vegetable fiber of great economic importance as a
raw material for cloth and many other products
Cotton's strength, absorbency,
and capacity to be washed and dyed also make it
adaptable to a considerable variety of textile
products. In fact, cotton can be made into more
kinds of products -- from diapers to explosives
-- than any other fiber.
invented the cotton gin in 1793. This machine
made it possible to remove the cotton seeds from
the fibers more cheaply. With it, one person
could do the work once done by 50 persons picking
out seeds by hand. Before the American Civil War,
cotton ranked as the only important crop of the
South. Cotton still ranks as a major source of
income for Southern farmers, but they now also
raise a variety of other crops.
Cotton is produced by small trees and shrubs
of the genus Gossypium, of the family Malvaceae,
which also includes hibiscus, okra, and the swamp
mallow. The plant grows upright and has branches
spreading in all directions, broad leaves with
three to five lobes, and a taproot that may grow
as deep as 4 feet into the ground.
White flowers blossom from the squares
(buds) approximately five to seven weeks after
planting. At first, only one or two flowers open
each day. The first flowers bloom low on the
plant, near the main stem. As the plant becomes
larger, several flowers open daily. These flowers
open higher on the plant and farther out on the
branches. The flowers open in midmorning and
begin to wither the next day. They turn pink,
blue, and finally purple as they dry and fall off
the plant. The flowers must be pollinated during
the few hours they remain open. Cotton flowers
usually pollinate themselves.
The boll, which contains the cotton
fibers, begins to form while the flower withers.
A boll matures in 45 to 60 days, during which
time it grows to about the size of a golf ball.
At full size, it is green and almost round, with
a pointed tip. At this stage, the boll cracks in
four or five straight lines from the tip. Then it
splits open, showing four or five locks
(groups of 8 to 10 seeds with fibers attached).
The open dried boll, which holds the fluffed-out
cotton, is called the bur. An average
boll will contain nearly 500,000 fibers of cotton
and each plant may bear up to 100 bolls.
Types of Cotton
There are several species of
wild cotton in the world. They are found in
Australia, Africa, Arizona, Central America,
Lower California, Brazil, Mexico and other
tropical countries and islands. Because of
problems related to their refinement, however,
they are not economically feasible to use.
Through genetic assistance and breeding, today's
cottons have evolved from these wild sources and
are more processing friendly.
Currently, there are five major types of
cotton being grown commercially around the world:
American upland, Egyptian, Sea-Island, Asiatic,
and American Pima. The various kinds of cotton
plants resemble each other in most ways, but they
differ in such characteristics as color of
flowers, character of fibers, and time of
blooming. In addition, each main type has
varieties with different characteristics. Some
varieties grow best on irrigated land. Some have
lint 1¾ inches long, and others have lint only
½ inch long. Some varieties have stronger fibers
than others. Some are easier to harvest by
machine than others.
Cotton farmers in temperate
regions, where most cotton is grown, must plant
their crops every year. But in the hot, moist
tropics, cotton plants may bloom for several
years. Some of these plants grow over 10 feet
The cotton fibers shown in
the photo at left are from the following
varieties of cotton plants: 1) Sea-Island; 2)
Egyptian; 3) American Upland Long-Staple; 4)
American Upland Short-Staple; and, 5) Asiatic.
Upland Cotton (Gossypium
hirsutum) is the most commonly planted type
of cotton in the world, making up about 90 per
cent of the world's cotton crop. The
multibranched shrub-like plant may grow 1 to 7
feet tall, has creamy-white flowers, and produces
white fibers up to 1¼ inches long. It can be
made into many kinds of fabrics, and is used both
for heavy canvas and for expensive shirts. It is
grown as an annual.
(G. barbadense) was developed from
stocks that originated in South and Central
America. Menoufi, the most widely used
variety, has exceptionally strong fibers about
1½ inches long. It has lemon-colored flowers and
long, silky, light-tan fibers. It is made into
clothing, balloon cloth, typewriter ribbons, and
other fine fabrics.
first grew on the islands off the coast of
South Carolina, Georgia, and northern Florida. It
is now grown primarily in the West Indies. One of
the most valuable and costly kinds of cotton, it
has silky fibers that are about 1¾ inches long
that can be made into very high-quality textiles.
The plant has brilliant yellow flowers and white
lint. It is expensive to raise, however, because
it grows slowly and has a low yield and small
bolls. Technically, Sea-Island is closely related
to Egyptian cotton, but growers consider it a
separate kind of cotton because of its different
(G. arboreum) is grown mainly in
China, India, and Pakistan. It has short, coarse,
harsh fibers, and low yields. It is used for
blankets, padding, filters, and coarse cloth.
Cotton is a hybrid derived
from Egyptian and American Upland cottons. It is
the only variety of long-fiber cotton now grown
in commercially significant quantities in the
United States, where is is cultivated under
irrigation in the Southwest.
Uses of Cotton
All parts of the cotton plant
are useful. The most important part is the lint
(fiber) used in making cotton textiles. Cottonseed
provides oil and forms the base of many food
products. The linters, or short fuzz on
the seed, are used in making cushioning, paper,
plastics, and other products. Farmers plow under
the stalks and leaves as humus
to improve soil structure.
is used to make all kinds of clothing, from hats
to shoes. Chemists have made cotton fireproof,
waterproof, rotproof, shrinkproof, and
wrinkle-resistant. Household goods made of cotton
include rugs, towels, and bed sheets. Other
cotton-fiber products include abrasives, adhesive
tape, bookbindings, diapers, and wall coverings.
is the most important product made from
cottonseed. In some cotton-oil mills, machines
crush the kernels of the seed and crush out the
oil. Other mills roll out the kernel so that it
looks like oatmeal then use chemicals to dissolve
the oil out of the seed. Refined
(purified) cottonseed oil forms the base for such
products as margarine, salad oil, shortening, and
a frozen desert called mellorine. The remains of
the refining process are used in products such as
soap, linoleum, and phonograph records. The meal
that remains after the oil is removed from the
cottonseed contains enough protein to make it
valuable as food for farm animals. The hull
is used for chemicals and as a mulching material.
Many industries use chemically
treated linters as raw
materials for such products as plastics,
photographic film, paper, and sausage casings.
Explosives manufacturers use linters in
guncotton. Linter fibers are also used to stuff
mattresses, cushions, and pads. Linters that have
been bleached and sterilized are used as medical
Where Cotton Is
China is the world's largest
producer of cotton. The other top-producing
nations are (from 2 through 10) India, United
States, Pakistan, Brazil, Uzbekistan, Australia,
Turkey, Argentina, and Turkenistan.
Texas is the
leading producer of cotton in the United States,
accounting for almost 25 percent of total
production. The other leading producers are
Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, North Carolina,
California, Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, and
National Cotton Council of America
Questions or comments about