Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Let’s Give a Big Hand to These Cotton Pickers from the Big City

 We talk a lot about promoting cotton grown and garments sewn in the U.S.A. 

How about adding this twist to the slogan: “Grown, Hand-picked and Sewn in the U.S.”
Hand-picked? In the United States?

Brown colored cotton grown in San Joaquin Valley.
You probably thought U.S. cotton is harvested by machine; usually those large harvesters that pluck the fiber from the bolls in the fields of dried out plants. Experts will tell you roughly 100  percent of U.S. cotton is mechanically harvested, with a few exceptions. Australian and Israeli cotton also is exclusively machine harvested, according to an International Cotton Advisory Committee report called “Harvesting and Ginning of Cotton in the World.”

But more than two-thirds of the world’s cotton is harvested by hand – with countries such as India and Turkey all hand-picked. The advantage is hand picking preserves the fiber characteristics better. Since there is no stress on the fiber, cotton products are more durable than machine-harvested cotton.

A sunny fall day was perfect weather for hand picking cotton.
One of the rare exceptions in the U.S. is a small field of cotton on the western side of the San Joaquin Valley. In recent years, Windfall Farms has invited community members, including fashion design students, to help hand pick its unique colored cotton.

Last week, about three dozen students and advisors from Otis College of Art and Design in Southern California and a small group of community members spent several hours picking brown and green colored cotton grown on eight rows, each some 50 yards long. (Established in 1918, Otis College is the first independent art school in Los Angeles.)

Students couldn't imagine hand harvesting day after day.
With the sun shining brightly and mid-morning temperatures hovering in the 60s, the picking crew grabbed plastic buckets and headed for the rows of colorful cotton. Some wore gloves. Most used their bare fingers to pluck the fluffy fiber from the bolls. They were careful to keep the browns and greens separated.

 “It was surprising easy. The hardest part was just being in the heat and under the sun,” said Arthur, one of the students. It seems like it would be intense labor to be doing it. Hours on end. I couldn’t imagine doing it more than an hour at a time.”
The group harvested brown, green and white cotton fiber.

Field scout Carlos Silva joined the work party. “They said it was easy but a lot of work. They could appreciate how it is done (in other countries).”

 For most, this was the first time they had been in a farm field – let alone a cotton field at harvest time. A number of students were not quite dressed for the occasion, wearing black clothing and even dresses.
Carlos lauded the crew for their eagerness to help with the harvest and get a flavor of how pickers in country such as India work day-long in the cotton fields. Everyone is familiar with the final cotton product – a T-shirt, a pillow case or a dress. Cotton pick’n day gave them a new-found appreciation for where the fiber comes from and the sweat-equity that goes into harvesting it.

Unloading a five gallon bucket of cotton in a storage bin.
Despite the warm sun, the dirt and dust and the sore fingers, the crew worked like troopers. One student summed up the experience for the class: "It was very enlightening."

As the students and instructors boarded their bus and headed back to L.A., they can take pride knowing they could be at the forefront of a “Grown, Hand-picked and Sewn” movement in the U.S.A.


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