Indigenous brown cotton heads to Smithsonian festival, UN summit

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LAFAYETTE, La. (AP) — The South Louisiana native brown cotton is heading to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival and will also be featured at a United Nations summit next month.

Cotton has seen a bit of a 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 shows how important it is to get this message out to locals,” said Los Angeles-based textiles conservator Sharon Gordon Donnan. “We are better known internationally than locally.

Donnan was shocked to learn of the existence of native brown cotton in Louisiana. She only found it in two other places: Mexico and Peru. It’s one of the things that makes southern Louisiana special, although it tends to go unnoticed by natives.

Donnan created a documentary titled “Yellow Cotton” which made its 2015 film debut at the Bayou Film Festival. Since then, she has led an effort in southern Louisiana to grow, process, spin, and weave brown cotton. Her ultimate goal is to market and sell the resulting products to the fashion industry as a greener alternative to traditional fashion practices.

“This is the indigenous innovation of our ancestors,” Donnan said. “We also created a relationship with our Native Americans, and they actually blessed our first harvest. We want them to be included when we plant on their native lands that we now occupy.


Darcy Fabre, a DeSoto Parish native who moved to Lafayette for college, used the area’s native brown cotton to spin, weave and create non-traditional items, such as earrings, purses, keys and coasters.

She regularly sells her creations at the Lafayette Farmers and Artisans Market in Moncus Park, although it’s a bit of a commute as she currently lives in Texas.

“You get hit in the face with this warmth of Cajun culture when you come to Lafayette. Everyone is so proud,” Fabre said. “I don’t have a very strong connection to a place like that, so it’s so good to be in a place where people are so proud of who they are.”

An industrial designer by trade, Fabre was passionate about bringing textile jobs back to the region and reducing industry pollution through the use of cleaner materials, such as brown cotton.

The fashion industry contributes to pollution through the overproduction of goods, the farming methods for the crops used in the products, and the use of dyes and synthetic fibers. Some fashion companies seek organically grown brown cotton, such as what is grown on a small scale in southern Louisiana, to reduce the industry’s environmental impact.

Fabre will lead a demonstration of how to clean, spin and weave the region’s brown cotton at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in June. She will also advocate for sustainable textile practices and share Louisiana’s brown cotton story.

“When you find out that the Acadians used it 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 that tradition,” said Fabre. “I’m not Cajun, but I just feel responsible as a citizen of Louisiana to make sure we don’t lose this thing and people know their culture.”

Brown cotton has long been considered inferior to white cotton because it has about five times more seeds and a shorter grain that is harder to work with. Although residents of southern Louisiana also grow and use white cotton, they generally sell products made from white cotton and save brown cotton for personal use.

This may not only be because white cotton was considered a cash crop, but also because brown cotton blankets and clothing were easier to 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 original goal – to preserve heirloom brown cottonseed – was quickly achieved. The University of Louisiana at the Lafayette 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.

Yet 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, grew from three members to a full board of directors and non-profit status. Donnan hopes to continue to generate more local interest in the trending pitch movement in a way that will ultimately benefit Louisiana’s economy.

To do this, Donnan says his team is trying to raise awareness and around $700,000 to build a factory where the brown cotton can be processed and sold. Those leading the effort have discussed the mill possibility with Arnaudville leaders.

“There is an arts corridor in Arnaudville and ecotourism opportunities there if we have our own mill and retail store connected to it,” Donnan said. “We could provide table linen, household linen for the guest rooms in the region. It really completes the picture more. We believe there is an opportunity for others to learn more about heritage.

Acadian Brown Cotton will be featured at a United Nations summit June 1-2 on sustainable fashion practices. Later this month it will be presented at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which begins June 22 in Washington, D.C.

Those interested in growing the area’s brown cotton or learning more about the nonprofit can learn more at facebook.com/AcadianBrownCotton.

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