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Cotton with a Conscience

Not many of us have seen a cotton plant - much less thought of one when we put on a T-shirt. There’s a lot of steps between the fiber and the fabric. Important steps. Steps that either sustain or destroy the environment.

Bet you didn’t think of that when you zipped up your jeans, dried off with your towel or slipped into your chinos.

Organic cotton, just like the foods we eat, can be processed in such a way as to be renewable. By choosing non-GMO (genetically modified) seed and by avoiding any synthetic agricultural chemicals, such as fertilizers or pesticides, cotton can be elevated from its shadowy past to a respectable crop. Will it cost more? Yes, in the short-term, but overall the earth and its inhabitants (to include you and me) are better off.

I saw my first cotton boll at the Alabama Chanin factory last year. Scattered throughout the store/café/warehouse were the white fluffy tufts encased in bolls - dried outer shells. The proprietor of the clothing line that bears her name, Natalie Chanin grew up in this region of northern Alabama that has a long history of growing and sewing with this natural fiber.

When she left the high fashion world in 2000 to start her company back in her hometown, Natalie made a point to construct a "hyper-local" supply chain for the100% organic medium-weight cotton jersey that is used in the clothes and kits that they sell at the factory. The organic cotton is produced entirely in the USA: grown and ginned in Texas, spun in North Carolina and knit and dyed in South Carolina.

Many of us appreciate the wearability, versatility and absorbancy of cotton. Due to its unique fiber structure - which can absorb up to 27 times its own weight in water - cotton breathes and helps remove body moisture by absorbing it and wicking it away from the skin. It's not only durable, it's soft and those are just some of the qualities that make this a perfect medium for hand-sewn clothing.

However, according to, 2.4% of the world's arable land is planted with cotton yet it accounts for 24% of the world's insecticide market and 11% of global pesticides sales, making it the most pesticide-intensive crop grown on the planet.

In addition, many places that harvest and mill cotton, do not follow fair-trade standards and basically run sweat-shops. It puts a bit of a wet blanket on the cheap clothes we have grown accustomed to buying in chain stores.

And this is the point of buying from and supporting sustainable farming practices. The individual choices we make add up. As the scriptures remind us: ""Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much..." Luke 16:10

It's the simple decisions we make EVERYDAY.

It's taking the philosophy of local gardening beyond the vegetable bed and farmer's market and insisting that large-scale farming has social responsibility, but it can't be done on the cheap. It means being willing to invest in less clothes with higher standards. And this is what Alabama Chanin offers consumers who want to get involved in the making of those clothes.

I had the privilege of being a representative of this time-honored skill with my sister Sue Manley, who was participating in Richmond's MakerFest 2017. She has become a satellite, of sorts, and is teaching workshops and offering supplies to learn hand-sewing the AC way.

We helped four - 40 year-olds create with needle and thread. Just one of many vendors who sought to reintroduce the public to time-honored crafts. It was a thrill to see that 'Made in America' is not just a label or a concept but a real choice for those of us who want our products to have a conscience.

Sue and I in front of an AC flag she hand-sewed and wearing clothes we made.

If you're in the Richmond area and want to look Sue up she has a studio in her home for now. Come January, she'll be at a space in Scott's Edition. Here's a link to her website: where you can learn more about hand sewing, organic cotton and discovering the artist in you.

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