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Finding Forever Cotton at the Many White Sales : The closer you stick to buying goods that look plain and old-fashioned, the closer you are to being environmentally correct.


This is the time of the year when retailers have "white sales" to move their stock of bath and bedroom accessories. The goods involved these days, however, go way beyond what used to be understood as "linens."

As anyone knows by now, white sales are no longer white. The range of available colors for sheets and towels is more evocative of June or October than January.

You can still get plain white goods, of course. But I want to evoke the "white sale" concept because the closer we stick to buying sheets and towels that look plain and old-fashioned, the closer we are to being environmentally correct.

My own shopping standards are, I confess, old-fashioned. I buy things that I can use forever and will not, I hope, go out of style. That means pure, plain cotton. These days, happily, the price of such goods is competitive with the synthetic stuff that might wear through, fade and always feel funny on the skin.

First, a word about plain cotton rather than mixes involving synthetics. There's a school of thought that cotton growing ruins topsoil and water supplies. That is less true today than it was a decade ago, particularly in the U.S.A., where the economics of growing it have forced farmers to cut back on expensive chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Synthetic fibers, on the other hand, involve use of petroleum or coal, which are not renewable resources.

My concern here, perhaps selfishly, is about the environment closer to me--my county and my skin. Even many 100% cotton products are made in ways that involve chemical processing. That is why they feel funny when you first use them out of the wrapper. But washings, sometimes several, remove the chemicals. Of course, it puts the chemicals into the local water supply.

If we take a little care when shopping the white sales, we can avoid goods that might be filled with dyes and chlorine bleach that have to be washed out in our home washing machines.

De Ann Fornes, who operates Homespun Fabric & Draperies in Ventura, explained that her line of goods has had these chemicals removed before they reach our county: "We have the factory wash the fabrics out--that gets it back to a natural state."

She's not talking about organic cotton grown without the use of chemicals. That, she says, results in a product too expensive to compete in the marketplace. Her products are called natural as opposed to organic.

By her definition, you and I end can up with natural cotton by going to Target, Strouds or the local department store, buying 100% cotton sheets, or a bathrobe or towel, and washing them a couple of times ourselves.

Although that process removes substances that might irritate the skin, it puts detritus from the original fabric into the water system. Fornes contends that repeated washings with a nontoxic, non-polluting, baking soda-based detergent can remove most of the chemicals used in the manufacturing process.

With 100% cotton that has been subjected to no dyeing or bleaching, the result is a sheet or bedspread that, in my opinion, looks better with each washing. The earth tone gets more vivid, which you can see in the before-and-after samples on display.

If this kind of product catches on, there is an obvious environmental benefit. Communities where this unprocessed cotton is woven will be spared all non-pesticide chemicals that would normally be used to bulk, brighten and size the fabrics.

Regular readers of this column know that I consider it good environmental practice to buy and keep things forever rather than being a member of the "throwaway society."

At this time of year when "white sale" goods may be on folk's minds, it was heartening for me to hear Fornes remark: "We have reorders for products that have lasted 25 years . . . for the same item." Maybe folks are returning to the old ways of shopping--not for flash but forever.

Richard Kahlenberg, who writes the weekly Earthwatch column, has been reporting on the environment since Earth Day I. Nowadays, he recycles everything. You can write to him at 5200 Valentine Road, Suite 140, Ventura 93003, or send faxes to 658-5576.


* FYI: Be sure to wash 100% cotton with a nontoxic, non-polluting detergent. Strouds and Homespun Fabrics & Drapes carry cotton in its natural color.

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