In the last month, we looked at the different types of fabric, different types of lace and man made vs natural vs synthetic fibres. Being that cotton fabric is very popular for making clothes, I thought it might be interesting for you to learn more about where cotton comes from and how cotton is made into fabric!
Cotton fibre is used in woven fabric, knit fabric and lace, and is also used to blend with other fibres to create fabrics that better suit a need – polycotton is a great example!
What Is Cotton?
Cotton is a natural cellulose fibre, grown by a cotton farmer and comes from the cotton plant. Cotton fiber is fluffy, and grows in a ‘boll’ which protects the cotton seed inside.
Cotton is grown around the world with India currently being the biggest producer and the USA the biggest exporter.
There are some great resources which I will link to throughout this article that highlight the different exploitative and non-sustainable practices when it comes to the production of cotton – if you click on those I’ve set them to open in a new window so that you don’t lose your place here!
Note: Some of the links in this post are affiliate links, which means I may receive a commission if you make a purchase at no further cost to you.
Cotton Production Process
Cotton cloth is the product of a lengthy cotton production process – no sooner is one cotton crop harvested than the next is set.
“Those lovely, fluffy cotton bolls must be carded, spun, spooled and warped, slashed … drawn and woven or knitted into sized cloth before being sent off to the finishing mill. Then it needs to be kiered … to remove natural impurities, bleached to be made white, mercerised to give the fabric shine and strength, and to enable it to take dye, then printed or dyed and finally sized again.”Lucy Siegle ‘To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out The World?‘
While the above is a simplified version of the cotton production process, it is an accurate representation of the excessive number of steps involved in turning cotton fibre into fabric that we can then use to create cotton clothing.
Once ready to harvest, the cotton boll opens and the whisps of fluffy cotton become visible. This natural fibre is then collected.
How Is Cotton Picked?
Cotton is picked differently around the world.
In developed countries, cotton is picked by machine and in developing countries, the harvest is still picked by hand.
And in Xinjiang in China, cotton is picked through forced labour (modern slavery). Sadly, 20% of the world’s cotton is picked by forced labour methods.
Machines Used In Picking Cotton
There are two machines used in the harvesting of the cotton plant:
1. Cotton Picker
The first cotton picker was invented in the 1920s!
Incredibly, this machine can pick the cotton from the boll and leave the plant undamaged – it has revolving prongs which pick the cotton from the bolls when ripe.
2. Cotton Stripper
A cotton stripper ‘strips’ the entire cotton boll along with its stalk, and is not only very invasive, but also incredbily wasteful, as many of the bolls end up being picked before they are ripe and are then discarded.
Picking Cotton By Hand
The process of picking cotton by hand is lengthy and painful. As the cotton bolls can ripen at different times, cotton pickers can be picking for several months.
In Uzbekistan, the cotton harvest is ‘picked courtesy of the forced labour of the country’s children and young adults’ (Lucy Siegle) for two months in the autumn.
Children are taken out of school during these harvest months and are forced to work from dawn until sunset with high daily quotas being set. And though they are said to be ‘paid’ for their work, when the fines are handed out for not meeting their excessive quotas, the reality boils down to child slave labour.
If you’d like to learn more, please do grab Lucy Siegle’s book ‘To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out The World’. It was one of the first books I read when I became aware of the levels of exploitation in the fashion industry and I return to it often.
I also have a guide featuring other sustainable fashion books here.
Carding Cotton Fibre
Once the cotton is picked is needs to be cleaned.
The cotton cleaning process removes any stalks, leaves and other matter that got caught up when being picked and depending on the textile mill processing it, can be quite a lengthy process!
Once clean, the carding machine – a roller with teeth! – is used to turn those short fibres into longer lengths by breaking up the fibre lumps and smoothing the fibre out.
Spinning The Cotton Fibre
The next step in making cotton fabric is to create the cotton yarn! On a commercial level the cotton fibre would be taken to a spinning mill so that the fibre can be spun into cotton yarn.
And of course, as well as yarn, cotton is also created in thread form too!
Creating Cotton Fabric
Of course, once the cotton is in a yarn form, we then get to the process of turning the yarn into fabric!
Weaving Cotton Cloth
Cotton cloth is created from weaving. A loom is warped up with cotton warp yarn and then woven with cotton weft yarn.
The more warp and weft threads, the tighter the weave of the cotton cloth. The fewer warp and weft threads the looser the cotton weave.
Modern weaving machines (above) can weave at an insanely high RMP whereas human hands throwing a shuttle back and forth is a lot slower. I know which process I prefer!
Knitted Cotton Fabric
Of course, cotton can also be knitted once the yarn is created. While not used as much in the home knitting community (wool and acrylics seem to be the preferred choice), the home sewing community loves knitted cotton fabrics.
If you want to learn more, I have a great guide to knitted fabrics here!
Cotton Fabric Examples
Fabric made from cotton comes in all weights. Here are five cotton fabric examples!
- Cotton lawn is a great lightweight cotton used for summer clothing
- Cotton shirting is more tightly woven than cotton lawn and is used… for shirts!
- Cotton drill is heavier than shirting and is often used for trousers
- Cotton denim (without any stretch factor added) can be woven in various weights (chambray, raw etc) and is used for many garment types from chambray shirts to raw denim jeans and jackets
- Cotton canvas is a tougher fabric made from woven cotton and is used for bags and outerwear
How do you feel about cotton? Is it a fabric that you love to use or one you’ve stayed away from when sewing? If the latter, for what reasons have you avoided using cotton and what have you replaced it with? Do let me know in the comments below!
Eve Tokens (aka The Creative Curator) is a fashion designer, creative pattern cutter and sewing pattern designer.
Eve graduated with a 2:1 in Fashion Design from the University of The Creative Arts in the UK, has a BTEC diploma in Creative Pattern Cutting, a Foundation Degree in Art & Design from Wimbledon College of Art and gained extensive experience in the fashion industry by interning and freelancing for London based fashion brands – Hardy Amies, Roland Mouret, Peter Pilotto and others.
As well as running her own small sustainable fashion brand, Eve has more than 25 years experience sewing and making clothes for herself and family members.