Wednesday, November 29, 2006


On the trip to and from Memphis last week, just after the harvest, drifts of cotton wafted along the sides of the highway, snagging at the border of asphalt and weeds.

Tourist that I am, I hit the brakes hard enough to scatter coffee beans and luggage across the bed of the truck and pleaded with my husband to gather some up for me.

From afar, cotton is a beautiful thing, more substantial than milkweed seeds or snowflakes, but up close I was reminded of cotton's dark history. Up close, the cotton was more gray than white, and the seeds clung tenaciously to the cotton, a habit which had necessitated the invention of the cotton gin to make the commodity commercially viable.

In the area where I was, southern Missouri and western Tennessee, cotton had first been harvested by slaves and then by sharecroppers, who weren't much different. Anyone who has ever picked cotton apparently never forgets the experience, from the bloody hands to the screaming pain of a back forced to spend hours hunched over in the fields.

We are all distanced, of course, from such production. Cotton is now harvested by machine and scrunched into giant bales to be plucked from the field, again by machine, onto the back of another machine and driven down the highway to the gin.

We knitters may twine the cotton yarn through our fingers as we work on baby clothes or washcloths, but that's as close as we get. Most people just buy cotton in finished form: blue jeans, sweaters, underwear, q-tips.

I suspect most cotton yarn is machine spun, but what about our wools or our silks? Who are the women who dip hanks of merino into steaming kettles? Who are the women who gather up the sari threads and ply them together? Are their hands wrinkly and discolored from the dye pots? Do their backs hurt? Do they get to wear anything made of the yarn they've spun?


Cindy said...

We drove down to the Shiloh National Park earlier this fall, & I had many of the same thoughts about the cotton.

Larry said...

A very thoughtful and well-written post indeed.