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brooks, california | april 2024

“This has been my whole life,” said Sally Fox. I’m on a video call from New York. Sally is in her house on her farm in Northern California. It’s April, planting season, and she’s eager to get back to work sowing her fields with the seeds that represent nearly five decades of important work. Evan is in the third box on the screen. He’s been waiting for ten years to work with Sally, and the moment has finally come. Hence the call. 

Sally Fox is an organic cotton breeder. She is not a farmer, although she knows an awful lot about it and has been an active proponent of organic farming since the 1970s. Sally’s primary contribution to the world of cotton is as an inventor. She invents breeds of cotton with superpowers. Her cotton requires no pesticides. It has long, soft fibers that can be spun into beautiful thread. And it grows in glorious natural shades of brown and green, requiring little or no dye to be turned into beautiful fabrics. (If you’re familiar with Evan’s work and his penchant for shades of brown and green, then you will begin to understand why he’s been obsessed with working with Sally.)

Sally has white hair and a wide, warm smile and an edge of impatience. It’s been a long journey for her, through the gnarled labyrinth of corporate greed and nonsense public policy, a pioneer and advocate for radical change who has only ever fought for a better world, a better life for everyone. And now, on top of it all, rattlesnakes. They’re everywhere in the field this time of year. But Sally laughs. Even when facing venomous serpents she is undaunted. Give her a shovel, and she’ll handle it.

  • Sally began organic farming when she was in high school in Palo Alto over fifty years ago. Even then she understood how crucial it would be to find ways to grow crops without using tons of pesticides that make their way into our land, water, and bodies, so she went to college to study entomology—the study of insects—to figure out an alternative. But before that, as a youngster, Sally picked up handspinning—spinning raw fibers into the yarns and threads used in handweaving, which she later took up in her early twenties when she had the money to buy a loom. Her older sisters took her to a renaissance fair where she first caught sight of handspinning, and she purchased a drop spindle with cash she earned babysitting, not knowing where it might lead.

    These colored cottons have been used around the world for centuries—in Peru and Guatemala and China and India.  Just one problem. They have short fibers, too short for modern machines to spin into thread. So Fox became a cotton breeder. She crossed these naturally colored cottons with Pima and Sea Island cotton, known for its extra long, highly-spinnable fibers, and developed a revolutionary new class of cotton. Then she came dangerously close to radically shifting the entire American garment trade. “And then the whole thing got totally derailed by the globalization of textiles,” she tells us. “By the brands going overseas for the cheap stuff, where everyone's dumping the dye waste into waterways.”

  • In Evan, Fox has found a comrade. A few weeks earlier he had visited Sally’s farm—before the rattlesnakes came out—and together they uncovered ways for Sally’s Foxfibre® cotton fabrics to become part of his collection. This involves, primarily, buying fabrics from Japanese mills that have been buying bushels of Sally’s cotton over the last two decades. For the better part of twenty years, it was only increasingly difficult to find these fabrics, as Sally’s cotton output dwindled for reasons beyond her control.

    Before going much further, it’s important that we establish just what a legend Sally Fox is: She was among the first few in the world to develop organic cotton, starting in 1988, working to establish the standards that would deem cotton organic. “What I am most proud of is figuring out the mechanics of producing my cottons at scale—that is in hundreds and then thousands of acres—organically.” This was complicated work that required not only a significant financial commitment from Sally, but a tremendous technical challenge. “Using pheromones, precision weeding, the first biological soil amendments—back before composts—and organic fertilizers that were not available at any sort of scale, beneficial insects, trap crops, intercropping, etcetera.” All things that are standard now, but were very unusual then. “Then I personally worked with the various certifiers to incorporate textile standards, in addition to the farming standards, for organic cottons.”

  • While other entomologists concerned themselves with integrated pest control—having a positive impact by using less, smarter pesticides—“I was always this purist over here,” Fox says. “No herbicides and no synthetic fertilizers, no defoliants, no synthetic chemicals. That's what organic actually is.”

    Sally didn’t just choose cotton because she liked to weave—although her hobby certainly equipped her with a crucial level of knowledge and understanding when it came to successfully growing usable cotton. Cotton presented another kind of opportunity: Not only was it the biggest abuser when it came to toxic chemicals, but it was grown at tremendous scale in the United States. “One family grows 1,000 acres,” Sally says. “Well, if they're organic, can you imagine the difference it's going to make?”

    In 1988 it happened. Sally had her first successful crop of naturally colored organic cotton, and a big sale to a Japanese mill. Soon after that she founded Natural Cotton Colors Inc.. Another large order came in from Japan, then she established a trademark for her cotton brand, FoxFibre®. Big orders came in from Land’s End and L.L. Bean. Natural Cotton Colors was soon worth $10 million. Sally hit just about every roadblock she could along the way to building an organic cotton empire—including getting her crops banned in California, where farmers claimed to be afraid that they’d taint their pure white crops.

  • In reality, farmers didn’t want to compete with extreme organic cotton farming at her level. It was too difficult. And the tides were turning in her direction. She had huge deals in the works with the biggest American apparel manufacturers to do entire naturally colored organic cotton collections of jeans and chinos. There was real demand.

    Sally left California and found a farm in Arizona. “At the max, in 1996 or 1995, we were at 5,000 certified organic acres,” she says. Conventional farms around that time were spraying their crops twelve times a season with insecticides—in addition to herbicides used to control weeds and fungicides used on the seeds. “This was this huge success that's completely forgotten because the brands dumped the mills and we lost all of our customers.” Clothing brands in America took their manufacturing offshore, abruptly dropping all forms of domestic production. Sally lost all of her biggest clients.

    Before the shit hit the proverbial fan, Sally’s cotton achieved global success. It was being used by the Japanese avant-garde designer Hiroko Koshino and by Giorgio Armani in his prime. Levi’s released a collection of 550 jeans called Naturals made from her naturally colored organic cotton. And she spent $1 million on seeds for the brand expecting the partnership to be a lasting, growing concern. She designed an entire organic cotton khaki program for The Gap. 

  • One day in 1996, an executive at one of the biggest brands she worked with called her. “He said, ‘Well, guess what? We're being offered finished—cut and sewn—khaki pants for less than what a pound of cotton costs.’ So the whole thing was over. It's like they're just buying the pants entirely made in China or wherever the offer was.” 

    The seeds Sally was commissioned to produce were never planted. She paid to store them until 2008, at which point the cost to keep them became too great and they turned into cattle feed. 

    What happened next happened suddenly, and is to this day one of the great tragedies of American history. The garment and textile industry here completely evaporated. There one day, gone the next. Garment districts across the country were emptied out as nearly all production of textiles seemed to move overseas overnight. The few spinning, weaving and sewing operations that stuck it out couldn’t last because the business followed the factories, and banks stopped lending to companies in the trade that made less than 20% profit, according to Sally, which would have been just about all of them. Something shifted in the American mentality, too. Publicly traded companies dominated the marketplace, and were able to determine the fate of the industry based solely on maximizing profits for shareholders.

  • “It was hell,” Sally tells us. “I almost died. I had thousands of bales of cotton that I had grown for the mills, and they weren't there to buy it. And then I went through bankruptcy.” She filed for Chapter 11 in order to save the bales she had in storage. Then she found an angel investor who set up a mill for her in Richmond, California where she could spin the cotton. But there was no business left to support it. Eventually that mill had to shutter, too.

    “By '98, I was here camped out on my farm. I had a truck, I had a travel trailer and the land. And I had my seeds and nothing else.”

    Sally has been able to cobble together a small business again over the past two decades. She provides cotton to one company that knits socks in South Carolina. Another weaves sheets in Georgia. Her cotton is still being grown on one farm in New Mexico, and sold to one spinning mill in Japan which supplies knitting and weaving mills that produce small production runs of textiles. And she sells her fibers and yarns and what fabric she can get from those Japanese mills on her own website, directly to hobbyists and craftspeople. “It's still brutal,” she says. “I'm the only breeder in the world that isn't funded by somebody. I'm shipping socks and fabric and stuff to people so I can have a breeding program.”

  • Her goal is to hire someone full-time and establish a non-profit to keep her breeding program alive. “I want to be able to train someone to take over the work, but there has to be some money for it. Nobody else will do this for free,” she says. “The only reason I have not given up is because I'm devoted to these plants.”

    Others are finding their own devotion. For Evan, discovering and eventually working with FoxFibre®  cotton has been a journey that began even before he started his business almost ten years ago when he met an artist who was hand weaving Fox’s cotton in a studio in San Francisco. He got his hands on a bag of scraps from the weaver through a friend, from which he made a scarf. That established an early connection, and over the years since he started his own clothing business, he has attempted to find FoxFibre® fabrics to work with. But it wasn’t until now that he could source a quantity of fabrics large enough to produce a run of clothing. “The most important part of the garment is the material,” Evan says. He was on Sally’s farm recently and she noted that the plants have a royal presence.

  • “When you see a brown ball of cotton, it's pretty striking. It's beautiful.” Sally says, to her, the whole endeavor is sort of beyond her. “I don't even consider this farm my farm. I consider this farm the cotton's farm.

    This is my life, my life's work, and I'm not going to stop until it's in use. And that's why it really matters that talented people have access to the fabric.”

    Now Evan is one of those people. Sally seems to be as pleased about this as he is. For him, when he makes anything, the priority is always making it with the least negative impact on people and the planet as possible. “Making clothing is not inherently meaningful,” he says. “You have to find ways to make it meaningful. Meaning is in the processes and choices that lead to the final product.” In Sally’s work, Evan finds meaning. And in Evan, Sally finds a purpose. “I can always sell the farm and retire. It's not like I have nothing,” she says. “But the world shouldn't lose my work.”

    Written by Noah Johnson, originally featured in the exhibition one newsprint.