Encyclopedia > Cotton

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Cotton is a soft fibre that grows around the seeds of the cotton plant . The fibre is most often spun into thread and used to make a soft, breathable textile.

Cotton is a very valuable crop because only about 10% of the raw weight is lost in processing. Once traces of wax, protein etc. are removed, the remainder is a natural polymer of pure cellulose. This cellulose is arranged in a way which gives cotton unique properties of strength, durability, and absorbency. Each fibre is made up of 20 to 30 layers of cellulose coiled in a neat series of natural springs. When the cotton boll (seed case) is opened the fibres dry into flat, twisted, ribbon-like shapes and become kinked together and interlocked. This interlocked form is ideal for spinning into a fine yarn.

Cotton has been used to make very fine lightweight cloth in areas with tropical climates for millennia. Some authorities claim that it was likely that the Egyptians had cotton as early as 12,000BC, and they have found evidence of cotton in Mexican caves (cotton cloth and fragments of fibre interwoven with feathers and fur) which dated back to approximately 7,000 years ago.

But the earliest written reference is to Indian cotton. Cotton has been grown in India for more than three thousand years, and it is referred to in the Rig-veda, written in 1500BC. A thousand years later the great Greek historian Herodotus wrote about Indian cotton: "There are trees which grow wild there, the fruit of which is a wool exceeding in beauty and goodness that of sheep. The Indians make their clothes of this tree wool." The Indian cotton industry was eclipsed during the British Industrial Revolution, when the invention of the Spinning Jenny[?] (1764) and Arkwright's spinning frame[?] (1769) enabled cheap mass-production in the UK. Production capacity was further improved by the invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney in 1793.

Today cotton is produced in many parts of the world, including Europe, Asia, Africa, America and Australia, using cotton plants that have been genetically modified so each plant grows more fibre. GM cotton proved to be a commercial disaster in Australia - the yields were far lower than predicted, and the cotton plants cross-pollinated with other varieties of cotton potentially causing many legal problems for unsuspecting farmers.

The cotton industry relies heavily on chemicals - fertilisers, insecticides etc, making it environmentally unfriendly. Some farmers are moving towards an organic model of production, and chemical-free organic cotton products are now available.

References and Further Reading

For the British band leader and entertainer, see Billy Cotton.

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