This is the story of a cute little cotton pod born somewhere in Asia with lots of fluffy fiber inside.
After its metamorphosis into the beautiful cotton fabric, it gets to travels over the seven seas and ends up mingling with the best of fashion designers and gets a pride of place on the display racks of high-end fashion showrooms.
The journey of this cotton fiber to fabric is not the most exciting of all stories. But I love you, pod, because you and your friends have brought so much joy to millions of people who have used you to wrap their young ones, go to parties, get married and even buried in.
The Origin of Cotton
Talking about the history of Cotton is talking about the history of mankind. Man has been weaving fibers made from cotton for a long long time, so life and fabric and historic events – everything is interweaved.
Cotton was cultivated as early as 2300 BC in the Indus Valley civilization. When Columbus found North America cotton was already cultivated in the continent. Evidence has been found of cotton used by the Caral civilization in Peru some 3000 years before christ.
Seeds and cotton cordage dating to about 2500 BCE have been found in Peru. Wikipedia
In India cotton cultivation and weaving is a way of life. It is even connected to the most significant political movement in the subcontinent – the freedom movement. Hand spinning of cotton yarn by Gandhi became a symbol of indigenous production and ultimately that of freedom from colonial rule.
Some even attribute cotton as the reason for the rise of Industrial Revolution, that which shaped the modern world as it is today.
Today more than 100 types of cotton fabrics are available -all beautiful biodegradable natural fabrics. It is blended with other fibers like wool, silk and synthetic to get the benefit of all their properties.
Today cotton is the world’s most important non-food agricultural commodity and one of the most favored fabric for sewing clothes. T-shirts, jeans, suits, underwear, towels – whatever you use there maybe an element of cotton in it.
Learn more about sewing cotton
How is Cotton fabric made
Cotton cultivation is favorable in the tropics and sub-tropics of Africa, Asia, Australia and America with a dry and warm climate and lots of sunlight. Cotton plant belongs to genus Gossypium of the Malvaceae family. Gossypium Barbadense, Gossypium Arboreum and Gossypium Herbaceum, Gossypium Hirsutum are the main species used for commercial production of cotton fabric.
The advantage of cotton fibers is that they can be spun into very fine but still strong yarns.
So here are the steps.
Cotton seed pods (Bolls) with the fluffy cotton fiber inside are first harvested from the plant ; Specialized machines are used for that.
You can read more on the cotton seed pods and its cultivation here.
These bolls then undergoes a cleaning which will remove dirt, leaf materials etc. The fibers are then separated from the pods. A cotton gin is used for this. Linters , the short fuzz fibers covering the cotton seed, beneath the soft fuzzy cotton fibers are separated and taken out for other uses.
In 1794, U.S.-born inventor Eli Whitney (1765-1825) patented the cotton gin, a machine that revolutionized the production of cotton by greatly speeding up the process of removing seeds from cotton fiber – history.com
The ginned fiber is called lint. It is stored as bales.
They are then classified according to the fiber length, strength, color, cleaned appearance etc.
These bales are then sold to textiles mills for weaving.
There the lint is send through a carding machine for cleaning.
The lint comes out as a soft, untwisted rope called a sliver.
The sliver is fed into spinning frames and then made into yarn.
Important discoveries in the development history of cotton : Spinning Jenny used for mechanization of spinning (James Hargreaves) , Spinning Mule which made (Samuel Crompton)
Yarns are made into cotton fabric at the weaving looms or knitting machines. Hand spinning and handloom weaving techniques are also used to create cotton fabric. Non-woven fabrics are also made with cotton fibers.
The fabric that comes out of the loom is called Grey goods
This is then bleached, dyed and given all the finishes needed to be accepted in the market
You can read more details on the steps that convert fiber to fabric here.
More reading for you on cotton fabric
Books – The Biography of a Revolutionary Fiber – Stephen Yafa.; Empire of Cotton -Sven Beckert
Websites : Agricultural history of cotton in India – article here.
Places to visit :The Cotton Museum at the Memphis Cotton Exchange
Memphis, Tennessee, USA website – https://memphiscottonmuseum.org/; National Museum of the American Coverlet in Bedford, PA.