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How Arizona Pima Cotton Is Grown, Ginned, Milled and Marketed

Updated on November 1, 2017
mactavers profile image

I've lived in Arizona for 68 years (Tucson, Glendale, and Sedona). I love writing about Arizona history, antiques, books, and travel.

Picking Cotton by Hand

Cotton pickers with long picking sacks
Cotton pickers with long picking sacks | Source

How Cotton was Developed

Ever wonder where your fabulous cotton dress shirt, or smooth high thread count cotton sheet, or soft cotton T-shirt came from before it was created for retail? Cotton has a long history as remnants of items woven from cotton have been found in many pre-historic ruins in the Americas, Africa and India. It is believed that the cotton plant was already domesticated in the 14th Century. The cotton plant produces bolls with tough outer coverings which protect the white cotton fibers and seeds inside. Even when the boll ripens and the seeds begin spilling out, the boll remains firmly attached to the plant and the sharp points where the boll has opened make cotton hard to pick.

Many varieties of cotton exist and they are categorized by whether they produce long or short fibers. The longer and thinner the cotton fiber is, then the softer the end product will be. A cotton crop will take 8-9 months from planting to harvest, and it requires sunny and hot weather. A drawback of producing cotton is the amount of water that is required for it to grow. In addition to the amount of water needed, a cotton crop attracts pests like the boll weevil, so pesticides are needed to protect the bolls. Types of cotton plants that can resist pests are constantly under research and development. Because of the amount of water needed and pesticides, growing cotton raises environmental concerns.

Picking Cotton was Back Breaking Work

Sacks were weighed, credited to the picker and loaded into wagons for ginning.
Sacks were weighed, credited to the picker and loaded into wagons for ginning. | Source

How Cotton is Picked

In the United States, cotton is generally planted during April or May. In the Fall, the cotton is harvested. When cotton was picked by hand, the cotton fiber was plucked out of the boll, and placed into a long sack worn by the picker and as the sack filled, it drug behind the picker. When the sack was too full to drag, it was emptied and credited to the name of the picker. At the end of the day, the cotton was weighed and paid by the pound. Or sometimes the pickers used the process of "pulling" began which meant that the cotton was pulled instead of picked which meant that twigs and parts of the plant were left to be separated by the ginning process. The work was back breaking. Pickers often encountered rattlesnakes which were attracted to the cotton fields for the cover for the sun and the water for the plants. Eventually, the pickers were replaced by machinery, but sometimes pickers will be hired to glean the bolls missed by the machinery.

Next the cotton is taken to a gin where the cotton fiber is separated from the cotton seeds. Cotton seed is saved for a variety of uses. After the "rough" cleaning, the cotton is compressed into bales and covered with burlap before it is sent to a mill.

Cotton Farming Requires Sun and Heat

Growing cotton requires a hot sunny climate, lots of water and pesticides
Growing cotton requires a hot sunny climate, lots of water and pesticides | Source

Milling Process

The British are credited for developing the milling process that made cotton textiles readily available. At first, the British imported cotton from India, but later, they began importing cotton from the Caribbean and the American South. Conditions were favorable for growing cotton in the South because of the climate and the availability of slave labor. Soon the South was called King Cotton. By the early 1900s, automobile tires were produced from long staple cotton. fishing nets, tents, fire hoses and paper products were produced in addition to the many types of cotton fabrics.

Cotton became one of Arizona's most prized crops and helped to build Arizona's economy. School children in Arizona called cotton one of the 5 Cs important to Arizona's development I've often read that it was the Goodyear company who brought cotton to Arizona when they began to experiment with growing a long staple (staple is the fiber length) variety of Egyptian cotton for tire production just west of Phoenix, after the boll weevil had infested the cotton crops in the South. However, the Native Peoples of Arizona had been farming types of cotton long before the Goodyear company existed and tires had been invented. Pima and Supima cotton can be credited to the Sacaton area of the now Gila River Reservation. Both types, Pima and Supima cotton are now favored by many designers such as Ralph Lauren.

By 1953, cotton was listed as Arizona's greatest resource surpassing the Arizona copper industry, but the 1960s brought a trend of using synthetic fabrics for clothing and household items and the cotton industry suffered not only in Arizona, but world wide.

While Arizona's urban sprawl has taken over many of the areas where cotton was formerly grown, the Supima Offices are located in Arizona and research is ongoing to develop new varieties that are pest resistance without the use of chemicals.

Cotton Prices Have Continued to Rise

Today cotton prices have continued to rise.
Today cotton prices have continued to rise. | Source

Cotton the Fabric of Our Lives

After the craze of synthetic fabrics in the 1960s and 1970s, cotton textiles began their comeback as a fabric of choice. Synthetic fabrics do not "breathe" or wear the way that natural fiber fabrics such as cotton does. In 2010, on October 16th, cotton reached the highest price level that it ever had in 140 years. Due to bad weather in China and India, inventories of cotton were limited, so following the laws of supply and demand, prices climbed. China now leads the world in cotton production, India is second and the United States is third.

Consumer advertising campaigns designed to boost the sales of cotton textiles such as the slogan "Cotton the Fabric of Our Lives have been very successful. Cotton Inc. was a group formed that is committed to changing the future of cotton production. The goal is to develop methods of growing cotton that are going to improve soils, use less water promote better management of fertilizers and develop methods to turn cotton seed into bio-diesel fuel. One of the most surprising facts that I learned about cotton while researching material on cotton was that raw cotton was used in the clean-up process of the Gulf Oil spill. There really is something new about so many old things.


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    • mactavers profile imageAUTHOR


      18 months ago

      Thanks for your comment. When we travel to the Eloy/Casa Grande area, it's hard to imagine all the growth. So much of Arizona's agriculture has gone. I still love wearing and using articles made of cotton over synthetic fibers.

    • john000 profile image

      John R Wilsdon 

      18 months ago from Superior, Arizona

      My wife and her mother used to pick cotton in Casa Grande, AZ in the late 40's and very early 50's. It was a way to "pick up" some extra money since the family had limited means. We marvel today at the rows of bales we sometimes see. Memories! Thanks for the great article.

    • mactavers profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago

      Thanks for your comment, and I think there would be a real niche for your book. There was an article about cotton growers and pickers in one of the Arizona History Journals, not this year, that was excellent. I wish I could tell you which issue, but you could go to the Arizona Historical Society website and search their online archives. So many of the areas that were once cotton fields in AZ are now homes. Adios

    • DonFrancisco48 profile image

      Francisco A. enciso-Vera (aka) DonFrancisco 

      5 years ago from Seattle, Washington

      Hola Ms Mactavers, I am so impressed with your cotton articles and photos. So real , so true and so vivid. Brings me memories as I grew up in that era as a migrant child of the crops. I am currently writing a book titled "The Children Of The Crops" which depicts many of the experiences we went through during that era of the 50's and 60's in the cotton fields of Texas and the Southwest. The stories and photos are Inspiring, Vivid, Shocking as well as Positive Ones. You are welcome to visit me on facebook Timeline and view some of the original photos I will be using for my book which will be published at end of year 12 . 2014 at beginning of year 2 . 2015. The album is marked December 1, 2010. These are stories that must be told ...for you see...I am one of those "Children Of The Crops" and my stories are TRUE.

      Again, congratulations on all your precious material. I Love It All !

      DonFrancisco A. Enciso-Vera (aka) DonFrancisco

      Communicaton Logistics: Cell: 425.999.2810 / email: / facebook: DonFrancisco El Caballero

    • Homeplace Series profile image

      William Leverne Smith 

      6 years ago from Hollister, MO

      We enjoyed our eleven years in Tucson area. Thanks for some memories! ;-)

    • mactavers profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago

      Thanks for your comment Amber. From growing up in Southern AZ and seeing first hand how hard it is to keep pests away, find enough water and then the process of picking and refining, I can imagine that anyone, anywhere involved with growing cotton has it rough. Like you, I believe no other fabric feels the same as cotton

    • Amber Vyn profile image

      Amber Vyn 

      6 years ago

      I don't think anything feels better than wearing cotton - not even silk! Thank you for this article. I had no idea that China and India were 1st and 2nd in terms of cotton production, and I wonder what life is like for the cotton growers in China and India.

      Voted 'up' and 'interesting'!


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