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How The Cotton Plant Becomes Cloth

Updated on August 14, 2014

Cotton is an important part of American history and cotton is the most valuable fiber in the world. Its uses are so many that you couldn't even begin to list them all. We wear cotton clothing (or cotton blends), almost all clothing has some cotton thread.

We may sleep between cotton sheets, and on cotton mattresses, under quilts padded with cotton. For serious wounds or during surgery, the doctor often binds a wound with a cotton bandage. Cotton is also an important source of cellulose. It is the source of fishnets, coffee filters, and paper.

The cotton plant grows in warmer parts of the the world, in North and South America, in Egypt, China, India, Australia, and even some parts of Asia. Sometimes it is a plant, sometimes it is a shrub, and in some countries a small tree, which does not die when the cooler weather comes. There are many species, but only three or four are of great importance.

Although cotton is a native of the tropics, it produces best in temperate climates which are not too cold or too dry. In the past, the southern part of the United States produces the most of the finest of cotton. Today, we are second in the world in terms of growing cotton. However today, China has now surpassed all countries in the production of cotton. India grows a great deal of cotton, while Egypt is known for the finest of cotton. Egypt is handicapped in the growing of cotton simply because there is too little land available for doing so. Other countries who grow cotton are:

  • Pakistan
  • Uzbekistan
  • Turkey
  • Australia
  • Brazil
  • Greece
  • Syria
  • Argentina

Otherwise, the other countries in the world do not grown enough cotton for their own use.

Cotton boll ready to be picked.  Seeds are inside the cotton fibers, outsides have prickly thorns, so hand picking was torturous work.
Cotton boll ready to be picked. Seeds are inside the cotton fibers, outsides have prickly thorns, so hand picking was torturous work.

Cotton's Ancient History

Cotton has been around for a very long time. We know that cotton was used in Mexico at least seven thousand years ago, preserved as evidenced in burial caves. Then, it's known that Egyptian's were wearing and growing cotton more than three thousand years BC. At the same time it was being grown and woven in other places, like Pakistan.

By the 7th century cotton was already being grown in the Caribbean islands and by the fourteenth century cotton was widely in use and grown just about everywhere in the world.


A Little American Cotton History

In America's past -- men, women and children went into the fields pulling out the cotton fiber by hand. The cotton fiber clings tightly to the seeds, and must be separated before the cotton can be used. The cotton is actually the hair that covers the seeds.

Before the invention of the cotton-gin by Eli Whitney, the cotton was separated completely by hand. This was such slow back-breaking work that very little was grown. A cotton gin could do the work of dozens of people and the amount of cotton grown increased greatly with this one invention in 1793.

After it was ginned, the cotton was packed into bales, which weigh about five hundred pounds each, ready to be sent to the cotton mills. In the past, most of the cotton seeds were thrown away, but it was found that they contain a very valuable oil. Since then, the hulls are taken off, and the seeds are pressed to remove the oil. Usually the seeds are cooked first before refining the cooking oil.

Cotton oil is also used for making soap and paint, along with being a key ingredient in cattle and dog foods. Cotton meal is also used in fertilizer.

Just prior to being ripe enough to pick.  Cotton must be picked within three days of opening or it becomes unsuitable for ginning.
Just prior to being ripe enough to pick. Cotton must be picked within three days of opening or it becomes unsuitable for ginning.

The cotton plant as it is found in the United States is an annual. That is, it dies in the fall, and must be planted again in the spring. It belongs to the same family as the Hollyhock and grows from two to six feet high.

The flower is very much like that of the Hollyhock, and is cream-colored when it opens, turns pink the next day, and drops off on the third. It leaves a tiny boll, which grows until it is about the size of a walnut. In it, the fiber is tightly packed. When ripe, the boll bursts open, and the fiber hangs out.

Natural green cotton
Natural green cotton

A Little Cotton Trivia

The cotton fiber must go through many machines before it becomes cloth -- A cotton mill The cotton is first twisted into threads call yarn, and these are woven into cloth. However, the cotton must go through several machines before it becomes yarn, and the fibers must be straightened out and laid beside one another.

A spool of cotton thread -- This is made from many fibers of cotton twisted together, and then four, six or more of these are again twisted together to make the tiny thread. An ordinary thread is composed of hundred of delicate fibers twisted together.

Ninety-five miles of cotton thread -- If you'll notice on a spool of cotton thread, we still make reference to certain numbers, the finer the thread, higher the number. The fineness of cotton thread is reckoned in figures. On the finest spinning frames -- cotton up to the 400s (equal to 336,000 yards, or about 190 miles to the pound). On average though, cotton thread is general equal to ninety-five miles of cotton thread a pound.

The Color Of Cotton

Most people would be surprised to know that all cotton is not white. In nature, cotton also grows:

  • White
  • Mocha
  • Tan
  • Brown
  • Yellow
  • Pink
  • Mahogany
  • Red
  • Blue
  • Cream

Historically, the natural colors of cotton, played a big role in American history. For example:

  • Green cotton was used in the Civil War for soldier uniforms and it was at first one of the advantages that the Confederates had over the Union soldiers. The Union soldiers had to import their uniforms from England.
  • The color of cotton was part of segregation and used to keep slaves from selling their own crops. They weren't allowed to grow white cotton, but were given seeds of brown, tan, or mocha cotton here in this country. While in India, green cotton was used much in the same way, prevented lower class citizens marketing their crops, even up to the past one hundred years.

The Name Of Cotton

The familiar English name "cotton" comes from the Arabic word, "gutun." Similarly, another Arabic word for cotton, "algodon" influenced the name in North Africa and in Spain.


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    • Jerilee Wei profile image

      Jerilee Wei 7 years ago from United States

      Thanks Earth Angel! Part of my family had a similar history with cotton. I don't know how much raw cotton goes for. I do know that more gardeners are planting it for ornamental and conversational purposes in their gardens.

      I will always remember the lyrics of "Cotton Fields" sung by Bill Monroe, Charlie Pride, and Buck Owens just to name a few.

    • Earth Angel profile image

      Earth Angel 7 years ago

      What a GREAT Hub Jerilee Wei!!

      I come from a long line of cotton growers/pickers from the South! I was fortunate enough to be born in California, but our family vacations were always returning to the 'land of cotton!'

      I was astonished to see how cotton is grown, picked and processed! It is back-breaking work in the hot sun, bending over, hands bleeding, pulling a 90-pound cotton sack wrapped around aching shoulders!

      My mother, working in the cotton fields as a child, was paid well at a penny a pound!!

      My grandfather had his arm cut off while working the cotton gin!!

      Thank goodness so much of the process is now automated; yet there are still many small farms throughout the South that still do it the old fashioned way!!

      How much are farmers getting per pound for raw cotton these days??

      Thanks again for the wonderful Hub!!

      Blessings always, Earth Angel!

    • Jerilee Wei profile image

      Jerilee Wei 7 years ago from United States

      Thanks Hello, hello! Cotton gins separate the cotton from the seed and ready the fibers for twisting and weaving into thread and cloth.

    • Hello, hello, profile image

      Hello, hello, 7 years ago from London, UK

      Fascinating all these information about cotton. Especially for me over here far away from cotton field. One thing I could figure out is what is cotton gin? Thank you again for an enjoyable read and I learned so much from it.

    • Jerilee Wei profile image

      Jerilee Wei 7 years ago from United States

      Thanks diogenes! That's a cute story and one I know to be true in both Texas and Louisiana.

    • profile image

      diogenes 7 years ago

      Good article. The convicts picked cotton in several southern state prisons. The guards rode horses and, in one case, taught the horse to bite the lazy prisoners on the butt to speed them up (true story)...Bob

    • Jerilee Wei profile image

      Jerilee Wei 7 years ago from United States

      Thanks DiamondRN! ha ha I know what you mean. Lucky for me my grandfather was once an overseer on a cotton farm and I got to try picking it at age five. Cured me of wanting to do that for a living in a hurry.

    • DiamondRN profile image

      Bob Diamond RPh 7 years ago from Charlotte, NC USA

      I picked and chopped cotton for a whole summer in Market Tree, Arkansas. I haven't complained about any working conditions since.