Cotton from plants to clothes

January 31, 2012 Tom Burtingdon


You all know that you should always go for clothes and garments that are 100% cotton, but how many of you know what cotton is and how it becomes clothes? Because we believed that this is something that will raise your interest, we decided to  have a closer look at how cotton becomes the designer clothing that we all love so much.


100% Cotton – but what is cotton?

Cotton is nothing more than a staple fiber that grows in a boll to protect the seeds of cotton plants. Basically, cotton is a plant. But, what we call “cotton” is the actual fluffy fiber and not the seed itself.  One thing that most people don’t know is that clothes and paper have a lot in common as cotton itself is about 100% pure cellulose.

Cotton, as a plant, can be found today in almost all regions of the world, but it’s a native of the subtropical and tropical regions. In a top, the greatest diversity of cotton is found in Mexico, then Australia and then Africa, but, most of the cotton used in today’s clothes comes from India.

From a historical point of view, cotton has been used and cultivated for over 7,000 years, the first ones to use it being the inhabitants of the region that is today’s Pakistan. This is known because at the site of Mehrgarh cotton thread was found preserved in copper beads, and, by all accounts, it’s one of the oldest cotton threads in history.

However, cotton saw an increase in popularity and cultivation during the Indus Valley Civilization (which covered most of the South Asia as well as the Northwestern Asia, including India and Pakistan). As a result of this, the cotton industry began growing and even today, some of the methods of cotton fabrication and cotton spinning used back then are used today in some parts of India.

Nevertheless, cotton wasn’t only used in the Old World, but also in the New World, as cotton fabrics were discovered in Mexico in a cave near Tehuacan, and they were dated 5800BC!

A fact that can be quite surprising is that the Arabs and Greeks, prior to the Wars of Alexander the Great, were not familiar with cotton and its use.

Cotton surrounded and clothed people for ages, but, in northern Europe, during the late medieval period, cotton was known only as an imported fiber, and nobody knew how it was derived – other than the fact that it was a plant and that it had lots of similarities to wool, which made some people think that cotton is made by some plant-borne sheep. A very funny mention of this belief can be found in John Mandeville’s writing dated back to the 1350’s who stated "There grew there a wonderful tree which bore tiny lambs on the endes of its branches. These branches were so pliable that they bent down to allow the lambs to feed when they are hungrie."  However, this type of belief led to the birth of the German Baumwolle word used for Cotton. The translation is tree (baum) wool (wolle) so tree-wool.

But, the good news is that once the Dark Ages were a bad dream and the light was turned on by the Renaissance, cotton was cultivated pretty much throughout the globe, especially in the warmer regions of Americas and Asia.

The question remains: “How is cotton turned from a plant into clothes”?

Well, cotton, to be more precise the fluffy boll, is exported by farmers in bundles to factories to undergo one of the first process that needs to be completed before cotton can be used to make a fabric: cotton being transformed into thread!

At the factory, the cotton bolls are inserted into machines that are designed to strip the fibers and start intertwine them into threads, which opens up a world of opportunities for cotton, which can be now used in threads, yarns, laces and even “gun cottons”. However, we’re going to stick to the cotton that is designed for clothing, which is specially dyed and threaded – because it needs to look pretty, be soft and most importantly  - be durable!

Once the threads have been prepared, the next step is turning them into fabric. This is done using looms, which are essentially big mechanisms that accommodate a number of horizontal and vertical rows of cotton threads that the robotic or human workers can use to prepare the cotton for weaving. Then a very complicated process, that requires row after row of cotton threads to be overlapped into various patterns, takes place. This is where the fabric is also getting some of its characteristics: it can be small, large, thin or heavy.

Naturally, once the fabrics are created, they are ready to be used to create a number of things (there are factories that don’t have an in-house clothing line and prefer to sell the fabrics they create).

Of course, now that the cotton fibers were turned into fabrics, it means that they are ready to take any size imaginable, and the way that they do that depends entirely on the designer and the technology used. Generally speaking, the cloth is cut into a pattern and then sewed together. But, that’s another very long story – and pretty much everybody knows how jeans and how shirts or dresses are created. The only difference is whether these are created by tailors by hand or by designers by bulk.

No matter what path cotton takes, one thing is for sure: cotton changed our lives for the better for thousands and thousands of years, providing us with comfort, warmth and style – and this solely from a point of view of fashion.  However, cotton is our lives and it is more than clothing: you find it used in cloths, in furniture, in medicine, and in bedding – everywhere you look we are surrounded by the creations of the wonderful cotton plant!