Cotton is a shrubby plant that is a member of the Mallow family. Its name refers to the cream-colored fluffy fibers surrounding small cottonseeds called a boll. The small, sticky seeds must be separated from the wool in order to process the cotton for spinning and weaving. De-seeded cotton is cleaned, carded (fibers aligned), spun, and woven into a fabric that is also referred to as cotton. Cotton is easily spun into yarn as the cotton fibers flatten, twist, and naturally interlock for spinning. Cotton fabric alone accounts for fully half of the fiber worn in the world. It is a comfortable choice for warm climates in that it easily absorbs skin moisture. Most of the cotton cultivated in the United States is a short-staple cotton that grows in the American South. Cotton is planted annually by using the seeds found within the downy wool. The states that primarily cultivate cotton are located in the "Cotton Belt," which runs east and west and includes parts of California, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas, which alone produces nearly five million bales. Together, these states produce approximately 16 million bales a year, second only to China. Business revenue generated by cotton today is approximately $122.4 billion—the greatest revenue of any United States crop.
The cotton plant is a source for many important products other than fabric. Among the most important is cottonseed, which is pressed for cottonseed oil that is used in commercial products such as salad oils and snack foods, cosmetics, soap, candles, detergents, and paint. The hulls and meal are used for animal feed. Cotton is also a source for cellulose products, fertilizer, fuel, automobile tire cord, pressed paper, and cardboard.
Cotton was used for clothing in present-day Peru and Mexico perhaps as long as 5,000 years ago. Also, cotton was grown, spun, and woven in ancient India, China, Egypt, and Pakistan, around 3000 B.C.
Cotton is not native to Western Europe. Around A.D. 800, Arabic traders likely introduced cotton to Spaniards. By the fourteenth century, Mediterranean farmers were cultivating the cotton plant and shipping the fiber to the Netherlands for spinning and weaving. British innovations in the late 1700s include water-powered spinning machinery, a monumental improvement over hand-spinning. An American named Samuel Slater, who worked with British machinery, memorized the plans for a machine spinner and returned to Rhode Island to set up Slater Mill, the first American textile mill to utilize machine spinners. This mill represents the beginning of the U.S. Industrial Revolution, built on the mechanism of the cotton industry.
Two developments spurred the cultivation of American cotton: cotton spinners and the cotton gin. The cotton gin, developed by Eli Whitney in 1793, easily removed tenacious cottonseeds. Southern plantation owners began planting cotton as a result of these innovations, using enslaved labor for harvesting the cotton. Vigorous cotton cultivation in the South using enslaved labor is considered one reason for friction between North and South that led to the Civil War.
Southern cotton was shipped to New England mills in huge quantities. As a result of machine spinning, weaving, and printing, Americans could cheaply purchase calico and it became universally worn. However, labor costs were significant in New England. Mill owners found ways to reduce those costs, first by employing women and immigrants who were often paid poorly, then by employing young children in the factories. After oppressive labor practices were largely halted, many factories moved to the South where labor was cheaper. (Unionizing efforts affected the profits of those mills.) Today, a fair amount of cotton is woven outside the United States where labor is less costly. Polyester, a synthetic, is often used along with cotton, but has little chance of supplanting the natural fiber.
The materials required to take cotton bolls to spun cotton include cottonseeds for planting; pesticides, such as insecticides, fungicides, and herbicides, to battle disease and harmful insects; and fertilizers to enrich the soil.
There are agricultural requirements for growing cotton in the United States. Cotton has a long growing season (it can be as long as seven months) so it is best to plant cotton early—February in Texas but as late as June in northern cotton-growing states such as Missouri. Cotton should not be planted before the sun has warmed the soil. It performs best in well-drained, crumbly soils that can hold moisture. It can be grown between latitudes of 30° north and 30° south. Good cotton crops require a long, sunny growing season with at least 160 frost-free days and high moisture levels resulting from rainfall or irrigation during the growing season. However, too much rain during harvest or strong winds during picking can damage the open bolls and load the fiber with too much water, which can ruin the cotton in storage. Generally, a cotton farmer must farm about 2,000 acres (20,000 hectares) if the operation is to be economically viable. On average, an acre will produce about 1.5 bales of cotton, or about 750 lb (340 kg).
Cotton growing is a long, involved process and growers must understand the requirements of the plant and keep vigilant lookout for potential problems. Pests must be managed in order to yield high-quality crops; however, growers must use chemicals very carefully in order to prevent damage to the environment. Defoliants are often used to maximize yield and control fiber color. Farmers must carefully monitor moisture levels at harvesting so bales will not be ruined by excess water during storage. Soil tests are imperative, since too much nitrogen in the soil may attract certain pests to the cotton.
Expensive equipment such as cotton planters and harvesters must be carefully maintained. Mechanical planters must be set carefully to deposit seed at the right depth, and gauge wheels and shoes must be corrected to plant rows at the requisite spot. Similarly, improperly adjusted machinery spindles on harvesting machines will leave cotton on the spindle, lowering quality of the cotton and harvesting efficiency. A well-adjusted picker minimizes the amount of trash taken up, rendering cleaner cotton.
There is much discussion regarding the amount of chemicals used in cotton cultivation. Currently, it is estimated that growers use, on average, 5.3 oz (151 g) of chemicals to produce one pound of processed cotton. Cotton cultivation is responsible for 25% of all chemical pesticides used on American crops. Unfortunately, cotton attracts many pests (most notably the boll weevil) and is prone to a number of rots and spotting, and chemicals are used to keep these under control. There are concerns about wildlife poisoning and poisons that remain in the soil long after cotton is no longer grown (although no heavy metals are used in the chemicals). As a result, some farmers have turned to organic cotton growing. Organic farming utilizes biological control to rid cotton of pests and alters planting patterns in specific ways to reduce fungicide use. While this method of cultivation is possible, an organically grown crop generally yields less usable cotton. This means an organic farmer must purchase, plant, and harvest more acreage to yield enough processed cotton to make the crop lucrative, or reduce costs in other ways to turn a profit. Increasingly, state university extension services are working with cotton farmers to reduce chemical use by employing certain aspects of biological control in order to reduce toxins that remain in the land and flow into water systems.
Daniel, Pete. Breaking the Land. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1987.
Johnson, Guinevere. Cotton. Let's Investigate Series. Mankato, MN: The Creative Co., 1999.
The Cotton Pickin' Web. http://ipmwww.ncsu.edu/CottonPickin (January 2, 2001).
Land of Cotton Online Newsmagazine for the Cotton Industry. http://www.landofcotton.com (January 2, 2001).
National Cotton Council of America. Education Materials. http://www.cotton.org/ncc/education (January 2, 2001).
The Organic Cotton Site. http://www.sustainablecotton.org . (January 2, 2001).
— Nancy E.V. Bryk