Cotton is one of the earliest known and longest used fabrics in the history of mankind. Soft, comfortable and durable, it’s hard to imagine life without this fibre.
The cotton plant is a shrub that originated from the tropical and semi-tropical countries including India, Pakistan, Africa and the Americas. The English name is comes from the Arabic word ‘qutn’.
When the flowers on the plant bloom and fade, a boll develops which ripens, dries and the bursts open to reveal a soft, white, fluffy filling with seeds inside it. The fluffy filling is the raw form of the fibre and biologically, the bolls are meant for aiding in the dispersal of the seeds.
The soft, flexible and skin-friendly attributes have made it one of the most popular of textiles and indeed it is the most widely used globally. They say that it ‘breathes’. This means it has the ability to absorb humidity from the inside and discharge it to the outside minimising the sticky, sweaty feeling that you get with some other textiles. This ventilating property makes it very suitable for wear in warm weather and regions. Additionally, it is easy to clean and launder. Studies have shown that when immersed in water it actually increases in strength by up to 15%.
Cotton fibres are very resistant to a diversity of weather conditions, including rain, sunshine, frost and high temperatures. It dyes very easily and discolouration of white materials can be quickly restored using chorine bleaches. High heat resistance means it can be sterilized by boiling at high temperatures.
Derivatives of cotton include denim, terrycloth, twill and corduroy. It is blended with other fibres to produce rayon and polyester. Moreover it is used to manufacture many non-textile products such as bookbinding, gunpowder, fishing nets and coffee filters.
The quality, in terms of fineness or coarseness, is measured by a system known as ‘Thread Count’ or threads per inch – TPI. By counting the number of threads in one square inch or square centimetre of fabric, both the length and the width thread, you get the TPI of a textile. Generally the higher the thread count the higher the quality. Standard grades, for example, have a TPI of around 150. Higher quality textiles start at a TPI of 180. This system is commonly used to grade bed sheets, towels and linens.
Growing and usage of the plant has been traced as far back to 5,000 BC in Mexico and 3,000 BC in China, India and Egypt. In North America, farming of the crop by Native American communities dates to 10 BC. However, modern commercial farming in the USA did not begin until the 1700s. Prior to this Arab traders sold the cloth to Europeans as long ago as 800AD. With the onset of the Industrial Revolution in England, which mechanised many traditional production processes, came the boom in the commercial cotton industry. Today, the key growing regions are the USA, Egypt, Pakistan and India.
In all likelihood cotton will survive the long into the future even with new creations of man-made fabrics. There is still a strong consumer perception of its superiority over synthetics, and a great demand for the array of products derived from this natural fibre.