LAFAYETTE, La. (AP) – Colastie Hebert LeBlanc, known as Tante Colastie by family and friends, was one of the few women still making brown cotton trousseau – a dowry for new brides. But she had 108 blankets.

When asked to sell one of her blankets LeBlanc responded with, “Oh no! Madamoiselle! I can’t let you have any of those. I have made them for my children.”

But with so many extra blankets, people were confused with how many children she had.

“Nine,” she would tell them. “I have completed my supply, that is one dozen for each. Now I’ll be able to make blankets for others and my friends who need them.”

Along with a dozen brown cotton blankets, LeBlanc passed her skills and knowledge down to her daughter Gladys LeBlanc Clark. Clark took Elaine Bourque under her wing to show her how to weave. And now Bourque has an apprentice.

This is how brown cotton weaving in Acadiana has been taught. Through family and friends. For dowry and warmth. To maintain history and culture.

Acadiana brown cotton, formally known as coton jaune, has deep roots in south Louisiana’s history. Over the past 200 years, the plant has waned in popularity and workforce. However in recent years, brown cotton has gone through a renaissance, with more farmers plotting, artists weaving and historians researching.

All of these have combined for a resurgence in the general population’s interest in Acadiana brown cotton. With more known about coton jaune, an exhibit at the Hilliard Art Museum was created.

‘Acadian Brown Cotton: The Fabric of Acadiana’ encompasses the artistic, cultural and historical significance of brown cotton in Acadiana. In the exhibit, hand-woven blankets help tell the 250-year-old story of the craft passed down from generation to generation.

The exhibit ends June 30.

BROWN COTTON’S 250 YEARS OF HISTORY IN ACADIANA

Brown cotton was traced by historians along ancient trade routes from Chaco Canyon in New Mexico through Tunica Hills of north Louisiana and then down to Acadiana Suzanne Breaux said in a 2015 Daily Advertiser article.

When the Acadians found themselves in south Louisiana, they had to make a climate adjustment and switch from wool to brown cotton.

“And so the Acadians, being as resourceful as they are, when they moved here they brought these skills with them on how to weave and how to spin,” Breaux said in 2015.

As part of the mallow family, cotton is botanically related to okra and hibiscus, which thrive in tropical and subtropical regions.

The brown cotton was then used in handwoven blankets, bedding and clothing. Brown cotton seeds are smoother than traditional cotton seeds, making the plant easier to clean and spin. With the seed coat being seedless and hairless, weavers didn’t need a cotton gin.

But the naturally tan cotton had its difficulties. The brown color often meant it was not as highly prized and the plant is a “short-staple” cotton, needing more twists when spinning to hold together.

Acadian women eventually perfected the art of spinning coton jaune – enough twists to keep the fibers together but not over twisting as to make rigid, stiff blankets. By 10 years old, many Acadian girls knew the perfect spin for supple brown cotton strands Bourque said.

WEAVERS AND FARMERS KEEPING BROWN COTTON ALIVE

Elaine Bourque is one of a handful of people passing down the knowledge of how to weave and grow Acadiana brown cotton. She’s also documenting brown cotton trousseaus’ she comes across and is a keeper of the seed, one of the people trusted with brown cotton seedlings.

A State of Louisiana Tradition Bearer Award recipient, Bourque discovered brown cotton while watching Gladys LeBlanc Clark spin and weave coton jaune at Festivals Acadiens et Créoles.

In 1989, Bourque and Clark applied for an apprenticeship and were awarded a Folklife Apprenticeship award.

“I was able to visit with Mrs. Clark for one year and learn from her how to spin and weave exactly the way her mother and grandmother carried on the tradition of L’Amour de Maman – a mother’s love,” Bourque said. “A 250-year-old Acadian tradition of a mother making 12 blankets and several other handwoven textile items for a daughter to bring into her marriage. This was the daughter’s trousseau.”

During the apprenticeship, Clark shared brown cotton seeds with Bourque. For over 30 years, Bourque has planted and harvested brown cotton in Lafayette Parish, keeping the seed viable.

After the apprenticeship, she made towels, placemats and table runners as well as demonstrated at many state and local festivals.

Bourque, 79, has taken on an apprentice of her own to keep the tradition, history and education alive.

“My aim was and still is to pay tribute to the Acadian women who made these beautiful textiles out of necessity to keep their families warm,” she said. “It is very important to me that we keep this tradition going on thru the next generations.”

Caleb Frugé, a farmer in Arnaudville, recently joined the Acadiana Brown Cotton movement in 2019. He came across a project specifically designed for the revitalization of brown cotton in Acadiana called Field to Fashion.

“I was unfortunately too late to plant that year, but got in touch with them anyway to see what they were working on,” the 27-year-old said. “Their incredible mission to preserve this seed that had been grown here in Acadiana for well over 200 years really appealed to me.”

Acadian brown cotton has been the easiest crop to grown Frugé said. A licensed hemp farmer who also professionally produces lettuce and herbs in a hydroponic greenhouse, he said he has never come across a crop as simple to maintain as Acadian brown cotton.

Harvesting the product is a different story. Usually the first harvest is in late July or early August, the hottest time of the year. The seed has to be planted in full sun and ideally picked in the afternoon.

Although new to the movement, he’s looking forward to strengthening the thin tread of traditional brown cotton through supply and education.

“We’re working very hard to revitalize everything from the cultivation of the Acadian brown cotton to the spinning and weaving of it to continue those traditions,” he said.

FIELD TO FASHION

Originally, brown cotton was primarily used to create trousseaus. Once seen as scratchy old blankets, the blankets are now collector’s items, some fetching up to $800 Breaux said.

Now farmers and weavers are reimagining how the product can be used – sustainable fashion.

Field to Fashion, a grassroots network, has three goals – preserve the Acadian brown cotton heirloom seed, revitalize local Acadiana brown cotton production with farmers who are committed to regenerative agricultural practices and create a traceable supply chain for the sustainable fashion industry in Acadiana.

Founding member Sharon Donnan established Acadian Brown Cotton, a movement focused on the product, after she and Breaux stumbled upon a traditional brown cotton blanket in 2012 at the Washington Old Schoolhouse Antique Mall.

“The minute I saw the Acadian blankets I knew there was a great story to be told as only a Cajun can tell it and great visuals with the rich texture and color palette in the textiles, the most necessary ingredients for a successful film,” Donnan, a textile anthropologist, said.

Field to Fashion was founded in 2017 after Donnan and Bourque attended Textile Society of America. They were inspired to start a small-scale sustainable cotton industry in Acadiana.

The organization is currently working with Belfast Mill in Prince Edward Island to start creating pieces from brown cotton grown in Acadiana.

‘ACADIAN BROWN COTTON: THE FABRIC OF ACADIANA’

With many artifacts and textiles supplied by Acadiana Brown Cotton, the exhibit uses genealogy, historic maps, photographs, audio and video components, furniture, tools, and textiles that demonstrate the historical significance and cultural impact of the Acadian brown cotton tradition.

“It will also seek to educate regional audiences about an aspect of their culture they may be unaware of, casting new light on the ‘itchy, brown blankets’ in people’s attics by demonstrating their artistry and value, as well as the tradition’s continued vitality and relevancy,” Hilliard Marketing Manager Susie Gottardi said.

Acadian brown cotton represents more than just a plant – it represents a tie to the past and a connection to the history of the Acadian and Cajun families that are still living in South Louisiana today Gottardi said.

This history of Acadian brown cotton is also often a story of a family, specifically the women.

Bourque, whose collection and works were used in the exhibit, is honored to have helped the Hilliard Museum. She feels the women who created the original brown cotton blankets were never recognized for their work.

“We have to remember that many of these blankets were made during the time that the weaver may not have had electricity or running water in her home,” Bourque said. “She may have worked in the field with her husband during the day, and would work on her loom in the attic when her family was sleeping.”

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