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'Green' Cotton Fabrics Are Free of Chemicals

February 06, 1992|RICHARD KAHLENBERG | Richard Kahlenberg is a writer who has been involved with environmental issues for 20 years.

"You don't have to worry if your kids chew on 'green' cotton," says storekeeper Mark Neal. He's not talking about some low calorie eco-candy. It's baby clothing made of "green" cotton that has been organically grown; not actually green but "natural" cotton white; unbleached and untainted by chemicals before it reaches its little wearer.

Since infants have a tendency to chew on whatever is nearby, the "green" fabrics appeal to parents who are concerned about chemicals and dyes in baby clothing or bedding.

Mark and his sister, Torrey, last year opened an Encinitas shop called EnvironGentle. The store brings together in one retail location all the environmentally "gentle" products they could locate. "Green Cotton" is the generic name for 100% unbleached cotton used in the clothing they sell.

Meanwhile, the major "bed and bath" goods manufacturers have also entered the "green" cotton market.

Cotton mill giants J.P. Stevens, Field Crest, Cannon, and Wamsutta/Pacific each recently began selling a line of 100% cotton sheets and towels that are unbleached and untreated. Major North County department stores now sell these products. They are responding to a growing consumer preference for natural cotton. According to Rose Gerace, spokesman for J.P. Stevens, 22% of the population is the target market for this new product line.

But, the big manufacturers aren't weaving their goods from cotton that has been organically grown. There isn't enough being grown to meet the demand. The bulk of this specialized crop is now going to specialty clothing manufacturers, such as those who supply the Neals. Levi Strauss is also jumping on the bandwagon by bringing out a line of "green" cotton sportswear.

Nevertheless, the entire U.S. cotton-growing process is experiencing a change, according to Kater Hake of the National Cotton Council, a grower trade group. "Farmers used to use pesticide sprays 10 times a year, now it's twice." And, if you wash these national brand products in a natural fashion, the chemical residues from the growing process will go away.

Baby safety is only one aspect of the "green" cotton story. Many adults are sensitive to the chemicals found in fabrics for bedding, draperies and towels.

"When you're diagnosed chemically sensitive, you either pay for redecorating or pay with doctor bills," said Le Anna Roof. She sells pure cotton for interior decorating from her mail-order business in Ventura.

She entered the business six years ago because of the "natural look" fashion and decorating trend in California, and found out afterward that doctors were "prescribing" her 10-foot wide natural cotton yardage to people who had been suffering from the chemicals in regular interior-decorating fabrics.

Roof and the Neals both rhapsodize about the "feel" of natural cotton.

"Once you wash it and feel it, you'll never go back (to regular cotton or other fabrics)," Mark Neal said. Roof's mail-order catalogue includes pre-washed fabric samples.

The look of these fabrics is a factor in nationwide sales. Being eco-chic in California once meant you were not chic in other states. But J.P. Stevens is now quoting nationally oriented color forecasting authorities as saying "textile colors are taking a turn away from technological hues and are turning back to natural-based colors." And, as a sly reference to the effect our visual environment can have on our mental state: "During troubled times, consumers feel more comfortable in the warm classical colors like the creamy tones of unbleached cotton."

Finding cotton

Some sources for 100% cotton goods in North County:

* For organically grown or "green" cotton leisure and baby wear, EnvironGentle in Encinitas, 246 N. Highway 101; 753-7420.

* For 100% cotton--unbleached and untreated chemically--there are several brands available at North County department stores. Robinsons has "Simply Cotton" products from J.P. Stevens, Strouds has "Supercale" by Wamsutta/Pacific and Price Club has "Monticello" by Fieldcrest Cannon.

* A wide range of bedding, clothing, yardage for fabrics, draperies and clothing is also available for the chemically sensitive by mail order from Homespun, (805) 642-8111; or The Cotton Place, (800) 451-8866.

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