We know that chips come from potatoes, potatoes grow in the ground, and if we are particularly interested we could probably find out exactly where in the world those potatoes were grown.
Would you know where your cotton clothes come from? Do you know what a cotton plant looks like, what colour it’s flowers are and how it's soft white cotton boll becomes your garment?
Do you know that your cotton clothes began as a tiny seed taking months to grow before any fabric weaving, stitching or manufacture even began?
Perturbed by my ignorance, I wanted to know - from field to fabric - how does my cotton shirt grow? In May I began an Oppi Cotton Diary to try and find out.
Some facts about cotton
- Fertilisers and pesticides can have a devastating impact on cotton-growing communities around the world, so I decided to grow my cotton plants organically.
- Cotton is grown in about 90 countries, using around 2.4% of the world's arable land. Best grown in subtropical climates - India, China, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Southern US - I knew my plants needed a very good British summer.
- To produce a single T-Shirt it can take around 20,000 litres of water. That's before it has even been washed at home.
- We started wearing cotton in the UK in the early 1600s because it is a lightweight, durable, soft and breathable alternative to the heavy wool we used to wear. It remains an excellent choice for these same reasons.
- We almost certainly don’t pay a fair price for our cotton clothes. In fact we get a bargain - it’s the cotton field and factory workers who actually pay the price. The Clean Clothes Campaign continues to work to ensure a living wage for garment workers. Personally, I now try to seek out organic or fairtrade cotton or secondhand clothing - why should others pay the price for my clothes?
- I've still yet to found out how many cotton plants it would take to make a single T-Shirt. My quest continues.
Oppi Cotton Diary
Take a look at the cotton journey I've been on.
Hoping for a warm summer I planted my seeds in early May. It took 2-3 weeks for 3 of the 8 seeds to germinate. The other 5 never did.
In the time it's taken for my cotton plants to reach just 6cm tall many high street stores will have introduced you to new garments. They will have tried to tell you that you need the latest range. With cotton used in nearly half of our clothing, it makes me really think how sustainable is fast fashion?
The warm weather and long July days gave my plants a growth spurt. I continued to learn more about the impact the fashion industry has on communities today, what will happen if we don't change things for the future and I visited Bath's Fashion Museum to get some perspective on cotton clothing of the past.
Despite their continued growth, the cotton plants should have been flowering in August. But this is England, so it took a bit longer. I had to wait until September.
Finally in September the first flowers came. They emerged, swirling their petals from a protective leaf cocoon. Initially white and then within 24 hours, as they were pollenated, a pink hue appeared.
Weeks 16 - 18
Before long the whole flower was deep pink before it closed up again, a little limper than when it began.
Weeks 19 - today
It's now November. Cotton growing countries would have harvested fields of soft white cotton balls by now. But the weather here has turned cold, and the days are short. The leaves are changing colour and are dropping. There are no signs of cotton bolls. I thought my plants had reached the end of their life, until I learned that they are a perennial plant, despite the industry treating them as an annual commodity.
Hidden inside the leafy cocoon is a fruit that's still growing (albeit probably too slowly). Once that fruit is large enough it will open and out will burst a soft cotton ball. I'll just have to continue waiting to see if my plants make it that far.