As the world begins to understand the true environmental, health and cultural costs of “cheap” industrial cotton, a renewed emphasis is being placed on alternative fibers such as native, heritage cottons that can be raised sustainably without chemicals, pesticides and with a minimum of natural resources involved.
According to US designer Docey Lewis, “Currently native cotton is a niche product targeted to the luxury market. Handspinning and handweaving are rather dying arts that enhance the natural, coarser texture of native cotton with medium to short fibers that are particularly well suited to artisanal products. The hope is that design and access to luxury markets can reclaim the value of native cotton and artisanal techniques”
Native cotton grows in Peru’s northern provinces of Lambayeque and San Martin. Also known as Algodon aspero and Algodon del pais, it is a variety of Gossypium barbadense peruvianum. Native cotton is a perennial shrub naturally resistant to pests, droughts, bacterial and fungal diseases, and well suited to low-input, organic agriculture. It tolerates a broad range of soil conditions and adapts well to a variety of altitudes – growing well up to almost 2000 meters above sea level. Scientists have shown it can endure in sandy soils for up to 5 years without water.
Its natural color palette ranges from deep ochres, terra cottas, and umbers to olive greens, light blues and creamy whites. Dyes are not required. The many colors of native cotton delivered thanks to the plants’ genes, independent of altitude, soil and water conditions. Plants of differing colors can be found growing next to each other in many locations. Over time, the artisanal cultivators of native cotton have identified and preserved seeds for various colors. Regrettably, some colors are thought to have been lost.
For many years prior to and during the Inca period, native cotton was one of the principal agricultural products of the Supe Valley in northern Peru. There, archeologists have unearthed seeds and cotton bulbs at the Citadel of Caral, (circa 3,000 BCE). Both Inca and pre- Incan civilizations made burnt textile offerings to the gods, and there is also evidence that the ancient people of this coastal area filled the bodies of the deceased with native cotton for mummification. At the Sipan tomb, an important Moche Culture site, many richly decorated tunics and other native cotton textiles were found buried with the lord of Sipan, reinforcing his important social status.
Native cotton is still used by the people of the region as popular medicine in controlling topical infections, a practice that may have started with the Incas.
According to Giovanna Balarezo, founder of Tallerqata, a beautifully designed line of textiles and children’s clothing made of native cotton, “In modern times, native cotton has not been valued in Peru or elsewhere because of the availability of pesticides, cheaper industrial cotton and the vast array of colors produced by chemical dyes. Until recently, native cotton was banned and its cultivation prohibited because it was thought to draw pests to neighboring industrial cotton fields. Much native cotton seed was lost during this period. Small efforts to recover this heritage fiber started in Peru in 2004, and in 2008 It was finally declared a cultural ethnic genetic patrimony.”
Expanding even further in its ecological benefits, James Vreeland, founder of Peru Naturtex, the first fair trade certified textile company in the Americas, says that native cotton uses less water, is far less chemically dependent, resistant to insects and diseases and is compatible with other crops.
“We believe the principal challenge facing this fiber is a human one. Native Cotton is a beautiful fiber, offering many sustainable virtues. Regrettably, sustainability often has trouble competing with the lopsided accounting of industrial production, which produces “cheap” goods by deferring substantial costs to our health, environment and cultural traditions. The solution is an educated consumer, aware of the “hidden” value of organic sustainable goods, and willing to pay for them. I travel regularly to Lambayeque and its environs, have spent time building relationships with Native Cotton cultivators and weavers, and am convinced that Native Cotton and the culture surrounding it will survive if there is a demand for it.”
Tallerqata’s Balarezo adds, “That is exactly what we’re trying do at Tallerqata—generate demand for sustainable, traditional products as a means of preserving the cultures around them. We believe that by designing beautiful goods for the contemporary market, made from this remarkable organic fiber by artisans using their traditional methods, we can produce demand in places where consumers value sustainable products.”
Historically, the remarkable and complex weaving techniques in cotton, camelid fibers and sheep's wool that have been excavated in Nazca and elsewhere in Peru continue to astound weavers all over the world. Part of the reason that these techniques developed was that the Incan rulers demanded and paid for exotic textiles to use both in the present life and the hereafter as status symbols. Balarezo’s emphasis on beauty needs to find a market as interested in quality. For native cotton, as for Organic Food, finding a market will require education of the consumer to understand the real costs to our health and the environment of industrial cotton, chemical dyes and their products and the value of sustainable artisanal goods and the culture that produces them.