Cathie Anderson

North Face attempts to make all-local hoodie, using some Yolo County cotton

Sally Fox started cross-breeding the seeds of brown cotton plants in 1982 to improve their fiber length and strength. Now 58, she said: “I am completely and madly in love with this cotton.”
Sally Fox started cross-breeding the seeds of brown cotton plants in 1982 to improve their fiber length and strength. Now 58, she said: “I am completely and madly in love with this cotton.”

Yolo County cotton breeder Sally Fox won’t let herself get excited about the fact that her organic crop inspired The North Face to design, source and manufacture a new garment entirely in the United States.

The Alameda-based outdoor clothier is announcing the limited-edition Backyard Hoodie today and will put it on sale in early December. It is made out of brown cotton from Fox’s Viriditas Farm just west of Cache Creek Casino Resort and white cotton from Sustainable Cotton Project farms around Firebaugh.

North Face’s American-made hoodie got Fox reminiscing about when her proprietary cotton seeds were much sought after in the textiles industry.

“At one point, I had all these big customers buying this cotton: Levi’s and L.L. Bean and Fieldcrest-Cannon,” Fox said. “I got an award from the United Nations. I got letters from Al Gore and Bill Clinton.”

That was the early 1990s. The California native had moved to Arizona, where there were no restrictions on growing her organic brown and green cottons. She said her first business, Natural Cotton Colours, grossed $10 million a year at one time.

Her cotton, known as Foxfibre Colorganic, caught on because its shades of brown and green were not produced with toxic dyes and chemicals generally used to color fabrics. Plus, Foxfibre cotton was proven to grow darker, not lighter, with washing.

When Fox began cross-breeding seeds from different brown cotton plants in 1982, the plant’s short, weak fibers didn’t hold up to spinning and processing on machines. She worked seven years to improve fiber strength, length and washability. Along the way, she produced a green variety, an accident that made her weep with joy when she saw it in the field.

She registered four seed varieties with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The United Nations Environment Programme recognized her for leadership in protecting the Earth. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology spotlighted her candidacy for its $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize. During the Clinton administration, both the president and vice president commended her contributions to organic agriculture.

Natural Cotton Colours enjoyed seven years of go-go-go growth, and then in 1996, everything came to a screeching halt.

“The U.S. textile industry got decimated,” Fox said. “All the mills closed. ... U.S. retailers dumped their long-term suppliers and went with cheaper stuff in India and China. I had crops that were harvested, and the business wasn’t there.”

Already trying to survive this devastating setback, Fox said, she was hit by another blow. Arizona farmers who raised white cotton got together and pushed for a quarantine of her fields, citing concerns about cross-pollination. The native Californian relocated her farm to the Capay Valley in 1998.

This year, she didn’t plant cotton because of the drought, but she had bales from last year’s harvest. The North Face acquired some for its project.

The apparel maker’s sustainability director, Adam Mott, said the company was inspired by a Bay Area woman’s mission to wear only clothing made within 150 miles of West Marin County. That woman, Rebecca Burgess, teamed with farmers such as Fox and with fiber artisans as she tried to create a locally made wardrobe. The process inspired Burgess to found an organization called Fibershed to create a regional textile supply chain.

The clothier picked up her challenge of trying to commercially produce a garment in that 150-mile region. The Backyard Hoodie was two years in the making, a near-success story that fundamentally affected the company’s staff.

“We weren’t able to find cotton spinning and cotton knitting in the Bay Area, so we had to have it done in North Carolina,” Mott said.

The garment’s cut-and-sew factory, however, was 10 minutes from The North Face headquarters, Mott said, and its proximity allowed the staff to visit and see how design decisions affected waste.

“Our pattern maker made a unique pattern. ... You can really see the elimination of waste in terms of how the sleeves are cut and the thumb holes are done, how the extra fabric went into an inside pocket,” Mott said. “It was really out of respect for the land and ... the materials.”

The $125 price tag for the hoodie might put some consumers off, but not Burgess. She doesn’t earn much more than a rookie schoolteacher most years, she said, but she willingly pays a premium for American-made apparel.

“If you start itemizing the cost of a garment or food or electronic equipment, if you start really accounting for the costs and being quite frank about government subsidies ... you start to understand the real cost of things, versus the costs we see on the shelves at the big-box stores,” she said.

Companies such as The North Face could financially boost artisans, farmers and manufacturers, Burgess said, if they dedicated even half of 1 percent of their income to U.S.-made apparel.

Fox said: “This was a small project, a one-off. It’s good they were trying to see, ‘Can we do it?’ because I’d sure like to see domestic manufacturing come back. I’d love to be supplying my cotton to them and everybody else again.”

Call The Bee’s Cathie Anderson, (916) 321-1193. Follow her on Twitter @CathieA_SacBee.