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Organic Cotton

alabama chanin jan walsh Alabama Chanin plants organic cottonseed and sews by hand. 

 By Jan Walsh 

Photography by Beau Gustafson 

As a young child I lived on my grandparents’ farm. Their cash crop was cotton. I picked cotton—only once—when I was five until my fingers bled and cotton balls covered the bottom of my potato sack—bigger than I was. I earned 10 cents for my efforts and decided cotton picking was not for me. There were easier ways to make a dime. But somebody had to do it. And my grandparents did. 

In those days all cotton was organic. My grandfather did not spray pesticides and herbicides on his fields or grow his cotton with seeds that had pesticides in their DNA. Unfortunately today more than 99 percent of cotton is grown using GMO seeds. Genetically Modified Organisms are organisms whose genetic material (DNA) has been altered by genetic engineering. Genetic modification involves the mutation, insertion, or deletion of genes. Inserted genes usually come from a different species. This creates combinations of plant, animal, bacteria, and viral genes that do not occur in nature or through traditional crossbreeding methods. GMO cottonseed oil is found in many processed foods. And American GMO cotton is also found in clothes, bed linens, towels, mattresses, carpets, paper towels, napkins, tissue, feminine hygiene products, and much more. 

While looking for local sources for organic cotton clothing, I discovered Alabama Chanin. This family owned fashion and lifestyle company, located in Florence, Alabama uses 100 percent organic jersey fabric in their sustainably sourced designs. Heirloom pieces are hand sewn by artisans with their own businesses. Florence native, Natalie Chanin founded the company and has wisely gone with the flow through the years since, evolving her original plan of making hand-sewn t-shirts to becoming famous for Southern inspired, hand made to order, organic garments. Chanin has also added a machine line using local seamstresses. “The skin is the largest organ of the human body.  Everything you layer on your skin—all of the good and all of those chemicals (if not organic)—is eventually absorbed,” Chanin explains. 

Further attempting to revive the tradition and dying skill of apparel making in the Deep South, Chanin has also achieved a field to fashion endeavor. Chanin and fellow fashion designer, Billy Reid planted a seven-acre field of organic cotton in northwest Alabama in Spring 2012—with no pesticides, herbicides nor farm equipment tainted with these chemicals. And many of the weeds were hand pulled. The cotton was also hand picked, which resulted in purer cotton with less plant matter—that appears as flecks in the cloth—than machine harvested cotton. The locally grown organic cotton represents a very small portion of the cotton used at Alabama Chanin and was used only for a small quantity of limited-edition products. Most of Alabama Chanin’s organic cotton is grown in Texas by members of Texas Organic Cotton Marketing Co-op (TOCMC). Chanin challenges us to consider, “Who controls my food and my fiber; what’s going into and onto my body? Agricultural giants should not get to make decisions on our behalf. We need to educate ourselves and make informed decisions accordingly.”

Excited to find an Alabama company making organic cotton products, I visited their website AlabamaChanin.com and ordered some items. This was the easiest cotton picking ever. And the products remind me of what cotton used to and should feel like—while also touching places in my heart. 

Categories: Wearing
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