Interest in natural fibers boosts organic cotton, wool

Issue Date: September 23, 2020
By Robyn Rominger
Solano County wool grower Robin Lynde tends to her Jacob sheep on her farm, Meridian Jacobs, near Vacaville.
Photo/Robyn Rominger

Increased demand in the United States for apparel and home goods made from organically produced fibers creates more opportunities for California farmers and ranchers, according to business leaders.

Natural-fiber textiles include cotton, wool, silk, linen, hemp, bamboo and leather. Some products are naturally colored, whereas others are dyed. Natural dyes can be obtained from plants—leaves, stems, roots, bark, berries and flowers—as well as minerals, insects and mollusks such as snails.

Many organic-fiber producers sell directly at local farmers markets or online. Products range from soft yarn to knit clothing and luxury home goods.

Organic-fiber products represent less than 1% of the total U.S. fiber market, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Organic Trade Association, but the proportion has been increasing.

Business officials say they expect growth potential for organic fibers due in part to a consumer trend that favors "slow fashion" over "fast fashion." Slow fashion is an approach that considers the processes and resources required to make clothing, and aims to reduce textile waste. It emphasizes wearing quality and long-lasting garments, rather than fashions designed for short-term use to encourage shoppers to buy anew.

In terms of organic cotton, most U.S. domestic production occurs in West Texas, although drought in 2019 kept the supply tight. The OTA says it sees potential for significantly more production in the U.S., although the availability of cheaper organic cotton in the international marketplace makes it harder for American farmers to compete on price.

Yolo County organic farmer Sally Fox has been breeding and growing organic, naturally colored cottons since 1982. She owns Viriditas Farm in the Capay Valley.

"I was the original organic cotton breeder and producer in the United States, and got contracts to produce and did produce thousands of acres of certified-organic cotton prior to the collapse of the domestic textile industry in the mid-1990s," she said.

At that time, U.S. textile mills were displaced by foreign mills, and Fox said the domestic industry found itself at a competitive disadvantage.

"We went from 1 million acres in California to about 100,000 acres," she said. "It happened all over the U.S. The organic cotton industry took a giant hit."

Today, a significant amount of organic cotton is imported from India, China, Turkey and other countries where labor is cheaper.

"Mostly all the organic cotton that you see for sale is grown in India," Fox said.

In terms of selling her organic cotton, Fox began direct-marketing products.

"I have a mail-order business. That's how I support my farm and my breeding," she said. "The other hat I wear, I buy cotton for the last mill in Japan," shipping her cotton to the mill plus organic cotton grown in Texas and New Mexico.

"There are so many people who want to buy organic cotton from California, but there have not been any growers readily available," she said.

Fox also raises Merino sheep and produces organic wool.

Jay Wilson, executive director of the Sacramento-based California Wool Growers Association, said, "The movement toward the use of organic wool began about 30 years ago, when some of these smaller producers were having a hard time finding a place for their wool in the regular commercial market."

Since then, he said, "They've actually become a significant market."

Wilson noted there are many different breeds of sheep that produce a variety of wool types with a range of characteristics and qualities.

"We have a huge diversity in California," Wilson said. "The sheep's wool in Humboldt is very different than the sheep's wool in Bakersfield. They're a different breed, they thrive on different vegetation and they therefore have very different wool."

Robin Lynde of Meridian Jacobs in Vacaville raises the dual-purpose Jacob sheep breed that is known for producing high-quality wool as well as meat—and can have up to six horns on its head.

She said the operation grows all its own fibers and dyes, and constructs its goods from Northern California products. She also teaches fiber-arts classes.

In addition, Lynde operates a farm shop in which she sells a full range of fiber products, from woven scarves and blankets to looms and other supplies. The woolen products she sells come in a wide range of colors due to natural dyes, produced from dye plants that she grows: green from hollyhock; yellow from weeping willow; rust from coreopsis; a range of tans and browns from black walnut; and blue from indigo.

Another Northern California fiber artist, Pat Meade of Esparto, raises alpacas on her organic farm in western Yolo County.

Meade's alpacas produce wool in a variety of colors; her husband, Jon Robbins, takes charge of shearing the animals. Meade recently retired after many years of teaching fiber arts but continues to create handmade rugs and other items from the alpaca wool.

Organic wool producer Rebecca Burgess founded Fibershed, an organization based in Marin County that aims to develop regional and regenerative fiber systems in which networks of livestock producers, textile workers, designers and others work together to manage the life cycle of a garment, from soil to clothing to disposal.

"We look forward to collaborating with communities around the world in support of place-based fiber economies supported by appropriate technology and carbon farming," she said.

(Robyn Rominger is a reporter in Winters. She may be contacted at robynrominger@hotmail.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.




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