In North Carolina today, many local clothing companies, from Nyla Elise to TS Designs, highlight the environmental, ethical, and cultural arguments for local materials, production, and distribution in their mission statements. While this locally sourced movement seems quite modern, it’s actually a continuation of a long tradition that goes back to the colonial era. Then as now, fashion reflected our values and shaped our political economy. Nowhere can this be seen more clearly than in the history of N.C. cotton.
In the 1760s, the British issued a series of tax acts. In addition to the tea stamps we all know about, a heavy tax was levied on bolts of fabric imported into the colony. Until the stamp acts, our Founding Fathers wore powdered wigs, silk, fine linens, velvets, brocades, and short breeches with hosiery, much like the nobility of France or England who exported them to the colonies. Independence, in a way, was born of a coarse, simple thing called homespuna rough cotton thread spun at home.
This hit England in the purse strings and demonstrated a willingness to go it alone, even if it meant a less refined way of life. Patriotism and dissent were evident in the clothing women chose to wear. The December 1769 Virginia Gazette noted a hundred women attending a ball in homespun dresses in support of the “true and essential interest of their country. It were to be [wished] that all assemblies of American Ladies would exhibit a like example of public virtue and private economy, so amiably united.”
Prominent men such as George Washington and Benjamin Franklin also took to homespun. Coattails and long, lacy shirt cuffs were simplified and shortened, and pants lengthened to allow for mobility during work. This was a rebellion against the nobility and leisure classes of England. Colonial Americans went to work, and to war, against the British wearing homegrown homespun.
Until the early 1800s, the northern states produced most of the textiles in the colonies, while the southern states focused agricultural production, which was plentiful and profitable due to climate advantages and slave labor. Initially, the southern growers were shipping cotton bales or spun thread north to be woven into fabrics. But by the 1830s, weaving and textile mills popped up all over North Carolina, including the places still known today for having been epicenters of the textile industry, like Alamance and Burlington. By the time of the Civil War, the South had surpassed the North in textile production.
After the Civil War, poor peoplewhite and black alikeand their children worked in tenant cotton farming, spinning, and weaving. Denim emerged as the clothing of choice for working people. Though denim and dungarees had been around in Italy, France, and India for a long time, the ubiquitous symbol of Americanathe riveted Levi’s blue jeanwas patented in 1873.
In the Depression era, sturdy cotton flour and feed sacks were repurposed into clothing. When the owners of companies like Sunbonnet Sue realized that people were using their sacks to fashion clothing, they began to design the bags with limited edition prints and the company’s logo in washable ink, and flour-sack clothing became more socially acceptable. But with cotton rationing during World War II, flour companies switched to the paper bags we see today.
In the 1950s, improvements in machinery made textile work scarcer, contributing to more migration out of and around the South. A 1959 survey of mill workers showed that more than half had moved three or more times in ten years. Jeans were also on the move, especially west, toward farmers, cowboys, and oil riggers. Mechanics and machinists inspired the “greasers” of the 1950s to protest convention by wearing blue jeans at a time when they were banned in many restaurants.
Today, U.S. cotton is a billion-dollar industry, with North Carolina in the top five producing states. Only a very small percentage of the cotton grown in North Carolina is grown organically (indeed, Monsanto’s pesticides feature heavily on the extension sites), but that number has the potential to increase as more local companies and consumers insist on locally sourced cotton. This is an opportunity, and we can grow it.
In a 1783 letter to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson remarked, “Agriculture is our wisest pursuit, because it will in the end contribute most to real wealth, good morals, and happiness.” So enduring was his comment that the N.C. Cotton Producers Association uses it on its website today. Agribusiness and fashion shape our politics and economies. We have the power to vote with our pocketbooksbuy local, support our own economies, protest injustice, demand protections for the environmentand we can do it all with something as simple as a T-shirt.
This article appears in print with the headline “The Fabric of Protest.”