can be grown directly in a brown shade, without pesticides and watered by rainfall, has been neglected. We’re here to promote this logical alternative and develop a meaningful, healthy, and naturally vibrant fashion future. Let the warm tones of these natural cottons remind you of our inherent connection to the earth and inspire a sustainable reality.