Cotton is a very much a part of our daily lives from morning when we dry our faces on a soft towel, until we slide between fresh cotton sheets at night. Cotton has hundreds of uses, from blue jeans to shoe strings. Clothing and household items are one of the largest uses, but industrial products account for many thousands of cotton bales. Today, the world uses more cotton than any other fiber, with cotton being the leading cash crop in the U.S. Annual business revenue stimulated by cotton in the U.S. economy exceeds $120 billion, making it the number one value-added crop in America.
The oldest cotton fibers and boll fragments, dated from around 5000 B.C., were discovered in Mexico. Cotton has been worn in India and Egypt for over 5,000 years. Native Americans grew cotton as early as 1500. American colonists were able to grow lots of cotton, but processing was difficult. It was not until the 1700s that the cotton industry flourished in the United States. It was then that Samuel Slater, an Englishman, built the first American cotton mill. These mills converted cotton fibers into yarn and cloth. In 1793, Eli Whitney developed the cotton gin, which mechanically separates the seed from the lint fiber. Whitney named his machine a “gin,” short for the word “engine” that could do the work 10 times faster than by hand. Technology has improved over the past centuries making cotton growth and production much more efficient.
Cotton is grown in several countries including USA, China, India, Pakistan, Brazil, Uzbekistan, Turkey, Greece, Australia and several other countries. Cotton is a major cash crop nationally, ranking just behind corn, soybeans, wheat and hay. Cotton grows in USA in 17 states called the Cotton Belt comprising of Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia.
Cotton grows best on fertile, well-drained soils. There are many species of cotton, but the most popular ones grown in USA are Upland Cotton (Gossypium hirsutum) followed by Pima Cotton (Gossypium barbadense). In Southeast Asia, the Asiatic Cotton (Gossypium herbaceum and Gossypium arboreum) is grown in some regions. Today, the United States produces approximately 18 million bales of cotton annually from 11 million acres planted. The largest cotton producing states are Texas, Mississippi, and Georgia. Arizona and California are well-known for their Pima cotton, which is a finer, more expensive cotton fiber.
Cotton is planted in spring when temperatures are above 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Seeds germinate is 7-10 days. The bud, also known as a “square,” appears about five to seven weeks after planting which forms flowers. The white blossoms become pollinated, turn light pink and then wither producing green bolls. The green bolls mature into cotton bolls with the white fluffy fibers. Plants are irrigated, fertilized and weeded, as needed, during the growing cycle.
Cotton is de-foliated a process in which the leaves are removed and then cotton harvested and compressed into truckload-sized “modules” and sent to the cotton gins. The gin separates the cotton fibers from the seeds. Saw gin is mainly used to process Upland cotton and roller gin is used for Pima cotton. Gins separate the seed and the lint is packed into 500 lbs bales are sent out to textile mills to make yarn. A standard bale of cotton is 55″ tall, 28″ wide and 21″ thick. The cotton is carded or combed, making all of the fibers run parallel, and then spun into thread. The cottonseed at the gin is used as animal feed, garden fertilizer, and oil extracted from cottonseed is used in firearm and pharmaceutical industries
Like lumber, cotton comes in many varieties and qualities, each suitable for different purposes. The long lint fibers are used for many things, most of which begin with a thread, yarn or cotton fabric. Clothing and bedding items are common products. The smaller cotton fibers, known as linters, are removed from the seed and are used as stuffing for furniture and components of linoleum, plastics and insulation. Cotton seed oil is used in foods and cosmetics. Cotton seed hulls are eaten by cattle.
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