Cotton fabric is one of the most commonly used types of fabrics in the world. This textile is chemically organic, which means that it does not contain any synthetic compounds. Cotton fabric is derived from the fibers surrounding the seeds of cotton plants, which emerge in a round, fluffy formation once the seeds are mature.
The earliest evidence for the use of cotton fibers in textiles is from the Mehrgarh and Rakhigarhi sites in India, which date to approximately 5000 BC. The Indus Valley Civilization, which spanned the Indian Subcontinent from 3300 to 1300 BC, was able to flourish due to cotton cultivation, which provided the people of this culture with readily available sources of clothing and other textiles.
It’s possible that people in the Americas used cotton for textiles as long ago as 5500 BC, but it’s clear that cotton cultivation was widespread throughout Mesoamerica since at least 4200 BC. While the Ancient Chinese relied more on silk than cotton for the production of textiles, cotton cultivation was popular in China during the Han dynasty, which lasted from 206 BC to 220 AD.
While cotton cultivation was widespread in both Arabia and Iran, this textile plant didn’t make its way to Europe in full force until the late Middle Ages. Before this point, Europeans believed that cotton grew on mysterious trees in India, and some scholars during this period even suggested that this textile was a type of wool that was produced by sheep that grew on trees.
The Islamic conquest of the Iberian Peninsula, however, introduced Europeans to cotton production, and the European countries quickly became major producers and exporters of cotton along with Egypt and India.
Since the earliest days of cotton cultivation, this fabric has been prized for its exceptional breathability and lightness. Cotton fabric is also incredibly soft, but it has heat retention attributes that make it something like a mixture of silk and wool.
While cotton is more durable than silk, it is less durable than wool, and this fabric is relatively prone to pilling, rips, and tears. Nonetheless, cotton remains one of the most popular and highly produced fabrics in the world. This textile has relatively high tensile strength, and its natural coloring is white or slightly yellowish.
Cotton is very water-absorbent, but it also dries quickly, which makes it highly moisture-wicking. You can wash cotton in high heat, and this fabric drapes well on your body. However, cotton fabric is relatively prone to wrinkling, and it will shrink when washed unless it is exposed to a pre-treatment.
How Is Cotton Fabric Made?
Cotton fabric producers derive this textile from the fibrous protective casing that surrounds cotton seeds, which is called a boll. While cotton seeds themselves are quite small, the bolls that encase them can be larger than the end of your thumb.
To make cotton fabric, producers must first separate the cotton seed from the boll. In the past, this step was done by hand, but in 1794, American entrepreneur Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin, which is a mechanical device that greatly expedites the cotton separation process.
These days, automated forms of the cotton gin exist that make the process even easier for human workers. Machines can harvest cotton bolls from agricultural fields, and other machines can then separate the seeds from the bolls.
Cotton production begins in the spring when cotton seeds are planted. In most cases, automated machines plant cotton seeds in 10 or more rows simultaneously. Seedlings emerge within approximately seven days, and mature cotton bolls appear within 55 to 80 days.
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Prior to machine harvesting, human workers are generally required for defoliation, which is the process of removing the leaves from cotton plants. Next, a single machine harvests the amount of cotton that 50 people could pick, and this same machine removes large contaminants from the cotton fibers and forms them into bales.
High-efficiency automated cotton gins can process up to 60 raw cotton bales weighing 500 pounds each in the space of an hour. These gins remove the seeds from cotton bolls, and they also remove any dirt or trash from the cotton.
Once the cotton has been cleaned to the extent that it consists of pure cotton fibers without any seeds or trash, it is transferred to a textile production facility. At this facility, the raw cotton is carded, which is the process of forming cotton fibers into long strands. Next, these strands are spun to create yarn.
At this stage, the basic material used in cotton fabrics is complete. This cotton yarn may then be subjected to a variety of chemical treatments, and it may be dyed. Next, it is woven into a particular type of textile material such as a bedsheet, T-shirt, or pair of blue jeans.
How Is Cotton Fabric Used?
Approximately 75 percent of the world’s clothing products contain at least some amount of cotton. In sheer numbers, cotton is the most widely used textile fiber in the world, and manufacturers can spin this fabric into a myriad of different types of products.
For instance, most T-shirts contain at least some amount of cotton, and true blue jeans are 100 percent cotton. This fabric is used to make bathrobes, bathmats, and towels, and it is also used to make bed sheets, blankets, and duvets. Manufacturers may even use cotton to make curtains, wall-hangings, and other types of home decorations.
Since cotton is highly breathable and absorbent, it is commonly used to make warm-weather clothing. Its softness makes it a good option for formal and business wear, and its notable draping abilities make it an ideal fabric for dresses.
Manufacturers use cotton to make medical supplies, and this fabric is also used to make industrial thread and tarps. In summation, cotton can be used to make practically any type of textile for consumer or industrial use.
What Different Types of Cotton Fabric Are There?
There are four distinct species of cotton that are used to make cotton fabric. In addition, there are several sub-varieties of cotton fabric that are made from these plant species:
Cotton Plant Varieties
1. Gossypium hirsutum
This type of cotton is the most widely-produced form of this textile crop. It accounts for 90 percent of the world’s cotton production, and it is native to Central America and the nations surrounding the Caribbean Sea.
Over the years, traders have exported this type of cotton to practically every location throughout the world, and it grows well in practically any climate. Gossypium hirsutum is a short-staple (SS) cotton fiber, which means that it is not as high-quality as other forms of this textile fiber.
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2. Gossypium barbadense
Gossypium barbadense is an extra-long-staple (ELS) cotton variety, which means that it consists of longer cotton fibers that produce softer and more luxurious textiles. This type of cotton accounts of 8 percent of the world’s cotton production, and it is significantly more expensive than Gossypium hirsutum.
This ELS cotton variation is native to South America, and it has been exported to a variety of locations throughout the world. For instance, Pima cotton is a form of Gossypium barbadense, and producers cultivate this type of cotton in China, India, and other foreign nations.
3. Gossypium arboretum
While most types of cotton grow on small bushes, Gossypium arboretum grows on larger bushes that could almost be considered to be trees. This type of cotton accounts for less than 2 percent of global production.
4. Gossypium herbaceum
Also known as Levant cotton, this type of fiber is native to Africa and Arabia, and it contributes less than 2 percent to global cotton cultivation.
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Cotton Fabric Varieties
1. Short-staple cotton
Short-staple (SS) cotton is any type of cotton that consists of fibers that are up to 1.125 inches long. While this type of cotton is great for everyday use, it isn’t as soft as other types of cotton.
2. Long-staple cotton
Long-staple (LS) cotton is any type of cotton that consists of fibers that are between 1.125 and 1.25 inches long. This type of cotton is somewhat more luxurious than SS cotton.
3. Extra-long-staple cotton
Extra-long staple (ELS) cotton is any type of cotton that consists of fibers that are longer than 1.25 inches. ELS cotton is the most luxurious and soft type of cotton in existence.
4. Egyptian cotton
Egyptian cotton is a term that refers to certain forms of either LS or ELS cotton. Giza 45 cotton, for instance, is over 45 millimeters (1.77 inches) long, which makes it one of the longest and most luxurious varieties of cotton in existence.
5. Pima cotton
Pima cotton is a type of ELS cotton that was created through a partnership between the U.S. government and the Pima Indians in the early 20th century. It is considered to be one of the most durable forms of cotton.
6. Supima cotton
Supima cotton is a type Pima cotton that has received the blessing of the American Supima Association (ASA). To be considered “Supima,” Pima cotton can only be grown in the United States with organic cultivation practices.
How Does Cotton Fabric Impact the Environment?
Cotton production is inherently non-impactful on the environment. Since this type of textile is a natural fiber, it is biodegradable, and it doesn’t fill up waterways or contribute to other forms of pollution.
However, the practices that manufacturers use to make cotton may be harmful to the environment. Cotton cultivation requires a huge amount of water, and producing this textile may also involve land repurposing.
Since most cotton producers focus on cultivating the largest amount of fiber possible at the lowest cost, they don’t properly care for the land they use for cultivation. As a result, cotton cultivation frequently depletes the soil in the areas where it is grown.
Most cotton producers worldwide resort to agrochemicals, such as pesticides and fertilizers, to grow their crops. These harmful chemicals run off into the surrounding water, poison the soil, and end up being present in potentially dangerous concentrations in end products.
In the vast majority of instances, cotton cultivation is an exploitative practice in which international corporations take advantage of poor, uneducated people in third-world countries to produce these fibers. This practice is harmful to communities, and it supports a cycle of poverty that results in reduced life expectancy and multiple succeeding generations of servitude.
It’s possible, however, to cultivate cotton with organic means. Organic cultivation processes do not involve any artificial pesticides or fertilizers, which reduces the environmental impact of the production of this textile fiber.