Cotton Clothing: Good or Bad?

Cotton field in West Texas

I wrote about cotton several years ago, while researching in India. I have been thinking a lot about cotton lately as well, because of long drives through Texas and seeing miles and miles of cotton plants along the way. Cotton was the big driver of this country's rise as a global player and features prominently in the history of the American South, slavery, and the development of capitalism. And for better or worse cotton continues to shape the planet.

What is it about this plant that we love next to our skin? Once it's picked and processed, and spun into yarn (thread), then woven or knit, then bleached or dyed or printed with patterns, then stitched into garments, it's then (with any luck) worn and loved for many years. With each wearing this fiber gets softer and softer, yet also remains durable. With a twill weave in cotton denim, it can take years of wear and tear and keep improving all the while. It feels good. It breathes. It's the only wearable fiber in the heat. Most humans in the world are big lovers of cotton.

Unfortunately, like everything else in the manufacturing / garment industry, the making of cotton cloth is a dirty business. Americans buy literally tons of cotton, from cheap t-shirts to jeans to towels to sheets... you name it. But the environmental cost is high -- to the air, soil, and water. And even organic cotton takes a huge amount of water (5000 gallons to make a t-shirt and a pair of jeans). But synthetics are not the answer, either. Man-made fibers take up less water to make, but use more chemicals, and aren't biodegradable. (Though companies like Patagonia are doing work to create a closed-loop recycling from their polyester clothing.)

Once you start weighing the options of what type of fabric to wear, the only conclusion I can come to is that everything we buy that is manufactured takes a toll on the planet and impacts people worldwide. So, what is the answer? I think it's to purchase less (even if we have to spend more) -- but the purchases that we do make should be made well and should be worn as long as possible. And recycled if possible -- passed down or given to loved ones. The best way to shop for clothes is to find things that give us MEANING -- because it's the meaning that keeps us wearing and loving these things over a long period of time. If an object is meaningful to us, and has a story behind it, we will treasure it more and get real pleasure out of it. It becomes a part of us.

I'm trying to create some of these meaningful, treasured objects in a world of too much that's disposable and cheap. These prints and cotton clothes won't be for everyone, but I've experienced enough of a revelatory "YES!" moment when people see them, touch them, and try them on that I know that these clothes will be loved for many years to come. That is my favorite thing to witness. 

ps --

If you want to read some more about the clothing industry and cotton, here are a few good sources:

  • NPR's Planet Money did a great series following the life cycle of a cotton t-shirt. 
  • An excellent book that traces the global history of cotton is Sven Beckert's Empire of Cotton, here reviewed in the NY Times.
  • The fashion industry's impact on the planet, including the use of cotton, here.




Textile Artist: Sonia Delaunay


If you love color and geometry (and who doesn't?), then Sonia Delaunay is as good as it gets, as far as textile designers go. I first learned about her years ago in an undergraduate art history class, and then primarily through her fine art paintings. She and her artist husband Robert Delaunay cofounded the avant-garde art movement known as "Orphism" (a version of Cubism). Years later (when I became a textile-o-phile) I was blown away by her work as a textile designer and continue to this day to be inspired by her visionary designs, the breadth of her talent, and the sheer variety of forms her art and design took. 

Born in the Ukraine, she came to Paris in 1905 via St Petersburg. There she met her husband and artistic collaborator Robert Delaunay, of whom she wrote, “In Robert I found a poet—a poet who wrote not with words but with colors.”

Yet before she became an acclaimed painter and designer, in 1911 she made a handmade quilt for her newborn son. It was patched together from colorful pieces of fabric, and was her first geometric color experiment. She wrote:

"About 1911 I had the idea of making for my son, who had just been born, a blanket composed of bits of fabric like those I had seen in the houses of Ukrainian peasants. When it was finished, the arrangement of the pieces of material seemed to me to evoke cubist conceptions and we then tried to apply the same process to other objects and paintings."


Color and geometric shape became her muse—and inhabited her paintings, textile designs, stage set designs, costumes, furniture and clothing for the next 70 years, until her death.

Vive la Sonia! 


peregrinate |ˈperigrəˌnāt|

verb [ no obj. ] archaic or humorous

travel or wander around from place to place.

For this first post on the new website, I thought I would start with one of my favorite words: peregrinate. It's pretty appropriate to the whole endeavor of Rekh&Datta, which began while traveling and continues to be about traveling. 

Wandering around is another way of saying PROCESS, PLAY, and REMAIN OPEN.  

Now here are some visual peregrinations. Enjoy!