How is Cotton Made?
Before we start, we should clarify this – cotton is not made, it’s grown. The steps we describe below are cotton processing or manufacturing. Now, of all the machinery invented in the 18th century, the one that stood out the most and made the most significant impact was the cotton gin. The ‘gin’ changed cotton processing in the US and around the globe. Back then, the US produced most of the cotton used in the world. Texas grew 25% of all US cotton. But today, India and China are the leading cotton producers in the world.
A lot of work goes into cotton processing. It’s as such difficult to even think that many of the steps were done by hand. In the 18th century, most of the work was done by slaves. But today, the process has been efficiently mechanised to improve the overall quality and speed.
Once cotton seeds have been planted, they take about three months to flower. The flowers start with white petals which later change colour to yellow, then pink, red and finally they fall off. When this happens, a cotton ball is left behind. Inside the boll are cotton seeds and fibres. With time, the ball turns brown, and the fibre inside continues to grow until the boll bursts open and exposes the white cotton.
Why not also read: What is Brushed Cotton?
Different types of stripping machines are used to remove cotton from the main plant. They toss the cotton balls into huge baskets and later pack them into modules to help retain their quality.
Large trucks are used to transport the modules to cotton gins. The gin pulls the fibres apart and removes unwanted twigs, dirt, leaves and debris. The fibre is then separated from cotton seeds by the gin teeth and saws. The fibre is used in making fabric and the seeds used to make animal feeds, cottonseed oil and paper products.
At this stage, the cotton is called lint. It is packed into bales weighing 500 pounds. From the bales, samples are taken to determine fibre length, colour and strength. These features help to determine the quality, class and the selling price. At this stage, local buyers buy and sell these bales to mills for processing into fabrics.
Purifying and scouring
At the mills, the cotton is purified further. Also, sodium hydroxide is added to saturate the cotton fibres. This whole process is conducted inside a kier. Once the fibre is soft, hydrogen peroxide solution is used to bleach the cotton. The amount of time the bleaching process takes is dependent on how white the cotton needs to be.
At the previous stage, the cotton can be used as swabs or as hygiene products for women. However, for products that require fine cotton, the cotton goes through another refining process. The fibres are pulled apart, straightened and laid side by side for drying. The results are slivers which are used to make fabrics and other materials.
Whether the cotton is used after bleaching or after reopening, they have to be finished first. At this stage, a lubricant is added to the fibres for finishing. The finished cotton is bought by different companies that make non-woven materials and different types of fabric.
The whole cotton manufacturing process is exciting and achieves different classes of cotton. But one thing is for sure; the more cotton is processed, the finer it gets.