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What is Cotton Fabric: Properties, How its Made and Where

by Boris Hodakel  • June 18, 2019 • 11 min read

Fabric name Cotton
Fabric also known as Pima cotton, Egyptian cotton, Supima cotton
Fabric composition Organic fibers from the seeds of the cotton plant
Fabric possible thread count variations 100, 200, 300, 600, up to 2,000
Fabric breathability Very breathable
Moisture-wicking abilities High
Heat retention abilities Medium
Stretchability (give) Medium
Prone to pilling/bubbling High
Country where fabric was first produced Ancient India
Biggest exporting/producing country today India
Recommended washing temperatures Medium or high
Commonly used in Shirts, dresses, blouses, underwear, socks, sweaters, sheets, blankets, bags, jeans, skirts

Cotton Fabric GauzeCotton Fabric Gauze

What Is Cotton Fabric?

Cotton fabric is one of the most commonly used types of fabrics in the world. This textile is chemically organic, which means that it does not contain any synthetic compounds. Cotton fabric is derived from the fibers surrounding the seeds of cotton plants, which emerge in a round, fluffy formation once the seeds are mature.

The earliest evidence for the use of cotton fibers in textiles is from the Mehrgarh and Rakhigarhi sites in India, which date to approximately 5000 BC. The Indus Valley Civilization, which spanned the Indian Subcontinent from 3300 to 1300 BC, was able to flourish due to cotton cultivation, which provided the people of this culture with readily available sources of clothing and other textiles.

It’s possible that people in the Americas used cotton for textiles as long ago as 5500 BC, but it’s clear that cotton cultivation was widespread throughout Mesoamerica since at least 4200 BC. While the Ancient Chinese relied more on silk than cotton for the production of textiles, cotton cultivation was popular in China during the Han dynasty, which lasted from 206 BC to 220 AD.

While cotton cultivation was widespread in both Arabia and Iran, this textile plant didn’t make its way to Europe in full force until the late Middle Ages. Before this point, Europeans believed that cotton grew on mysterious trees in India, and some scholars during this period even suggested that this textile was a type of wool that was produced by sheep that grew on trees.

Cotton 1Cotton 1

The Islamic conquest of the Iberian Peninsula, however, introduced Europeans to cotton production, and the European countries quickly became major producers and exporters of cotton along with Egypt and India.

Since the earliest days of cotton cultivation, this fabric has been prized for its exceptional breathability and lightness. Cotton fabric is also incredibly soft, but it has heat retention attributes that make it something like a mixture of silk and wool.

While cotton is more durable than silk, it is less durable than wool, and this fabric is relatively prone to pilling, rips, and tears. Nonetheless, cotton remains one of the most popular and highly produced fabrics in the world. This textile has relatively high tensile strength, and its natural coloring is white or slightly yellowish.

Cotton is very water absorbent, but it also dries quickly, which makes it highly moisture wicking. You can wash cotton in high heat, and this fabric drapes well on your body. However, cotton fabric is relatively prone to wrinkling, and it will shrink when washed unless it is exposed to a pre-treatment.

How Is Cotton Fabric Made?

how is cotton fabric made

Cotton fabric producers derive this textile from the fibrous protective casing that surrounds cotton seeds, which is called a boll. While cotton seeds themselves are quite small, the bolls that encase them can be larger than the end of your thumb.

To make cotton fabric, producers must first separate the cotton seed from the boll. In the past, this step was done by hand, but in 1794, American entrepreneur Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin, which is a mechanical device that greatly expedites the cotton separation process.

These days, automated forms of the cotton gin exist that make the process even easier for human workers. Machines can harvest cotton bolls from agricultural fields, and other machines can then separate the seeds from the bolls.

Cotton production begins in the spring when cotton seeds are planted. In most cases, automated machines plant cotton seeds in 10 or more rows simultaneously. Seedlings emerge within approximately seven days, and mature cotton bolls appear within 55 to 80 days.

People Tree Organic Cotton Alana JumpsuitPeople Tree Organic Cotton Alana Jumpsuit

Prior to machine harvesting, human workers are generally required for defoliation, which is the process of removing the leaves from cotton plants. Next, a single machine harvests the amount of cotton that 50 people could pick, and this same machine removes large contaminants from the cotton fibers and forms it into bales.

High-efficiency automated cotton gins can process up to 60 raw cotton bales weighing 500 pounds each in the space of an hour. These gins remove the seeds from cotton bolls, and they also remove any dirt or trash from the cotton.

Once cotton has been cleaned to the extent that it consists of pure cotton fibers without any seeds or trash, it is transferred to a textile production facility. At this facility, the raw cotton is carded, which is the process of forming cotton fibers into long strands. Next, these strands are spun to create yarn.

At this stage, the basic material used in cotton fabrics is complete. This cotton yarn may then be subjected to a variety of chemical treatments, and it may be dyed. Next, it is woven into a particular type of textile material such as a bedsheet, T-shirt, or pair of blue jeans.

How Is Cotton Fabric Used?

how is cotton fabric used

Approximately 75 percent of the world’s clothing products contain at least some amount of cotton. In sheer numbers, cotton is the most widely used textile fiber in the world, and manufacturers can spin this fabric into a myriad of different types of products.

For instance, most T-shirts contain at least some amount of cotton, and true blue jeans are 100 percent cotton. This fabric is used to make bathrobes, bathmats, and towels, and it is also used to make bedsheets, blankets, and duvets. Manufacturers may even use cotton to make curtains, wall-hangings, and other types of home decorations.

Since cotton is highly breathable and absorbent, it is commonly used to make warm-weather clothing. Its softness makes it a good option for formal and business wear, and its notable draping abilities make it an ideal fabric for dresses.

Manufacturers use cotton to make medical supplies, and this fabric is also used to make industrial thread and tarps. In summation, cotton can be used to make practically any type of textile for consumer or industrial use.

Where Is Cotton Fabric Produced?

cotton fabric in the world

India and China are frequently tied as the largest cotton producers in the world. According to Statista, India overtook its East Asian competitor between 2017 and 2018 by producing 6,205,000 metric tons of cotton. For comparison, China produced 5,987,000 metric tons of cotton fiber during this same period.

At 4,555,000 metric tons, the USA is the next-largest producer of cotton. While these three nations produce the vast majority of the world’s cotton, other nations, such as Brazil, Pakistan, and Australia consistently produce more than 1 million metric tons of this fiber per year.

How Much Does Cotton Fabric Cost?

According toIndexMundi, raw cotton costs approximately $0.75 per pound. However, these prices are subject to constant change. Cotton costs significantly more once a producer has formed it into yarn, and its price increases again once this fiber is made into a final product.

Yellow Cotton FabricYellow Cotton Fabric

Comparatively speaking, cotton is one of the least expensive textile fibers in the world, which has contributed to its popularity. However, the cheapest cotton is cotton that has not been produced sustainably, and better forms of cotton cost much more.

For instance, forms of extra-long-staple cotton are significantly more expensive than traditional short-staple cotton. Examples of extra-long-staple cotton include Egyptian cotton and Pima cotton. These types of cotton cost more for manufacturers to produce, and they also cost more at the consumer level.

What Different Types of Cotton Fabric Are There?

different types of cotton fabric

There are four distinct species of cotton that are used to make cotton fabric. In addition, there are several sub-varieties of cotton fabric that are made from these plant species:

Cotton Plant Varieties

1. Gossypium hirsutum

This type of cotton is the most widely-produced form of this textile crop. It accounts for 90 percent of the world’s cotton production, and it is native to Central America and the nations surrounding the Caribbean Sea.

Over the years, traders have exported this type of cotton to practically every location throughout the world, and it grows well in practically any climate. Gossypium hirsutum is a short-staple (SS) cotton fiber, which means that it is not as high-quality as other forms of this textile fiber.

Baby Blanket with Cotton FabricBaby Blanket with Cotton Fabric

2. Gossypium barbadense

Gossypium barbadense is an extra-long-staple (ELS) cotton variety, which means that it consists of longer cotton fibers that produce softer and more luxurious textiles. This type of cotton accounts of 8 percent of the world’s cotton production, and it is significantly more expensive than Gossypium hirsutum.

This ELS cotton variation is native to South America, and it has been exported to a variety of locations throughout the world. For instance, Pima cotton is a form of Gossypium barbadense, and producers cultivate this type of cotton in China, India, and other foreign nations.

3. Gossypium arboretum

While most types of cotton grow on small bushes, Gossypium arboretum grows on larger bushes that could almost be considered to be trees. This type of cotton accounts for less than 2 percent of global production.

4. Gossypium herbaceum

Also known as Levant cotton, this type of fiber is native to Africa and Arabia, and it contributes less than 2 percent to global cotton cultivation.

Chico's Women's Supima Cotton Convertible TankChico's Women's Supima Cotton Convertible Tank

Cotton Fabric Varieties

1. Short-staple cotton

Short-staple (SS) cotton is any type of cotton that consists of fibers that are up to 1.125 inches long. While this type of cotton is great for everyday use, it isn’t as soft as other types of cotton.

2. Long-staple cotton

Long-staple (LS) cotton is any type of cotton that consists of fibers that are between 1.125 and 1.25 inches long. This type of cotton is somewhat more luxurious than SS cotton.

3. Extra-long-staple cotton

Extra-long staple (ELS) cotton is any type of cotton that consists of fibers that are longer than 1.25 inches. ELS cotton is the most luxurious and soft type of cotton in existence.

4. Egyptian cotton

Egyptian cotton is a term that refers to certain forms of either LS or ELS cotton. Giza 45 cotton, for instance, is over 45 millimeters (1.77 inches) long, which makes it one of the longest and most luxurious varieties of cotton in existence.

5. Pima cotton

Pima cotton is a type of ELS cotton that was created through a partnership between the U.S. government and the Pima Indians in the early 20th century. It is considered to be one of the most durable forms of cotton.

6. Supima cotton

Supima cotton is a type Pima cotton that has received the blessing of the American Supima Association (ASA). To be considered “Supima,” Pima cotton can only be grown in the United States with organic cultivation practices.

How Does Cotton Fabric Impact the Environment?

Cotton production is inherently non-impactful on the environment. Since this type of textile is a natural fiber, it is biodegradable, and it doesn’t fill up waterways or contribute to other forms of pollution.

However, thepractices that manufacturers use to make cotton may be harmful to the environment. Cotton cultivation requires a huge amount of water, and producing this textile may also involve land repurposing.

Since most cotton producers focus on cultivating the largest amount of fiber possible at the lowest cost, they don’t properly care for the land they use for cultivation. As a result, cotton cultivation frequently depletes the soil in the areas where it is grown.

Most cotton producers worldwide resort to agrochemicals, such as pesticides and fertilizers, to grow their crops. These harmful chemicals run off into the surrounding water, poison the soil, and end up being present in potentially dangerous concentrations in end products.

In the vast majority of instances, cotton cultivation is an exploitative practice in which international corporations take advantage of poor, uneducated people in third-world countries to produce these fibers. This practice is harmful to communities, and it supports a cycle of poverty that results in reduced life expectancy and multiple succeeding generations of servitude.

It’s possible, however, to cultivate cotton with organic means. Organic cultivation processes do not involve any artificial pesticides or fertilizers, which reduces the environmental impact of the production of this textile fiber.

To be certified as organic, cotton cultivators must also promote sustainability within the communities where they operate. Workers who produce organic cotton must be compensated fairly, and environmental degradation must be kept to a minimum. Certain kinds of cotton, such as Supima cotton, are only available in organic forms.

Cotton Fabric Certifications Available

cotton fabric certifications

A variety of certifications are available to cotton producers. For instance, the European Union’s organic standards organization can certify cotton as organic, as can the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Certain independent organizations also provide organic certification for cotton products. Most notable among them is the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), which is an organization that specifically focuses on providing consumers with access to safe and sustainable organic fabrics.

Another company known as OEKO TEK also certifies organic textiles. Plus, all Supima cotton is organic, and an organization called the American Supima Association (ASA) must certify Pima cotton for it to be considered Supima.

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About the author:

Boris Hodakel is the founder and CEO of Sewport - an online marketplace connecting brands and manufacturers, former founder of various clothing manufacturing services. He is passionate about e-commerce, marketing and production digitisation. Connect with Boris on LinkedIn.