Where does cotton come from?

30 March 2017
0 comments

Where does cotton come from?

Soft and breathable. Fluffy and light. Pure and natural. When you hear the word "cotton", what comes to mind?

Whatever imagery the word evokes, cotton is an important fiber cultivated and utilized in clothing around the world.  In addition to its versatility and utility, cotton represents a 7,000-year history of human innovation and adaptation.

The history of cotton

The history of fabric, textiles and fashion is interlinked with cotton- in fact, cotton is rooted in the Arabic word "khutun" literally meaning "textile". While our concept of cotton varies depending on our culture and general knowledge of textiles, one thing is certain; cotton is used everywhere. It has a long history of providing comfort and protection to people as light, breathable clothing. And while human innovation and industry has altered the way in which cotton is processed, its utility is nothing new. Some of the earliest evidence of cotton was found in the form of threads located in a copper bead dated back to the 6th millennium. Today, cotton remains the primary fiber in a myriad of fabrics around the world.

Cotton boll. Photo by Michael Bass Deschenes

What is cotton?

Cotton is a natural, versatile fiber derived from shrubs and trees of the genus Gossypium, a word the originated from the Arabic word goz, meaning “soft substance”. The Gossypium plants produce white flowers which transform into pink, blue and purple before falling off. During this transformative process, the boll of the plant containing the cotton fiber forms. Eventually the boll splits open and dries, revealing approximately 500,000 soft, white cotton fibers called lint. These fibers are the basic form used to create the wide variety of fabrics utilized today. Cotton is transformed into a thread and then a purposeful product, including clothing and linens. It is renowned for soft feel, breathable wear and versatile style. 

Cotton flower. Photo credit: Benjamint444- Own work, GFDL 1.2, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13334142 

Approximately 43 species of cotton grow around the world, but only five are harvested and used commercially: American Upland, American Pima, Asiatic, Egyptian and Sea-Island. All of these plants share the same basic characteristics, but each has small variations based on their growing process, location and method of harvesting. Cotton is grown and harvested in warm climates and is exported to countries around the world.

 How is cotton made?

The process of making cotton involves multiple steps and is defined by transformation. The lint from the cotton plant is collected and taken to a manufacturing plant where it is cleaned and combined, forming a large cotton fluff. The cleaned cotton fluff is then straightened and stretched to form a rope-like sliver. The newly formed sliver is placed onto a spinning frame, where it is transformed into yarn fibers.

The yarn fibers are then placed on a machine known as a loom, which weaves the fibers together to produce a specified fabric. Finally, the unmarked fabric, appropriately called “grey goods”, is transported to a finishing plant where it is bleached, preshrunk, and dyed. The dyed cloth is treated with a finish, and then the fabric is transformed into the soft, light clothing for people to wear. Cotton is especially popular in the tropical climate of Thailand due to its light feel, breathability and protection from the elements.  

Cotton fabric. Photo credit: RButi

 
Cotton is vegan-friendly

Cotton plants provide more than fibers to make cloth, they are also vegan friendly. It is a great option for vegans as it is naturally derived from plants and avoids using animal products during its cultivation and production.

In summary, cotton goes beyond a fluffy concept - it is a historic fiber that continues to play a vital role in our clothing, culture and world. It is ubiquitous and found in every nation, and simultaneously unique, as it is dyed and processed to create culturally specific clothing and style. Without the cotton plant and the process of transforming it, our clothing and world would not be as colorful, comfortable and fashionable as it is. So, next time you hear the word “cotton” or read it on a clothing label, remember that this ancient fiber carries a rich history, as well as being the soft, breathable fabric used around the world.

Leave a commment