Cotton – History, characteristics and a lot more

from Edoardo Del Lucchese - 6 July 2017

Cotton as a vegan fiber

Cotton is a natural fiber and it is one of the most used fibers together with wool. Also, it is one of the few non-edible cultivations that humankind has sewn for centuries.

For the cotton plant to be able to grow, it needs a warm climate with very wet periods followed by very dry ones, as the latter are necessary for it to ripen.

Cotton Flowers

Cotton flowers

The fiber, used for textile production, is very long, soft, and extremely shiny, and is derived from the thick fuzz in which the seeds are wrapped. This fuzz is made up of pure cellulose and that is where the fiber comes from.
It is usually harvested at the end of the warm season. Each plant can yield up between 2 and 5 kilos of fiber.
The longer fibers are transformed into yarn, while the short ones are used to make pure cellulose.

History of cotton

It was introduced to Europe for the first time when the Saracens came to Sicily, shortly before the year 1000. However, it took at least another 3 centuries for it to spread out. For a long time, cotton was considered a luxury item on par with silk.

This fiber became exponentially more important when America was discovered, as new local species were found, which were significantly different from those coming from Asia. Cotton plantations became very common especially in South America, but it got to its maximum expansion from 1792, when new technologies made production infinitely cheaper.

Morphology and properties of cotton

Cotton is 95% cellulose and is a light, soft material with high absorption capabilities.

It has a different color based on where it grew. For the American varieties, the fiber is white, while the Egyption ones are yellowish. Finally, the Chinese ones are brownish-reddish. Similarly, the length of the fiber varies between 60 and 10 mm.

When observed through a microscope, the fiber appears to be ribbon-like, spatula-shaped. It is twisted in a spiral and has two ends. The spiral is tightly and regularly wrapped in high quality fibers.

It is non-elastic and its resistance is determined by the presence of water: wet fibers are more resistant than dry ones.

Cotton fiber under a microscope

Cotton fiber under a microscope

In order to improve and enhance certain features of cotton items, some special processes are used. These include:

  • sanforization: in order to obtain a fabric which will shrink less than 1%, the fiber is washed, pressed and dried;
  • mercerization: this treatment gives the fiber a brilliant look and a permanent shininess, as well as a great resistance to traction, a higher elasticity, and a better response to almost all dyestuffs.

Commercial classification

According to the place of origin:

  • North America: Sea Island variety, which yields long, high quality but fragile fibers; Upland variety, with medium length fibers;
  • South America: Brazil and Argentina produce good quality cotton, which is not as good as the Nort American varieties. The best ones include: Macao and Cacho cotton. Tanguis comes from Peru, Surinam comes from Colombia;
  • Egypt: these are some of the most appreciated varieties worldwide because they are very fine, shiny and resistant. The most prestigious varieties are Sakellaridis and Mako.
  • Pakistan: two types of plants are grown, a local variety, which has a short fiber of the Devi kind, and American Seeds, a good quality American variety, mostly grown for export;
  • Italy: it has a very small production, mostly concentrated in the South, where  medium-quality American Seed cotton is grown;
  • India: it is the world’s second largest producer (after the USA), but the quality of the product is rather poor. The fiber is notoriously thick and rough, quite short and with a lot of impurities. Banir, Madras and Sural are the best qualities. The lowest quality variety is called Bengal and is used to make decent quality absorbent cotton.
Cotton tops - Natural White

Cotton tops

Fun fact: difference between absorbent cotton and synthetic fiber wadding

Absorbent cotton is a product which was carded and bleached, to make it highly absorbent. The product may then be sterilized, thus making it suitable for medical use. Synthetic fiber wadding, instead, is a soft, fragile felt, made by mixing cotton cuttings which were previously washed, beaten and frayed with virgin fiber and cleaned wastes. Cotton wool is frequently used for furniture padding and to make clothes.

Some tips to take care of your cotton products

Cotton is material which does not need any special care, but it is always best to keep some basic things in mind. It can be washed with laundry detergent as well as with other types of detergent, without damaging the fiber. You need to be careful about drying it, because if you leave it wet for a long time it can be attacked by bacteria and mould. Unlike wool and silk, it is usually not attacked by moths. 

Dyed cotton tops

Dyed cotton tops

DHG has been offering cotton tops dyed and raw. It is ideal for use with many different techniques, but mainly it is used for spinning and hand felting (both wet felting and needle felting), with delightful results. Try it out yourself!

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