A picture book and discussion between Lily Clatworthy and Courtney Holm. Photography by Lily Clatworthy.
Last week our very own Lily Clatworthy headed off to Sydney and then Narrabri (cotton country!) to immerse herself in all things Australian cotton for a three day cotton conference, tour and farm stay hosted by Cotton Australia. Lily takes stunning photos and documented her travels from cotton field to gin and research centre. We are so excited to share her work with our A.BCH community as well as hear a bit more about her experience in the field.
Lily and I sat down to discuss these experiences, and it was nothing short of inspiring. We wanted to share part of this beautiful story (in both pictures and words) with you also. We hope you'll enjoy it as much as us.
Cotton bales in Narrabri, NSW. Photographed by Lily Clatworthy.
We acknowledge the Kamilaroi people on the lands we visited in Narrabri. We pay our respects to elders past, present and emerging and celebrate the ongoing connections to the land and waters of NSW.
The following is a discussion between A.BCH Founder Courtney Holm and A.BCH Studio and Customer Service Coordinator Lily Clatworthy, peppered throughout with Lily's stunning photos from the trip. The words have been edited for clarity.
C: What was your reaction to seeing the cotton fields for the first time?
L: The scale of the crop and the beauty of the plant itself … I was in awe!
C: What was your impression of cotton before and now and after being to the farms?
L: Cotton has a story that extends way before we cut and sew a garment. I thought I had a good understanding of working with cotton in garment form but definitely not the full understanding of what goes into growing it. There is a respect between the land and people who grow it - it takes a vast amount of skill, passion and community. It’s a story that should be told and understood at a larger scale.
Cotton farmers are cotton experts. From Auscott Farm in Narrabri, NSW. Photographed by Lily Clatworthy.
C: Give us an overview of the processes you saw from the field to finish.
L: It’s a different thing to experience cotton in an agriculture environment like this. There are so many variables and processes that go into producing cotton fibre in Australia like water supply, soil health, GM seed, biodiversity, insect control, insect introduction, picking, bailing, transporting, ginning, processing cotton seed + debris, grading.
Cotton is often thought of as a finished textile. But there is the soil, the water, the science and labour that goes into growing the fibre and ensuring it can be grown into the future.
C: I love what you said about ensuring it can be grown into the future. This, to me, is one of the Australian cotton industry's strengths - there is this long term view of sustainability and regenerative practises like improving soil health and biodiversity on the farm.
L: Yes, and there is such variability due to climate and the way the farmers respond. Their ability to adapt in so many ways was the most interesting to me.
There is a vibe of farmers taking initiative. For example, I visited a family farm where they have planted over 18,000 trees on their property to improve biodiversity in the area. Another example is a farmer who is testing a process of semi-irrigating the crop to see if it will impact the yield. They are testing it by watering every third row of cotton much less, stretching the growing phase out to see if a slightly longer growth phase could still produce a good yield. It's really creative, and self directed. No one is telling the farmers to do it this way.
Rows of cotton and bales. Photographed by Lily Clatworthy.
C: At A.BCH we talk a bit about the need for spinning here in Australia to aid in future proofing circularity. Do you think this is important or did you see any indication of this changing from the trip?
L: Absolutely. There is a massive gap in the local system. When I saw how much cotton is being produced on one farm alone it was crazy to think of it all being sent overseas for spinning, fabric only for it to be sent back - either in yarn form, fabric or fully made garments. This has a flow on effect for the entire local industry.
Seeing cotton in this landscape deeply emphasises the importance of carrying the practices of care through each step of the process - care for land and people, to production into textiles and garments, to the life cycle of use and end-of-life.
Australian Cotton. Photographed by Lily Clatworthy.
C: Tell me more about the trip to the Cotton Seed Distributor Centre (CSDC) and the Australian Cotton Research Institute. What are your own views on GM seed in general and as it relates to cotton in Australia?
L: As it relates to Australian cotton, my impression of GM seed definitely shifted. If we didn’t use GM seed in Australia we wouldn’t have a cotton industry here. The CSDC and CSIRO have developed 116 varieties of seed released to market through their 70 years of collaboration. Currently 9 of these varieties are in use as each seed generation improves on previous or is superseded. What I didn't know about GM seed is how different protein genes can build up insect resistance within the plant. This greatly reduces the need for chemicals to control pests and improves the yield of the crop.
The seasonal variation in Australia is very high, meaning it’s difficult to predict a season. That's why it's so important to have the input of a breeding engineer to tweak and improve yields - regardless of the seasonality.
C: What was your greatest takeaway from this trip?
L: My biggest learning wasn’t so much a fact or statistic (although there were many) but a deeper appreciation for where cotton fibre comes from, the land and people, and the passion behind the Australian cotton community. Those involved in growing cotton fibre had remarkable knowledge and an understanding of the broader impact of growing and producing cotton. And it wasn't just with a perspective for what that means now, but with an understanding for what that may mean for the future. It was very inspiring.
C: I love that. It keeps coming back to the passion of individuals and the future. Did you have a favourite moment?
L: It would have to be standing amongst the cotton crops. When you see the cotton fibre growing so beautifully in this setting it really changes the appreciation you have for cotton yarn and fabric. The fact that you can pick this fibre straight from the plant to be ginned and spun is extremely cool. In that moment I felt very privileged that I to get to work with such a precious resource.
A.BCH A.58 T-Shirt made from Australian Cotton, laying in the soil of the cotton farm. Photographed by Lily Clatworthy.
C: Any final thoughts?
L: I feel very fortunate to have experienced cotton in this way and through the community of Narrabri. It’s not something that can be experienced everyday for many of us working in the fashion/ textile industry, but I hope some of these images capture the beauty, skill & passion involved in farming cotton here in Australia.
Thank you so much to A.BCH superstar Lily Clatworthy and to Cotton Australia for the generous invitation and for hosting us.
Read our other articles on cotton including:
or learn Australian cotton facts at Cotton Data.
Did you know by purchasing one of our Australian Cotton garments, you're supporting not only A.BCH - a small ethical fashion business, but also an Australian fabric knitting mill, cotton farmers, harvesters, ginners and researchers? This is a supply chain we are so proud of, and when you wear it, we hope you will be too.