LAFAYETTE, La. (AP) — South Louisiana’s native brown cotton is heading to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival and will also be featured at a United Nations summit next month.
The cotton has seen a small resurgence in recent years thanks to renewed interest in organic materials in the fashion industry.
“All of these exciting things are happening, and it really highlights how important getting this word out to the locals is,” said Sharon Gordon Donnan, a textile conservator based in Los Angeles. “We’re better known internationally than we are locally.”
Donnan was shocked to learn of native brown cotton in Louisiana. She’s only found it two other places — Mexico and Peru. It’s one of the things that makes south Louisiana special, although it tends to go unnoticed by natives.
Donnan created a documentary called “Coton Jaune” that debuted at the 2015 Cinema on the Bayou film festival. Since then, she’s led an effort in south Louisiana to grow, process, spin and weave the brown cotton. Her ultimate goal is to market and sell the resulting goods to the fashion industry as a greener alternative to traditional fashion practices.
“It’s about indigenous innovation from our ancestors,” Donnan said. “We’ve also created a relationship with our Native Americans, and they’ve actually blessed our first harvest. We want them to be included as we plant on their indigenous land that we now occupy.”
Darcy Fabre, a DeSoto Parish native who moved to Lafayette for college, has used the region’s native brown cotton to spin, weave and create nontraditional wares, such as earrings, keychains and coasters.
She regularly sells her creations at the Lafayette Farmers and Artisans Market at Moncus Park, even though it’s a bit of a commute since she’s currently living in Texas.
“You get hit in the face with this Cajun culture warmth when you come to Lafayette. Everyone is so proud,” Fabre said. “I don’t have a real strong tie to a place like that, so it feels so good to be in a place where people are so proud of who they are.”
An industrial designer by trade, Fabre has grown passionate about returning textile jobs to the area and reducing industry pollution through use of cleaner materials, such as brown cotton.
The fashion industry contributes to pollution through overproduction of goods, agricultural methods for crops used in products and use of dyes and synthetic fibers. Some fashion companies are seeking organically grown brown cotton like what’s grown on a small scale in south Louisiana as a way to reduce the industry’s environmental impact.
Fabre will be leading a demonstration of how to clean, spin and weave the region’s brown cotton at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in June. She’ll also be advocating for sustainable textile practices and sharing the story of Louisiana’s brown cotton.
“When you find out the Acadians used this for centuries and it’s a textile tradition older than our nation and then it died out, you just feel a sense of stewardship of this tradition,” Fabre said. “I’m not Cajun, but I just feel responsible as a Louisiana citizen to make sure we don’t lose this thing and make sure people know their culture.”
Brown cotton has long been seen as inferior to white cotton because it has about five times as many seeds and a shorter grain that is more difficult to work with. Although south Louisiana residents also grew and used white cotton, they typically sold goods made from the white cotton and saved the brown cotton for personal use.
That might not only be because white cotton was seen as a cash crop, but also because blankets and clothing made from brown cotton were easier to keep clean.
Recent efforts to generate local interest in brown cotton have made a difference, but it hasn’t been as easy to market as Acadiana’s food, music, language or culture.
Donnan’s initial goal — to preserve the heirloom brown cotton seeds — was quickly achieved. The University of Louisiana at Lafayette’s Experimental Farm near Cade has turned a few hundred heirloom seeds into tens of thousands of seeds — more than enough to share with hobbyists and farmers alike.
Still, only a handful of people currently grow brown cotton in Louisiana. Although the volume produced has steadily increased each year — from 30 pounds in 2019 to 160 pounds in 2021 — the harvest must be shipped out of state for processing before it can be used by local artisans.
The organization Donnan started, Acadian Brown Cotton, has grown from three members to having a full board of directors and nonprofit status. Donnan is hoping to continue to generate more interest locally in the field-to-fashion movement in a way that will ultimately benefit the Louisiana economy.
To do that, Donnan says her team is trying to raise awareness and about $700,000 to build a mill where brown cotton can be processed and sold. Those leading the efforts have discussed the mill possibility with Arnaudville leaders.
“There’s an arts corridor in Arnaudville and ecotourism opportunity there if we have our own mill and retail shop connected to it,” Donnan said. “We could provide table linens, house linens for B&Bs in the area. It really completes the picture more. We feel there is an opportunity for others to learn more about the heritage.”
Acadian Brown Cotton will be featured during a United Nations summit June 1-2 about sustainable fashion practices. Later in the month, it will be featured during the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which kicks off June 22 in Washington, D.C.
Those interested in growing the region’s brown cotton or learning more about the nonprofit can learn more at facebook.com/AcadianBrownCotton.