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What is Cotton: The Comprehensive Guide

Cotton, hailed as the “white gold,” has always been a fundamental component of numerous aspects of human life, playing a pivotal role. What magical mysteries lie within a humble piece of cotton, and how does it metamorphose into the diverse forms that permeate our daily existence? This article aims to unravel its enigmatic allure and shed light on its captivating journey.

What is Cotton?

Cotton is one of the oldest and most widely used raw materials in the world, playing a significant role in the global economy. As a versatile and precious crop, it holds a rich historical significance. Renowned for its natural fiber, and prized for its softness, breathability, and absorbency, it stems from the fluffy fibers enveloping the seeds within cotton bolls. These fibers undergo harvesting and processing, contributing to a diverse array of products, ranging from clothing and bedding to various industrial materials.

The Cultivation and Growing of Cotton

The Long History of Cotton Cultivation

Cotton, the world’s leading cash crop, has a rich and enduring history that dates back to its cultivation in the Indus Valley civilization from 5000-4000 B.C. The people of this ancient civilization recognized the value of cotton fibers for fabric making, and over time, its cultivation gradually spread to other regions. In the 9th century, the Moors introduced cotton cultivation to Spain, and in the 15th century, cotton found its way to England and later to the British colonies in North America.

Cotton cultivation gained even greater significance after the Industrial Revolution, particularly in the southern United States, where it became one of the pillars of the local economy. However, this expansion was accompanied by the institution of slavery, which had profound and far-reaching consequences for society.

As cotton cultivation became more widespread, the cotton textile industry also rose to prominence, showcasing the ingenious use of natural resources and the continuous improvement of textile technology.

The Growth of Cotton

Cotton thrives in warm climates with well-drained soil and ample water supply. Today, some of the major cotton-producing countries include the United States, China, India, Pakistan, Brazil, and several Central Asian countries. 

China stands as one of the largest cotton producers in the world, while India boasts a long-standing history of cotton cultivation. In the United States, the southern states, including Texas, Georgia, Mississippi, and others, formed the renowned Cotton Belt and contributed significantly to cotton production.

How is Cotton Processed?

In our perception, cotton is pure and flawless white. However, the fruit of this plant is not so. So how do people harvest, process, and transform cotton into various cotton products we use daily? 

In the early days, one of the most challenging tasks for cotton farmers was picking cotton. Manual picking was time-consuming and affected the quality of the cotton fibers. Nowadays, manual labor has been replaced by large cotton-picking machines, significantly enhancing efficiency. 

Cotton Picking

These machines harvest mature cotton bolls, removing burrs and branches. The cotton module maker compresses the cotton with seeds into thick, white blocks, which are then sent to cotton gin factories where the cotton will undergo a “cleaning” process.

The separation of cotton fibers from the cottonseeds to produce clean cotton is a crucial step. Historically, this separation was conducted manually, yielding a mere 0.5 kilograms of cotton per day due to its inefficiency. However, in 1793, Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin transformed this landscape, automating the process and skyrocketing production to an impressive 25 kilograms of clean cotton daily.

To remove moisture from the cotton, they are subjected to a drying machine. This step makes the cotton looser and easier to separate. Afterward, they are sent to a cotton gin, where they undergo a process called “carding” using steel teeth to separate the loose cotton fibers from the cottonseeds. 

The separated cotton fibers are then collected in a designated area. They are graded and processed accordingly based on evaluations of fiber length, cleanliness, and color.

These cotton fibers can be spun into yarn and woven into cotton fabric, which becomes the clothing you wear after dyeing, finishing, and sewing. They can be processed in other ways to make quilts and other products, or they even be present in the paper money you use.

How Does Cotton Impact the Environment?

The cultivation, processing, and utilization of cotton have undeniable environmental implications. Among them, irrigation in cotton cultivation and the use of pesticides and fertilizers have significant effects on the environment.

Cotton, being a water-intensive crop, necessitates substantial water consumption during cultivation. Approximately half of the global cotton fields rely on groundwater irrigation, which exacerbates water scarcity concerns in these regions.

Throughout the cotton growth cycle, pesticides, insecticides, and fertilizers are employed to ensure optimal yield and quality. However, these chemical substances can have detrimental effects on the local ecosystem, compromising soil quality and water systems. Intensive cotton cultivation can further lead to issues such as soil degradation, erosion, and fertility depletion.

The processing of raw cotton and the manufacturing of textile products also contribute to environmental consequences, primarily in terms of energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. To foster the sustainable development of the cotton industry, it is imperative to implement stringent control measures and pursue continuous improvements to minimize the environmental impact of both cultivation and processing.

You can opt for certified organic cotton, which is cultivated without the use of chemicals and can be a proactive choice in promoting environmental preservation.

What are the Types of Cotton?

Cotton can be categorized into different types on various factors.

Based on fiber length:

  1. Long-staple cotton: Also known as Gossypium barbadense, it originated in South America. This variety is characterized by its long, fine fibers and high single-fiber strength.

    Long-staple Cotton

  2. Medium-staple cotton: Commonly known as Gossypium hirsutum, this is the most widely distributed cotton variety worldwide. It thrives in subtropical and temperate regions, known for its adaptability, high yield, and good quality.
  3. Short-staple cotton: Also called Gossypium arboreum, it originated in India. With lower yields and coarse, short fibers, this type is unsuitable for machine spinning and is often blended with other fibers.

Based on origin:

  1. Xinjiang cotton: This cotton has a soft texture, a comfortable feel, and good water absorption. Thanks to the unique natural conditions in Xinjiang, the cotton produced there features long fibers, excellent quality, and high yield.

    Xinjiang Cotton

  2. Egyptian cotton: Known for its fine, long fibers with high strength, smoothness resembling silk, and resilient texture, it is the most expensive type of cotton.
  3. Pima cotton: Also known as Supima cotton, it mainly grows in the United States, Peru, Israel, Australia, and other regions. With longer fibers, it belongs to the top-grade long-staple cotton. Fabrics made from it are softer with better drape.

Based on color:

  1. White cotton: Typically mature cotton with a pure white, creamy white, or pale yellow color.
  2. Yellow cotton: Cotton that turns yellow due to frost and other factors, causing the pigments on the shell to dye the cotton fibers. It is considered lower-grade cotton.
  3. Gray cotton: Cotton that appears dull gray due to rain, limited sunlight, or mold growth, exhibiting lower strength and poorer quality.

Innovative cotton:

  1. Colored cotton: The outcome of integrating modern bio-engineering technology with cotton cultivation, it features naturally colored fibers, often in shades of brown or green. Fabrics made from it do not necessitate dyeing, resulting in a natural color, soft texture, and elasticity, contributing to the reduction of textile costs.
  2. Organic cotton: Grown using natural and pollution-free methods from seed to final processing, emphasizing natural farming practices. Fabrics made from organic cotton have a bright luster, excellent breathability, and antibacterial properties, and are free from static.

What are the Properties of Cotton?

Cotton possesses several desirable properties that make it a timeless choice for various applications.

  • Breathability: Natural cotton fibers allow for excellent air circulation, ensuring comfort in both clothing and textile products.
  • Moisture absorption: Thanks to its fluffy nature, cotton exhibits excellent moisture-absorbing properties, making it ideal for textile items where moisture removal is desired.
  • Softness: Cotton is as soft and fluffy as a cloud, providing a gentle and comfortable touch. Cotton fabrics also boast remarkable softness, making them suitable for a wide range of applications.
  • Durability: With high fiber strength and excellent durability, cotton helps maintain the longevity of cotton products.
  • Low allergenicity: Derived from natural plant fibers, cotton does not contain any irritating additives, making it suitable for all skin types.
  • Easy dyeing: Cotton has a strong ability to absorb dyes, allowing for vibrant color presentation and a wide range of color choices.

How is Cotton Used for?

Cotton has always been an essential companion in our lives, playing numerous roles around us. Through production, cotton can be transformed into a variety of fabrics. Whether it’s cotton fabric or cotton blends, they retain the advantages of cotton and bring them to a wide range of applications.

Its breathability and softness make it the top choice for everyday wear, including T-shirts, pants, dresses, and underwear. Moreover, upon closer observation of your surroundings, you’ll likely find that your bedsheets, pillowcases, towels, curtains, and many other textile products are made of cotton.

The applications of cotton extend beyond clothing and home textiles. It is also used in medical and personal care products such as bandages, cotton swabs, and cotton pads. Additionally, cotton finds its place in industries, being utilized for canvas, workwear, and more.

How Much Does Cotton Cost?

Cotton, being a classic textile material, garners significant attention when it comes to pricing. Generally speaking, the price range of cotton is quite extensive, catering to different needs, from affordable options to high-end luxury. Pima cotton and Egyptian cotton recognized as top-grade long-staple varieties, are considerably more expensive than regular cotton. If you choose organic cotton or cotton that undergoes special treatments, the cost will naturally be higher as well. 

The Care Guide for Cotton

When it comes to caring for cotton, the primary focus is on maintaining cotton fabrics and garments. After consulting the care instructions, follow the recommended care methods. It’s crucial to separate dark and light colors when washing and use cold water along with a mild detergent to preserve the fabric’s color and texture.

Cotton items can be air-dried or tumble-dried, but there may be some degree of shrinkage and wrinkling. You can use the temperature settings indicated in the instructions to iron them accordingly. Store cotton garments in a cool and dry place to prevent mold. By following the proper care advice, you can enjoy the comfort of cotton for an extended period. 


Cotton, with years of heritage, continues to accompany us. To better serve humanity, it has transitioned from tradition to innovation. Now that you have gained a comprehensive understanding of cotton, we look forward to seeing more of its presence in your upcoming project designs and applications.

More Resources:

What is Raw Silk – Source: Sinosilk

What is Blended Fabric – Source: Sinosilk

Silk Cotton Fabric – Source: Sinosilk

One Stop Silk Product
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