Cotton is a soft fibre that grows around the seeds of the cotton plant . The fibre is most often spun into thread and used to make a soft, breathable textile.

Picking cotton in Georgia

Cotton is a very valuable crop because only about 10% of the raw weight is lost in processing. Once traces of wax, protein, etc. are removed, the remainder is a natural polymer of pure cellulose. This cellulose is arranged in a way which gives cotton unique properties of strength, durability, and absorbency. Each fibre is made up of twenty to thirty layers of cellulose coiled in a neat series of natural springs. When the cotton boll (seed case) is opened the fibres dry into flat, twisted, ribbon-like shapes and become kinked together and interlocked. This interlocked form is ideal for spinning into a fine yarn.

Cotton has been used to make very fine lightweight cloth in areas with tropical climates for millennia. Some authorities claim that it was likely that the Egyptians had cotton as early as 12,000 BC, and they have found evidence of cotton in Mexican caves (cotton cloth and fragments of fibre interwoven with feathers and fur) which dated back to approximately 7,000 years ago.

But the earliest written reference is to Indian cotton. Cotton has been grown in India for more than three thousand years, and it is referred to in the Rig-veda, written in 1500 BC. A thousand years later the great Greek historian Herodotus wrote about Indian cotton: "There are trees which grow wild there, the fruit of which is a wool exceeding in beauty and goodness that of sheep. The Indians make their clothes of this tree wool." The Indian cotton industry was eclipsed during the British Industrial Revolution, when the invention of the Spinning Jenny (1764) and Arkwright's spinning frame (1769) enabled cheap mass-production in the UK. Production capacity was further improved by the invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney in 1793.

Today cotton is produced in many parts of the world, including Europe, Asia, Africa, the Americas and Australia, using cotton plants that have been selectively bred so that each plant grows more fibre. In 2002, cotton was grown on 33 million hectares of farmland. 47 billion pounds of raw cotton worth 20 billion dollars US was grown that year.

GM cotton was developed to reduce the heavy reliance on pesticides. GM cotton is widely used throughout the world with claims of requiring up to 80% less pesticide than ordinary cotton. The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA) said that worldwide GM cotton was planted on an area of 6.7 million hectares in 2002. This is 20% of the worldwide total area planted in cotton. The US cotton crop was 73% GM in 2003. The introduction of GM cotton proved to be a commercial disaster in Australia - the yields were far lower than predicted, and the cotton plants cross-pollinated with other varieties of cotton potentially causing many legal problems for unsuspecting farmers. However the introduction of a second variety of GM cotton led to 15% of Australian cotton in being GM in 2003 with an expectation of 80% in 2004 when the original variety will be banned.

The cotton industry relies heavily on chemicals - fertilisers, insecticides, etc., making it environmentally unfriendly. Some farmers are moving towards an organic model of production, and chemical-free organic cotton products are now available.

Old British Cotton Yarn Measures

  • 1 thread = 54 inches (c. 137 cm)
  • 1 skein or rap = 80 threads (120 yards or c. 109 m)
  • 1 hank = 7 skeins (840 yards or c. 768 m)
  • 1 spindle = 18 hanks (15,120 yards or c. 13.826 km)

References and further reading

For the British band leader and entertainer, see Billy Cotton.