Naturally colored cotton is cotton that has been bred to
grow on the plant to have colors other than the yellowish off-white
typical of modern commercial cotton fibers. Colors grown include
red, green and several shades of brown. The cotton’s natural color
does not fade. Yields are typically lower and the fiber is shorter and
weaker but has a softer feel than the more commonly available “white” cotton.
Since it doesn’t have pesticides, chemicals, bleaches or artificial dyes,
fewer allergies and respiratory problems are found. This form of cotton
also feels softer to the skin and has a pleasant smell. Naturally
Colored Cotton is still relatively rare because it requires specialized
harvest techniques and facilities, making it more expensive to harvest
than white cotton. By the 1990s most indigenous colored cotton landraces
or cultivars grown in Africa, Asia and Central and South America were
replaced by all-white, commercial varieties.
Naturally colored cotton is believed to have originated in the Americas
around 5000 years ago in the Andes. Naturally colored cotton today mostly comes
from pre-Colombian stocks created by the indigenous peoples of South
America (Vreeland, 1999). Mochica Indians could be attributed with growing naturally
colored cotton of myriad hues, which they maintained for over the last two
millenniums on the northern coast of Peru.
Naturally colored cotton comes from pigments found in
cotton pigments and produce shades ranging from tan to green
and brown. Naturally-pigmented green cotton derives its color from
caffeic-acid, a derivative of innamic acid, found in the suberin (wax)
layer which is deposited in alternating layers with cellulose around the outside
of the cotton fiber.While green colored cotton comes from wax layers, brown
and tan cottons derive their color from tannin vacuoles in the
lumen of the fiber cells.
The naturally colored cotton has a small fiber and is not suitable
for heavy machine spinning. During the World War II the insufficient supply
of dye led to the cultivation of green and brown cotton in the Soviet Union.
The US government also showed interest in cultivation of naturally colored cotton
but later aborted the project due to low yield and short staple length.
“Later on US government instructed a famous agronomist, J.O.Ware, to study the Soviet cotton plants to determine whether they were commercially viable in the U.S. Ware and his colleagues concluded that the green and brown cotton plants yielded too little lint that was too short in staple length. Colored cotton was officially regulated to obscurity. Only in a few places where people still entranced by its possibilities.”
Due to smaller fiber, it becomes unpractical to use naturally colored cotton
white cotton to make its fiber longer and stronger than other naturally colored cotton to be
used in typical looms. Since this hybrid cotton fiber is stronger, it is
being used by Levis, L.L. Bean, Eileen Fisher, and
Fieldcrest for clothes like khakis.
A new arrival on the Western fashion market, naturally pigmented
cotton originally flourished some 5,000 years ago. Its revival today
draws on stocks first developed and cultivated by Indians in South and
Central America. Recent commercial cultivation currently uses
pre-Colombian stocks created by the indigenous peoples of South America.
Commercial cultivation still continues in South America as many big US
companies such as Patagonia, Levi Strauss and Esprit are buying naturally
grown cotton along with white cotton which requires significant
amount of insecticides and pesticides.
As mentioned the naturally colored cotton had smaller fiber which were
not suitable for mechanical looms used today, therefore kept naturally
colored cotton to enter in the commercial market. In 1982, Sally Fox
a graduate in Integrated Pest Management from University of California with a
Masters Degree started researching on colored cotton and integrated her knowledge
and experience in technology and introduced first long fiber of naturally colored cotton.
Sally Fox later started her company, Natural Cotton Colors, Inc. and got patents in different shades
including: green, Coyote brown, Buffalo brown, and Palo Verde green under FoxFiber®.
Later on the technology was further improved by a cotton breeder Raymond Bird in 1984.
Bird began experimenting in Reedley, California with red, green and brown cotton to
improve fiber quality. Later on Raymond Bird along with his brother and C. Harvey
Campbell Jr., a California agronomist and cotton breeder, and formed BC Cotton Inc.
to work with naturally colored cottons. Naturally colored cotton usually
come in four standard colors – green, brown, red (a reddish brown)
and mocha (similar to tan).
There is experimental evidence to demonstrate that
naturally-pigmented cottons, especially green cotton, have excellent
sun protection properties, when compared with unbleached white
cotton that needs to be treated with dyes or finishes to obtain similar
properties. It is hypothesized that the pigments in naturally-pigmented
cotton fibers are present to provide protection from ultraviolet radiation
for the embryonic cotton seeds, however they can also provide protection
from the sun’s harmful rays for consumers who wear garments manufactured
from these naturally-pigmented fibers. The UPF values of the naturally-pigmented
cottons examined in a university study remained high enough, even after 80 AFUs
(AATCC Fading Units)of light exposure and repeated laundering, that the fabrics
merited sun protection ratings of “good” to “very good” according to ASTM 6603
voluntary labeling guidelines for UV-protective textiles.
Naturally colored cotton is unique and exceptionally different from
white cotton as it does not need to be dyed. According to, agronomists the cost
of dying could be up to half of the value, and also environmentally friendly,
as it eliminates disposal costs for toxic dye waste. According to Dr. Frank
Werber, National Program Leader for Fabric and Materials, Agriculture Research
Service, USDA, naturally colored cotton is ecologically valid as well as economical.
Elimination of dyeing in production could save from $.60-1.50 per pound of fabric.
Naturally colored cotton is also resistant to change as compared with the
conventional dyed white cotton. After laundering, the color becomes
stronger and more intense, a characteristic documented during research
studies at Texas Tech University. The length of time required to “bring out” the
color varies with color and variety. Eventually, the colors may start to return
to their original color. Some naturally colored cotton darkens with
exposure to the sun. However, green is less stable and fades
to tan when exposed to sunlight.
Due to the non-industrialized product naturally colored cottons
yield less per acre, but growers are paid higher prices for their harvest.
In 1993, colored cotton prices ranged from $3.60 to $4.50 per pound
compared to conventional white cotton at $.60 to $.90 per pound.