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 Frequently Asked Questions

by Rachel Graco, Grandma's Attic
as published in Grandma's Scrapbasket

The word "cotton" as we know it today originates from the Arabic word "qutun".  I n Middle Dutch it was also known as "cotton" and with the development of Afrikaans as a spoken language it became "catoen" and eventually "katoen".

Nobody knows how long cotton has been in existence. Pieces of cotton bolls and cotton cloth more than 7000 years old have been found in prehistoric caves in Mexico.  Three thousand years before the birth of Christ, the Egyptians in the Nile valley were already manufacturing and wearing cotton clothes.  At about the same time cotton was also being grown in the valley of the Indus River in Pakistan, being handspun and woven into material by hand.  The great philosophers Herodotus and Pliny both mentioned cotton in their writings.

In 1793, Eli Whitney, an American, patented the first ginning machine.  After he had watched workers on a plantation in Georgia separating the fibre from the seed by hand, he built a machine which could do the same work 50 times faster,  He called the machine a "gin" - an abbreviation of the word "engine".  Today still, the process whereby the fibre is separated from the seed is known as "ginning".

Cotton is a fibre, feed and food crop.  It is noted for its versatility, appearance, performance and comfort.  From all types of apparel from sheets to towels, tarpaulins and tents, cotton provides thousands of useful products and supports millions of jobs as it moves year after year from field to fabric.

United States textile mills spin more than 10million bales of cotton a year.  That is enough cotton to make three billion pairs of men's jeans and 8 billion men's shirts.  

About two-thirds of the harvested crop is composed of the seed, which is crushed to separate its three products--oil, meal and hulls.  Cottonseed oil is a common component of many food items, used primarily as a cooking oil, shortening and salad dressing.  The oil is used extensively in the preparation of snack food such as crackers, cookies and chips.  The meal and hulls are used as livestock, poultry and fish feed, and as fertilizer. 

The following are a list of frequently asked questions about cotton:

What states grows the most cotton?
Texas, which annually grows about 4.5 million bales of cotton, is the leading cotton-producing state.

What country grows the most cotton?
Historically, China is the largest grower, The Chinese produced an estimated 17.5 million bales of cotton in 1999.  The U.S. was second, producing 16.9 million bales that same year.

How much does a bale of cotton weigh?
A bale of cotton weighs about 500 pounds.

What is a module?
Once cotton is harvested, it is stored in modules---which hold 13 to 15 bales---for protection against weather.  Modules are stored in the field or on the gin yard until it is ginned.

How is cotton harvested?
Two mechanical systems are used to harvest cotton.  The picker system uses wind and guides to pull the cotton from the plant, while the stripper system chops the plant and uses air to separate the trash from the cotton.  Pickers are used on most cotton and produce cleaner fibre, while strippers are used on shorter length cotton.

Where is cotton grown in the United States?
Ninety-eight percent of cotton is grown in 14 states: Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, California, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas.  The remaining two percent is grown in Kansas, Florida and Virginia.

How many cotton farms are there in the United States?
Cotton is produced on about 35,000 farms in the U.S.

How many acres of cotton are harvested each year in the United States?
In 1999, over 14.5 million acres were harvested, producing 16.9 million bales.

What is a boll weevil?
The boll weevil is the primary insect enemy of cotton.  An adult is 1/4 to 1/2 inch long, appearing tan to dark brown or gray in color.  It has a hard humpback-shaped shell and the characteristic snout account for about 1/4 of its length.  This pest has plagued U.S. cotton producers since 1892.  It can complete an entire life cycle in about three weeks, lay 200 eggs per female---each in a separate cotton square or boll, ensuring the destruction of each---and spread rapidly, covering 40 to 160miles per year.

What percentage of the U.S. cotton crop is exported?
Over the last five years, 31 percent of the U.S. cotton supply was exported.

How much cotton is used by U.S. textile mills?
Over the last five years, mills consumed an average of 10.8 million bales per year.

Cotton Fabric

Cotton is the principal clothing fibre of the world.  It's production is one of the major factors in world prosperity and economic stability.  Cotton fibre comes from the cotton plant's seed pod.  The fibre is hollow in the centre and under a microscope appears like a twisted ribbon.  Cotton can retain 24-27 times its own weight in water and is stronger when wet than when dry.  This fibre absorbs and releases perspiration quickly, allowing the fabric to "breath".

Cotton can withstand high temperatures and takes dyes easily.  Chlorine bleach can be used to restore white garments to a clear white but this bleach may yellow chemically finished cottons or remove color in dyed cottons.  Boiling and sterilizing temperatures can also be used on cotton without disintegration.

Mercerized cotton is treated to permanently straight the cotton fibres which them become a smooth, rod-like fibre that is uniform in appearance with a high luster.  Cotton is often blended with other fibres such as polyester, linen and wool to "blend' the best properties of each fibre.

Glossary of Cotton Fabrics and Weaves

Diaper Cloth: twill, nobby or plain woven absorbent cotton.

Dimity:  strong twilled cotton fabric used in men's and women's slacks.

Duck:  heavy, durable, tightly woven fabric.  Heavy weight drill is used in awnings, tents, etc.  Lighter duck is used in summer clothing.

Flannel:  plain or twill weave cotton with a slight nap on one or both sides. 

Flannelette:  soft cotton fabric with a nap on one side. 

Gauze:  sheer, lightly woven fabric similar to cheesecloth.  It is also made in silk.

Gingham:  lightweight, washable, stout fabric that is woven in checks, plaids or stripes.

Lawn:  plain weave, soft, very light, combed cotton fabric with a crisp finish.

Muslin:  sheer to coarse plain woven cotton fabric. Muslin comes in "natural" color or is dyed.

Organdy:  very thin, transparent cotton with a crisp finish.

Outing Flannel:  soft, twill or plain weave fabric napped on both sides.  Used for baby clothes, diapers, and sleepwear.

Oxford:  shifting fabric with a lustrous, soft finish.  It is characterized by narrow stripes and can be woven in plain or basket weave.  This term is also used for wool fabric that has black and white fibres.

Percale:  lightweight, closely woven, sturdy fabric that can be found printed in dark colors.

Pima Cotton:  made from Egyptian cotton, this is an excellent quality cotton fabric.

Polished Cotton:  either a satin weave cotton or a plain weave cotton that is finished chemically to appear shiny.  

Poplin:  plain weave fabric with a cross-wise rib.

Sailcloth:  very strong, heavy canvas or duck made in plain weave.

Seersucker:  lightweight cotton fabric crinkled into lengthwise stripes.

Swiss:  sheer, very fine cotton that can be plain of decorated with dots or other designs.

Terry Cloth:  looped pile fabric that is either woven or knitted.  Very absorbent and used for towels.  French terry cloth is looped on one side and sheared pile on the other.

Velveteen:  all cotton pile fabric with short pile resembling velvet.

Whipcord:  strong fabric  with diagonal round cords that can also be produced in wool. 

Information was provided by the National Cotton Council, Cottons of South Africa, and Fabrics.com and Cotton: The Fabric of Our Lives.


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