Wednesday, October 13, 2010

In the land of cotton

Cotton! I was on my way to an errand in a small town nearby – China Grove – when I came around a curve and saw this. At first I thought it was snow, but the temperatures (still in the low 80s, despite the calendar reading October) obviously ruled that out.

My excitement about seeing cotton growing just a few miles from my house makes it obvious that I am a Yankee living in the South. I’ve now lived more of my life in southern states than in northern ones, but my accent (and my excitement about seeing cotton, I suppose!) will always reveal my roots. 

Cotton used to be a common crop in North Carolina. It is one of the reasons that this state was a center for textiles. Today, most of the textile plants are closed, and the jobs gone, mostly to Asia. That’s where the majority of our lovely cotton quilting fabrics are printed these days.

There is an storefront in the historic center of Mooresville with faded old lettering on its door that has a name and “cotton broker” on it. The railroad tracks that run right through town used to carry cotton in and out of town, and straight to the door of Burlington Mills in Mooresville. The mill manufactured denim into the 1990s, when it shut up its doors and the company – and hundreds of jobs – left town.


Nowadays, you seldom see cotton crops while driving through North Carolina. It is a fascinating sight this time of year. The plant itself is prickly and scraggly:

…but the hull where the cotton fiber comes out is a lovely shape:

Picking it by hand must have been incredibly back-breaking and hand-bloodying work.

I am reminded of this song I learned as a child, probably from my mother:
Jump down, turn around, pick a bale of cotton,
Jump down, turn around, pick a bale a day.

O Lordie, pick a bale of cotton,
O Lordie, pick a bale a day.

Me and my gal can pick a bale a cotton
Me and my gal can pick a bale a day. 

And of this one – “Dixie Land,” of course:
O, I wish I was in the land of cotton
Old times there are not forgotten
Look away! Look away! Look away! Dixie Land.
In Dixie Land where I was born in
Early on one frosty mornin’
Look away! Look away! Look away! Dixie Land.
O, I wish I was in Dixie! Hooray! Hooray!
In Dixie Land I’ll take my stand
To live and die in Dixie
|: Away, away, away down south in Dixie! :|

NOTE: Ann Marsh, a woman I met at Barnful of Quilts who read my blog today, just wrote me to tell me that folk/blues singer Huddie Ledbetter poplularized the song “Pick a Bale of Cotton.” She sent me the link to this interesting website that details his extraordinary life. You can hear Ledetter singing the song here: Pick A Bale Of Cotton by HUDDIE LEDBETTER


  1. That is funny. I remember when we went down south, I got a cotton ball as a souvenir, lol.


  2. wow! I have never seen a cotton field!

  3. I too am new to NC and loved seeing a cotton field for the first time. Many pictures have been taken and this year I finally got to take the pre-boll pics when the flowers are on the plants. They blossom in cream/pink. I can only guess that is the male/female.

  4. What a lovely sight, and thank you for such great photos showing just how the cotton grows. Sad that the mill has closed - where I now live ever since 1260 right up until 2008 the town was famous for wool blankets, but alas now the mills are closed down - due I suppose to the popularity of the continental duvet.
    My favourite old move is Gone with the Wind .... Scarlet said "we will plant more cottong, cotton ought to go sky high next year"
    My newer favourite is North and South - written in the 1860's about cotton mills in the north of England.
    Thank you for your interesting post :0)
    Val xx Oxfordshire UK

  5. I too am fascinated by the cotton fields. When I travel to my parents home in Arizona I see them. I admit to stopping on the side of the road & stealing a pod or two. For some reason; keeping that glorious thing in it's natural state in my sewing room reminds me of the ties we and our craft have to the land, it's people and the millons who died during the slave trade.


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