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What Is Cotton?

Cotton bolls on a branch.
Colored cotton towels.
Cotton field ready for harvesting.
The invention of the cotton gin allowed for the quick removal of cotton seeds from its fibers.
A cotton T-shirt.
Cottons can be blended with other natural fibers to create materials like flannel.
Article Details
  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Niki Foster
  • Images By: n/a, n/a, n/a, Funkbrothers, Gemenacom, Philip Kinsey
  • Last Modified Date: 13 July 2014
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Cotton is a natural fiber harvested from the cotton plant. It is one of the oldest fibers under human cultivation, with traces over 7,000 years old recovered from archaeological sites. Cotton is also one of the most used natural fibers in existence today, with consumers from all classes and nations wearing and using it in a variety of applications. Thousands of acres globally are devoted to its production, whether it be new world cotton, with longer, smoother fibers, or the shorter and coarser old world varieties.

This plant is in the mallow family and produces delicate, lovely flowers. Other members of the mallow family include hollyhocks and hibiscus, used to brighten gardens all over the world. The cotton fiber forms around the seeds of the plant and is designed to help carry the seeds long distances on the wind so that the plant can distribute itself. Early humans realized that the soft, fluffy fibers might be suitable for textile use and began to breed the plant, selecting for fluffy, easily spun varieties.

After harvesting, cotton must be combed to remove the seeds. This used to be a laborious process until the invention of the cotton gin, which quickly separates the seeds from the fiber and combs them for spinning. While a single fiber is not terribly strong, when multiple curling fibers are straightened and twisted together, they form a strong, smooth thread that can be knitted or woven, as well as dyed.

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Cotton is somewhat flammable, especially lighter ones that hold a lot of air. Some is chemically treated to reduce flammability. Many cottons are also blended with other natural fibers, such as linen, for particular properties, or to add texture and strength to the fiber. The fiber can be woven or knitted. It can also be turned into flannel, corduroy, muslin, and a variety of other fabrics used so universally that the American Cotton Council uses “the fabric of our lives” as a tag line.

This material also carries environmental controversy, particularly in the developing world, where dangerous pesticides are heavily employed. Cotton is subject to infestation, and therefore many growers heavily douse the plant in pesticides that are harmful to human and animal health, as well as herbicides to eliminate competition for resources. A number of producers also genetically modify the plant, which many outside the industry view as a questionable practice. Cotton also has very large water requirements, which may place stress on nations with limited water resources. In the late 20th century, there was a push for organic, sustainable cotton grown and harvested without the use of pesticides and human exploitation. It is significantly more expensive than conventionally farmed varieties, however, and may not be practical for most consumers.

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Discuss this Article

anon286721
Post 72

Is cotton stain resistant?

anon284796
Post 71

Is cotton durable?

anon283028
Post 70

What is the biggest cotton boll?

anon262926
Post 63

Does cotton grow on plants?

anon262757
Post 62

What is the fibre content and fabric structure of cotton?

anon261639
Post 61

How is cotton produced into textile fibers?

anon257219
Post 59

Is cotton waterproof?

anon257059
Post 58

How do you grow cotton?

anon256218
Post 57

Is cotton stain resistant and biodegradable?

anon255866
Post 56

what can be used to make the cotton grow faster & prevent it from disease

anon254318
Post 53

Where is cotton widely grown?

amypollick
Post 52

@anon250875: Cotton is blended with nearly any other fiber you can imagine, natural and synthetic. It is woven with linen, nylon, rayon, polyester, ramie, even silk. There are all sorts of uses for cotton blend fabrics.

@anon250712: There are two ways to harvest cotton: by hand or by machine. U.S. farmers used to have their cotton handpicked before the cotton picker was invented. A cotton picker looks like a big popcorn machine on wheels. It has a huge hopper where the cotton is collected when it is picked. There are pictures of cotton pickers online.

Harvesting by hand is a hot, nasty process. Ever seen the movie "Places in the Heart"? It's about as accurate a depiction of picking cotton by hand as has ever been seen. The hulls are sharp and will slice your fingers, and it takes a while to fill up a tow sack. I've never picked cotton, but my parents and grandparents did. It's a nasty job.

anon250875
Post 51

But what other natural fibres get mixed with the cotton?

anon250712
Post 50

How is cotton harvested?

anon211772
Post 47

do you know what fibers have been used to make polyester cotton?

amypollick
Post 46

@anon178124: Please re-read the article. Cotton is not made from a polymer. It is a natural fiber. It comes from the cotton plant. It is like linen or silk -- a natural fiber.

anon208953
Post 45

Cotton on its own made into a shirt can be very thin and can get stained easily. I know. I wore make up in aussie and my t-shirt collar got stained a peach colour. I was not very happy.

anon178124
Post 44

From which polymer is cotton made?

anon177380
Post 43

what is the importance of cotton in textiles?

anon174426
Post 42

What is the fibre content of cotton and cotton's fabric structure? This will be really helpful!

anon170389
Post 41

What is cotton's chemical formula?

anon155256
Post 39

Can cotton help in reducing air pollution in vehicles?

anon154928
Post 38

is cotton produced every year?

anon127474
Post 36

what is the molecular structure of a cotton molecule?

anon120781
Post 35

what are the most uses of cotton?

anon111743
Post 34

So what's the time that the plant cotton takes to produce itself? And exactly where is the cotton growing right now?

anon102832
Post 32

what are the machines used in making cotton as a useful thing?

anon97223
Post 31

yes cotton is cool and comfortable to wear, but it doesn't dry very fast. however, it is popular for travelers to hot countries.

anon93424
Post 30

what is the name of the plant, suitable area , and things made from it, etc. Sanchit p.

anon90615
Post 29

If cotton is flammable then why have you mentioned that cotton is good for firefighting personnel?

anon90384
Post 27

Is cotton a good conductor? Thanks.

anon85668
Post 26

What part of cotton plant is used?

anon83324
Post 25

what different markets is cotton sold to around the world?

amypollick
Post 24

@Anon81759: Yes, cotton is flammable. It is a natural fiber. Manufacturers use oil made from the cotton seed in food products, but the plant and bolls are not edible (Would you eat a cotton ball?).

Cotton is not generally considered to be a dangerous fiber, since it is natural. Usually people are not allergic to it.

anon81759
Post 23

Thanks. This helped me loads for my homework.

Could you eat cotton? Is it flammable and could it be dangerous? But thanks.

anon72670
Post 21

Cotton grows in many countries including Australia and USA.

anon70007
Post 20

was the cotton gin only made for cotton or could it be used for something else if so what?

anon69701
Post 19

when did cotton start being used?

anon68138
Post 18

this is helping me a lot. thanks.

anon61670
Post 17

does cotton affect hearing? Is cotton fabric different than regular cotton?

anon50350
Post 15

is cotton easily stretched and made into denim?

anon46226
Post 14

is cotton stain resistant?

anon42375
Post 12

Hi. How long does it take to make the shirts and how many people do this at the work place?

anon39586
Post 11

Does it keep us warm? Are stains easy to get out? is it absorbent? Is it expensive? Does it wrinkle easily? Will it shrink when washed?

Is it durable or delicate? Does the fabric stretch? Is it heavy or light? Is it thick or thin?

Sorry for asking so many questions, but I have a school assignment due and I really need some help!

anon35930
Post 10

what parts of the cotton plant can be used?

do you have any interesting history on cotton?

thanks

anon35089
Post 9

What exactly does cotton consist of? -MSc Forensic Student-

anon29485
Post 8

is cotton long lasting? if worn as board shorts

does cotton absorb a lot of water? does cotton have a soft feel? is cotton cool to wear?

is cotton quick drying?

and sorry for so many questions :)

please answer *all*

thanks and regards from secret shhhhh

anon18809
Post 5

does cotton need to be pollinated?

anon10709
Post 2

Is cotton flammable??

Moderator's reply: yes, cotton is one of the more flammable fabrics, because it is a natural fiber.

anon1864
Post 1

Where is cotton growing?

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