What is Cotton? Origin, plant, fiber, clothing

Soft, comfortable and inexpensive, cotton is the most used textile fiber in the world. How is it grown, produced and what is it used for in the fashion industry? Focus.

  What'est-ce que le coton ? Origine, plante, fibre, vêtements

Impossible not to have ever worn a garment in cotton ! It is the most exploited textile fiber in the world, and for good reason: cotton has many qualities such as lightness , absorbency, breathable , softness and comfort to the touch… And this, whatever the way in which it was woven. But by the way, what exactly is cotton?

What is Cotton?

vegetable fiber made up of almost pure cellulose, the cotton surrounds the cotton seeds which are shrubs that can measure up to 10 meters high , growing in arid tropical and subtropical regions. In cultivation, its size is limited to 1 or 2 meters to facilitate the collection of cotton. When flowering, large white or yellow flowers appear. Then thick-walled, rigid capsules grow until they open to release seeds and cotton wads of silky white fibers.

These fibers are then transformed into thread which will be woven and will give fabrics with different characteristics. First textile fiber in the world with 24.2 million tons produced per year (according to figures from Icad, the international cotton advisory committee for the year 2020-2021), cotton constitutes nearly half of the world's fiber consumption textiles since the 19th th century and is mainly produced in China and India, but also in the United States, Latin America and Africa. Until the end of the XVII th century, cotton cultivation was already the business of Asia, especially India, which for decades had been selling already colored cotton yarns, highly sought after in Europe. To meet the high demand, French settlers then developed cultivation on the island of Santo Domingo.

Cotton mill in Bangladesh in February 2022

How is cotton produced?

To cultivate the cotton plant , it requires a vegetative cycle, plenty of sun and a total of 120 water days to ensure growth, then dry weather at the end of the vegetative cycle to allow boll development and avoid fiber rot. Capsule collection can be manual or mechanical. Once this step is completed, they are taken to a gin where they undergo three steps:

  • Brewing: Capsules are mechanically brewed to remove large impurities like leaves and stems.
  • Ginning: the cotton fiber is separated from the seed.
  • Cleaning: The cotton fibers are cleaned to remove impurities.

Following this, they are compressed to form cotton balls which are sent to textile factories to produce cotton fabric.

What can you do with cotton?

There are different methods of making cotton fabric that give their name to a particular type of fabric. The best known is the cotton jersey , a stretch knit fabric widely used in the manufacture of T-shirts . We must also mention the toile denim , thick and rigid, used to make jeans in particular. We also know the gaze ultra light with an appearance similar to light linen or the percale , soft, resistant and ultra-breathable high-end fabric woven with the longest fibres. We finally think of the poplin of tightly woven, high-quality cotton whose shiny effect makes it the preferred material for shirts, and satin cotton, a weftless fabric with a silky appearance on the right side and matte on the reverse.

The insulating power of cotton is average, however, it can be improved by scraping. Scratching the fabric makes its surface fluffy and can thus retain the air warmed in contact with the body. Sweatshirts or joggers are thus often in brushed cotton jersey on the inside. In addition, cotton fibers have good absorbency (about 8.5% of their weight in water). This is why cotton is mainly used for making bath linen (towels, washcloths, bathrobes).

Cotton dye factory in Bangladesh in June 2022

What are the limits of cotton?

After having been the terrible symbol of slavery, the cultivation of cotton is today one of the most polluting in the world . It covers approx. 2.5% of global cultivated areas , but requires 25% insecticides and 10% herbicides according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Chlorine, ammonia, soda, sulfuric acid, heavy metals, formaldehyde, organic and aromatic solvents are among the products used daily in factories in the textile industry. In addition, the dyeing of cotton is a critical step, since the products used contaminate the clothes with toxic residues, pollute the air, the soil and the water leaving the factories. Not to mention that the workers and residents of these factories are experiencing an unusual increase in many diseases and cancers.

In addition, according to the Water Footprint Network, which is responsible for counting and disseminating the water footprint of various everyday products, that of cotton manufacturing is 10,000 liters per kilogram e n average according to the country of manufacture. Indeed, to guarantee the sustainability of the crop and its intensification, irrigation is essential. India is the biggest consumer of water with 22,500 liters per kilo. In addition, to produce 1 kilo of cotton fibres, irrigation requires between 6,000 and 27,000 liters of water, figures which then double during the various stages of transformation... It is therefore preferable, as far as possible, to favor organic and ethical cottons, Fairtrade/Max Havelaar or GOTS labeled for example.

Source journaldesfemmes.fr