Where Cotton Is King


I was so happy to find this National Geographic at the thrift store the other day. I have been on the hunt for it for some time now. It ia Vol 185, No. 6, published June 1994.

So, what is so special about this issue? Well, there is the main article on Native American powwows, which, being part Native American, I think is absolutely beautiful. But that is not the real reason I was after this particular issue.

On page 60 starts an article by Jon Thompson with photographs by Cary Wolinsky. The article is entitled, “Cotton, King of Fibers”. This article- which spans from Mississippi to Ghana-  explores the need and importance of cotton in our lives. It is a great look at how cotton has grown to be one of the world’s most sought after fibers. The pictures display all walks of life from migrant field workers and stock traders to fabric dyers and women selling their wears at  an outdoor market.

I think this issue should be of interest to anyone who enjoys working with cotton. Knitting, crochet, spinning, needlepoint- if you do any sort of crafting, you can not avoid cotton. And once you learn about this fiber’s rich- and sometimes dark and bloody-  history, that simple little ball of cotton yarn takes on a whole new meaning.

Finding My History Through Spinning

It is interesting the way God works things out in a person’s life. A simple prayer said out of frustration can transform you in ways you could have never foreseen.

For some time now I have been struggling with a love/hate relationship that I have with my black heritage. Despite being born black, being raised by black parents, growing up in a black neighborhood and going to an almost all black school, I still feel very disconnected to my black heritage.

I think a lot of it has to do with my refusal to carry on my back what I call the ‘black cross’. All through my life all I ever heard about was slavery and how ‘the man’ is keeping us down and how ‘they’ will always see us as slaves and that we will never get any true chance at life. It always seemed to me that my race has gotten stuck in this slavery rut. As if that is all we ever were and the only history we have. I started to feel that being black meant to be sorrowful and depressed. There was no joy in being black. Just a continued mental pounding of that short period in time of hate that is suppose to always be the thread that binds us.

Although my parents encouraged all their kids to pursue the arts, socially I was pressured to become a doctor or a lawyer, to show ‘the man’ that blacks were capable of more then just skilled labor. Being crafty wasn’t cute. “You knit?“ “Didn’t you know black house slaves were forced to knit socks and other garments for their slave owners?” “You spin yarn?” “You know how many slave women were ordered to spin yarn and even forced to do sexual favors for the men that owned them.” I could do nothing without it being coated with a thick layer of slavery shame. Nothing could be done without slavery being connected to it.

Well, I was tired of being bound by just that one dark moment in history. But at the same time I hated not feeling connected to my heritage. Not having something about being black that I could be proud of, (besides my cute ass).

It was no surprise that I began to envy other cultures and races. Their foods and festivals, stories, arts, clothes and traditions. That is what I wanted, what I longed for. In a frustrated breath I asked God for help. And he heard me loud and clear.

Out of nowhere, I was reminded of a spindle that I have. It was given to me while I was taking a textile class at Phoenix College. The woman who sat next to me in class was from Ethiopia. She had a hard time taking notes from the overhead the teacher used, so I would kindly let her copy my notes. At one point during the semester I offered to show the class how I spin yarn. I brought in my home made spindle and showed the class my modified way of spinning that I would do while riding public transportation. Near the end of the semester, the lady from Ethiopia brought in a Ziploc bag that contained a spindle, some cotton bolls and a small stick for holding the finished yarn. She told me that it the spindle was made in Ethiopia and it is the style of spindle that she and her village use. It was a drop spindle made from a cut out dry piece of gourd and a sort of bamboo-like stem. I was honored to receive such a gift. I tried my hand at spinning the cotton, but failed because of the messages I had gotten from reading so many spinning books and articles that said cotton was the hardest thing to spin and years of experience was needed before a spinner should attempt such difficult yarn. So I put the cotton and spindle away and there it remained until now.

Well, I had that spindle in my mind and could not let it loose. I searched the house until I found it and looked at what was in front of me. Without any real thought, I pulled the seeds away from the cotton, fluffed it with my hands and started spinning. It was as if I’d been spinning this cotton all my life. I knew how it felt, how to draft it and make it into smooth yarn. I then had to urge to find out more about this spindle. In my research I learned that Ethiopia has been producers of fine handspun cotton for almost a thousand years. I learned that Africa in general was the home of great spinners and weavers who had been experts at their craft long before the rest of the world knew the Earth was round. It was Africa who made and traded exquisite textiles with the Arab nations and the Europeans across the great desert trade routes. Africa was once the largest producer of cotton fabric as cotton was so easy to grow in the region.

This was it! This was something I could feel proud about. My connection to my heritage. We were not kings and queens taken from our land and forced into slavery. We were a proud and productive society full of wonderful arts and culture that still continues today. We should be proud of the arts and skills of our hands. This is what has made use such a great people and this should be our history- the one we pass on to our children. It should not be slavery, but our arts that binds us.