Black Cotton

The Old Cotton Picker
“Pick-in’ cot-ton, I’ve not for-got-ten,
The hours I’ve spent in the sun. 
Bend-n’ o-ver, you’re not in clo-ver,
The work is no-bod-y’s fun.”


Black Cotton by TaMara Howard

Cotton is the most often used natural fiber worldwide. It is, arguably, the most important component of quilting. From 2019 to 2020 the total global production of cotton amounted to about 122 million bales. Most of us are fortunate to have yards of cotton available for purchase from local quilt shops or at our fingertips for online purchases. But have you ever stopped to think about how those bolts of fabric make it to retail shops? 

In her articleBlack Cotton, Part 1: Why We Farm,TaMara Howard investigates not just where cotton comes from, but how race and slavery has impacted the cotton industry. She shares with us some the thoughts of Julius Tillery, a fifth-generation black cotton farmer from Garysburg, North Carolina. This is the first article of a four-part series called, “Black Cotton.” Here is a peek of Howard’s important work on the history of cotton.

David Cohn wrote in his book,The Life and Times of King Cotton, that the story of cotton and black experience in America is the, “stuff of high drama and tragedy, of bloody civil war and the unutterable woe of human slavery.” 

Black Cotton by TaMara Howard

Howard visited Tillery and toured his farm during planting season. Tillery’s great-great-grandfather, Reverend D.L. Tillery, started the farm. The reverend was the first known person in Tillery’s family to be born free after the Emancipation Proclamation. By saving his money, he was able to buy a small patch of farmland. 

Black Cotton by TaMara Howard

Many different crops have been farmed on the Tillery land, but cotton is the family’s crop of choice. Tillery says, “The work is hard. But each generation has expanded the farm’s footprint through increased knowledge and creative innovations.” 

Howard emphasizes why it is important for quilt enthusiasts to care about black cotton. She says, “Who are the major fabric producers in the quilt world? Identify them. Find ways to reconnect them back to local farmers, black farmers. Black cotton is all of our histories. And that reconnection will serve as an expression of love and joy to the communities we have left. But if we don’t take care of and care for our remaining black farmers, we’ll lose them all. And we’re right close to that, now.” 

You can read the entire article,Black Cotton, Part 1: Why We Farm by TaMara Howard inCurated Quilts, Issue no.20: Utility.

TaMara Howard is inspired by the many colorful stories she had heard about her great-grandmother, Maggie V. Folk McClellan (1879-1967), and she was called to follow in her footsteps in the craft of quilting in 1996. Without even a sewing machine, she began studying patchwork techniques, color theory, and quilt layout and design. Her love for quilting has evolved into a deep and genuine passion for the art form. Her work fuses the old with the new, and the traditional with the modern. She can be found on Instagram at @folkquilts.

Black Cotton, Part 1: Why We Farmis the first of four articles about “Black Cotton”. Subscribe toCurated Quilts today to not miss the future articles in this special series. 

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