How Is Cotton Made & Why Is It So Bad?

Charlie Bradley Ross Friday, 12 December 2014

Cotton is one of the oldest fabrics used by mankind. There is historical evidence proving that cotton was used over 7000 years ago in Mexico. It continues to be one of the most popular fibres in the world today, as it is comfortable, durable and offers excellent value for money. But is it really the way forward? Is it sustainable?


Is cotton really the way forward? Is it sustainable?

This natural fibre is obtained from cotton bolls (no I haven't spelt that wrong!), which are the seed pods of the cotton plant. They appear after the flowers of the cotton plant fall off. Inside the bolls new seeds grow moist fibers that expand in size. Finally, soft and fluffy cotton bursts forth from the boll and is ready to be harvested (above).

So how is this harvested cotton crop converted into fibres and later fabric?

Production of Cotton

The production of cotton fibre begins with the “ginning” of the harvested crop. The crop is harvested from the fields by striping machines, and is stored in modules. These are then fed to a machine called the “gin”. Once here, the cotton seed is cleaned of dirt, stems and leaves. The circular saws in the gin separate the fibre and the seed. This fibre is called lint and it is compressed into bales, each of which weighs about 500 pounds. Now, the bales are taken to the textile mills where they will be converted into fabric.

How are these tightly packed bales of cotton spun and woven into cloth?

  • To begin, the bales are opened, the lint is cleaned and fluffed and is then moved into a carding machine that further cleans the fibers.
  • The fibres are then combed and straightened into untwisted ropes called “slivers.”
  • Spinning devices twist the fibres in the sliver and convert it to yarn. If you missed the article on ply, this will explain a lot, so I'd have a read!
  • Looms then interlace the horizontal and vertical yarns to create fabric. The fabric thus created is termed gray goods or sometimes griege.
  • It is then bleached, pre-shrunk, dyed, printed and is ready for further use.

While we love cotton and buy it all the time, one factor that we often overlook is whether it is organic. This is very important in determining how good the final product actually is. Organic cotton is a sustainable, renewable and bio-degradable fibre that is ideal for eco-fashion products. However, not all cotton is organic. In fact, most of the cotton grown is not organic. Non-organic cotton contributes to environmental pollution through the use of pesticides and insecticides. It also exposes both cotton growers and consumers to toxic carcinogenic chemicals that are used during production.

Organic cotton offers several benefits. Let us take a closer look at them.

Organic Cotton - The choice for conscientious designers

Organic cotton crop does not use harmful chemicals like synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. As a result, it doesn't poison the water, soil or air, and is even beneficial to the environment. Cotton workers on organic cotton farms are spared from health problems caused by chemicals in cotton farming. Since toxic substances are not used in the manufacturing process, the end garments are residue free.

It can thus be harvested and worn by everyone, without worry of allergies, rashes or respiratory problems. Non-organic cotton, on the other hand, uses hazardous chemicals that are associated with cancer, hormone defects and birth defects in animals and humans. Greenpeace recently studied items of clothing from major retailers including Levis and Zara and found that they contained toxic levels of chemicals - read the report here.

Do your clothes from Zara and Levis contain cancer causing chemicals?

This topic is enormous, so please do have a read of this article if you'd like to understand all the benefits of organic cotton. And if you're tired of reading, have a little watch of this:

Pros and Cons of Cotton

Cotton has a number of properties that make it a very desirable fabric. Did you know that the cotton plant provides us with more than just fibres? Almost every part of the plant including the lint, cotton seed, stalks and seed hulls are useful in some way or the other. The seeds are used in cooking, as cattle feed and in producing oil, while the linters are used to manufacture paper.

Aside from the appealing lack of wastage of cotton harvesting, we also know that it is comfortable in all weathers. This is because the unique structure of cotton makes it a breathable fabric which is more comfortable than artificial fibres. This natural fibre is hypoallergenic and can be worn close to the skin. It absorbs water well and becomes stronger when wet. Not only is it easy to clean, it can also withstand high temperatures and can be sterilized by boiling. 100% cotton fabric is soft, easy to dye and has good colour retention. It resists piling and is easy to dryclean.

Pure cotton however, is prone to shrinkage and wrinkling. Hence why it is necessary to prewash it before sewing. To control shrinkage, cotton fibres may be blended with polyester. This however, changes the fabric structure and we may not find it as comfortable as 100% cotton.

As well as a bit of wrinkling, the biggest cons are by far the environmental and social atrocities that cotton is associated with. Cotton, organic or not, requires a huge amount of water and energy to grow and harvest. Irresponsible farming has led to over one third of the world's land now being completely unusable - what was once fertile farmland is desolate wasteland. The Aral sea is an example of this. Where there was once a vast water reserve, the cotton farms that surrounded it used up all of this precious resource, leaving behind a toxic, barren wasteland, that affected thousands of local habitants. Furthermore, the pesticide and chemical residues that were left behind were so deadly, that many locals who were exposed to them contracted tuberculosis and cancer.

Organic cotton certainly combats the environmental and social damage that pesticides cause, and has numerous financial benefits for workers, but it doesn't solve the enormous energy and water consumption, and the time it takes to replenish the harvests.  For this, we could look to hemp - a fast growing plant that requires no chemicals or pesticides to grow, or soy, or nettle, or banana - so why don't we?

In short, cotton has become an indispensable part of our daily lives. But why? We use it in towels, clothes, decor items, bed sheets and more every single day. With all of the advances in technology, it is now possible to produce more fibres from completely different are materials. So next time you reach for the non-organic cotton, why not think a bit outside the box?

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How Is Cotton Made & Why Is It So Bad?

Hemp combats the negative impacts of cotton, so why aren't we using it?