Cotton – A household term, and easily one of the most commonly known natural fibres on earth. Along with our stereotypical image of white fluffy cotton fields and our impression of soft, absorbent and breathable garments, there are so many facts, applications and abilities of this humble crop that continue to be surprising.
The English word “cotton” is derived from the Arabic source “qutun” or “kutun,” loosely translated into the term “fancy fabric”. From the Americas to India, China, Egypt, Pakistan and Eastern Europe, the crop has been cultivated for at least 7,000 years, making it one of the world’s oldest known fibres. To the amazement of scientists, the massive geographical barriers between cotton farmers all around the world means that they had never had the opportunity to come into contact with each other, but have miraculously still managed to develop similar tools to clean, prepare, spin, and weave the crop.
Tiny cotton seeds are extremely durable and surprisingly light and strong enough to withstand harsh conditions to survive long-distance travel across oceans and still remain viable. This could explain why botanists are still not sure where the first plants came from, and probably why similar varieties are known to grow thousands of miles apart.
Until the Industrial Revolution, when methods to maintain colour consistency were developed, the white cotton we have grown to know used to be available in other hues including deep chocolate, rust and light purple. Naturally coloured cotton varieties in South America were even developed in stunning shades of red, yellow, tan, pink, purple and green, including some stunning natural varieties resembling tiger stripes and leopard spots.
The fibre also dazzles us with an amazing array of uses, from common padding in furniture and automobiles to the manufacturing of plastics, lacquers, cottonseed oil, yarn, cloth and even dollar bills.
Cotton possesses a tremendously impressive list of statistics, some of these will certainly allow us to view this humble fibre in a wholly new light.
Cotton can absorb up to 27 times of its own weight in water, and also has the ability to become up to 25% stronger when wet. The fibre from a cotton bale weighing approximately 220 kilograms can produce up to 215 pairs of jeans, 250 single bed sheets, 1200 shirts, 2100 pairs of boxer shorts, 3000 nappies, 4300 pairs of socks or if you prefer, 680,000 cotton balls.
As a sustainable fibre, cotton can be grown all year round provided that suitable weather conditions exist. It takes about five to six months for the plant to mature and the bolls to open for harvesting, commonly planted towards the end of spring, nourished during the summer and harvested in the fall. Every part of the plant is used and utilized, eliminating any opportunities for waste. The fibre is the primary reason for growing cotton, but the seeds are used for animal feed and human use, while the plant stalks are tilled back in the soil after harvesting,
Long before Thomas Edison patented and began commercializing his incandescent light bulb in the late 1800s, his team created a light bulb with a carbonized filament made of uncoated cotton thread that could last for 14.5 hours. They continued to experiment with the filament until settling on one made from bamboo that exponentially increased its’ lifetime, which subsequently became the standard for the Edison bulb for the next 10 years.