How is Cotton Cloth Made

Cotton Gin PlantCredit: Photo courtesy of Agricultural Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture-downloaded from Wikimedia Commons

The cotton plant provides manufacturers with one of the most popular fibers in the world.  Thousands of years ago, people were weaving the fibers into cotton fabric to make their clothes.  By the year 1500, cotton was used throughout the world, but it wasn’t until the cotton gin was invented in 1793 cotton became one of the largest cash crops of the United States.  

 Harvesting the Cotton Plant

 Farmers plant cotton seeds by one of two methods.  The first method is the conventional tillage method in which the previous year’s stalks are cut down and chopped.  The remaining residue is then turned underneath the surface of the soil.  The second method is the conservation tillage in which the previous year’s stalks are left and the residue remains on the soil’s surface.  In the spring, farmers using the conventional method plow the land into rows to create seed beds for the cotton plants.  Farmers using the conservation method use special machines to seed the ground through the residue on the surface.

 After mechanicaCotton Plant FlowerCredit: photo by Superstorm- downloaded from Wikimedia Commonsl planters have seeded the ground, the first signs of growth occur in about two months.  Squares, which are flower buds, pop up on the stalks and about three weeks later blossom into flowers.  Initially the flowers are creamy white, and then turn to yellow, Cotton Boll (pod)Credit: Photo by Victor M. Vicente Selvas- downloaded from Wikimedia Commonspink and finally red.  Three days later, the flowers wither and fall leaving behind green pods called cotton bolls.  As the boll ripens it turns brown in color.  Inside the bolls, the fibers grow and expand, eventually bursting the boll apart to reveal a puffy white ball of cotton. 

 Cotton was picked by hand until the mid-1900s. Though many machines were invented and tried before that time; most of the early mechanical pickers damaged the plants and were inefficient.  Most farmers used hand pickers until mechanical pickers were advanced enough to be practical.  This didn’t happen until Cotton PickerCredit: photo by David Nance- courtesy of the US Department of Agriculture- downloaded from Wikimedia Commonsthe 1950s; even then, only a few farms used machinery for picking.   As improvements were made in the machinery, more farms began using the mechanical pickers which improved their productivity.  Today cotton farmers use either the stripper picker or the spindle machine for picking cotton.  The machines pick the cotton and the cotton is then made into seed-cotton bricks, called modules, which weigh about 21,000 pounds. These are then stored until they are ginnCotton ModuleCredit: photo by Gary Kramer, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service – courtesy of the US Department of Agriculture- downloaded from Wikimedia Commonsed; or gathered into trailers and taken to the gin where they are stored until processed further.  In 2008 a cotton picking machine was developed to build the modules as part of the picking process.

 Ginning the Cotton

 The cotton gin was patented by Eli Whitney in 1793.  The gin is a device used to separate the cotton fibers from the seed.  The loose cotton is sucked up from the trailers through a tube and fed into the gin, while the modules are fed through the front of the gin, usually along a conveyor belt.   Once the module is ripped apart, the cotton begins the same process as the loose (trailer) cotton.

 The cotton travels into a dryer where the excess moisture is removed.   A cylinder cleaner breaks up large cotton clumps and the finer materials falls through screens or rods for removal.  Larger materials, such as sticks are removed by the stick machine.  Rotating saw teeth pull the cotton through a series of huller ribs. The seeds are removed from the gin and either used for replanting or to make cotton seed oil.  Lint cleaners separate the remaining immature seeds and other remaining foreign substances from the fibers.  The fibers are then pressed into bales for storage and shipping; each bale weighing approximately 500 pounds.   The gin can process up to 33,000 pounds of cotton per hour.

 Next Stop is the Textile Mill

 Bales of cotton are opened at the textile mill and put through a lint cleaner for further cleaning. Fibers one inch or over in length are kept while shorter fibers are sent elsewhere.  The fibers travel into a carding machine for even more cleaning. The carding machine straightens and places the fibers side by side producing a soft untwisted rope.  This rope is called a sliver.  Modern spinning frames take the sliver and twist it at high speeds into yarn for weaving or knitting into cotton fabric.


The yarn is sent to looms to create cotton fabric.  Modern looms are much faster than hand looms and interlace the length-wise and cross-wide yarns into woven cotton cloth.  When the cloth comes off of the loom is it called “gray goods” and is then sent to a finishing plant for further processing.  At the finishing plant, the fabric will be dyed, bleached, pre-shrunk, printed and given a special treatment before manufactured into cotton clothing or other household goods.  Cotton knits used for blankets, sweaters, or shirts are made by a different machine.

 Different Types of Cotton Fabric

 The quality of cotton differs depending upon the length and processing of the fibers.  Longer fibers are higher quality as they create more durable products with less fraying or pilling.  Their weave is denser and tighter and the fabric is softer to the touch.  A natural cotton fiber is called a staple in the world of textile.  Products with extra-long staple (ELS) are considered higher quality. 

 Upland cotton is considered regular cotton.  This cotton is more generic with shorter staple and is less durable and consistent than “branded” cottons.  The pima cotton is an ELS generic brand cotton.  The United States, Peru, and Australian are the main producers of pima cotton.  Supima is a pima cotton grown in the United States.  Supima is a licensed trademark of the Supima Association of American and any product labeled “supima” can only have ELS cotton grown in the United States; whereas, pima labeled products may contain ELS cotton grown elsewhere.   Products labeled only “pima” may contain a combination of pima and upland cotton.  Only products labeled “100% pima” are ensured of containing only ELS pima cotton.  Egyptian cotton is grown in Egypt as the name indicates and is considered one of the premier ELS cottons.  However, simply because a product is labeled as “100% Egyptian cotton” doesn’t mean it is high quality ELS Egyptian cotton.

 Other fabrics of cotton include denim, twill, some canvas, and some khaki cloth as well as crinkle cotton, gingham and percale.  Cotton fabric is durable, takes dyes well, and is easily washed.  It is “breathable” fabric; the fibers absorb moisture from the body and release it on the surface where it evaporates.   In cold weather, the dry fibers retain body heat.  These qualities make cotton clothing fabric one of the most popular fabrics across the globe. 






The copyright of the article “From Cotton Boll to Cotton Shirt” is owned by Cheryl Weldon and permission to republish in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.