From cotton plant to end product, what exactly happens?
It’s in clothes we wear, tampons, astronauts’ spacesuits, and even in our food, parts of the cotton plant. But before the plant ends in all those products, it has come a long way.
Cotton is the raw material for almost 40 percent of all textiles. China is the world’s largest cotton producer, closely followed by the United States and India.
The ripe fruits of the cotton plant open. More than half a million cotton hairs are now coming out. The strong single-celled cells made of cellulose are the means of transport for the seeds. Hairs ensure that the wind gets hold of the seed and that it spreads. But it doesn’t get that far. Before the seed has a chance to run off, a large machine rips the bunches of hair from the plant. A plucking machine easily collects 80,000 kilograms of fluff per day. In poor countries, small cotton farmers sometimes still pick by hand. Experienced pickers can harvest 200 kilograms of cotton in a day.
Everything is usable
The cotton balls go to a factory. There the seed is separated from the fluff, usually still in the country of cultivation. The fluff goes into the dryer. Then the moisture evaporates from the fibers. This makes the hair stronger. The plant residues that do not belong in the cotton are now removed. Then the seeding machine is allowed to work. The principle is simple. A kind of comb pulls the cotton fibers through small holes where the seed does not fit, separating the seed and fiber. Nowadays this is done by machine. In the past, this was all done manually, and a man spent all day pitting half a kilogram of cotton fluff. All separation products are further processed. The seed hulls end up as fodder or fuel. The seeds themselves are suitable sowing material, or the oil is pressed out. Mayonnaise, margarine or cooking oil sometimes contains cotton oil, but the oil is also used in cosmetics, rubber, soap and explosives, among other things. The remaining fluff material ends up in cotton wool, tampons and felt. The short cotton fibers are often separated from the long ones. The short ones are a raw material for paper, among other things. We wear the long cotton fibers in the textile to our body.
Fiber on the move
Raw cotton fibers are processed all over the world. They often travel to spinning mills via middlemen. The long wires are still mixed up. The spinning mill untangles the tangle with a large machine comb into loose threads, which turn into yarn when spinning. The threads are now ready to weave and distribute into pieces of fabric. That is, to wash, bleach, dye, and make the fabric wrinkle-free or antimicrobial. Finally, the industry processes the patches into the T-shirts and sheets in our closet. By that time, the cotton has often already completed a journey of 17,000 kilometers.
Did you know that?
Despite its large-scale use, the cotton plant is not an easy plant at all. It needs a lot of water and a lot of protection against diseases and parasites. The cotton industry therefore uses relatively many chemical pesticides and fertilizers.
Plant or animal
In the Middle Ages, the fable of a sheep growing on a plant was circulating. There were several versions of the ‘plant sheep legend’. For example, there would be a plant that produced small sheep instead of fruit. Hanging from the plant, the sheep ate the leaves around themselves. When all the leaves were cut, the sheep fell from the plant and went out into the wide world. The plant then died.
Another version is that a lamb was stuck in the soil with a root at the place of its navel. If the animal had eaten all the nearby plants, it would die. The fable probably originated with a hairy type of plant like cotton. People who were not familiar with the plant mistook the fluff for wool.
More than half of all cotton is made into clothing. A third is converted into bed and furniture textiles. The rest disappears in industrial products such as bandages, wallpaper, books or canvas.