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Let’s Talk Cotton

If you want to know everything there is to know about cotton, be prepared to spend a lot of time – weeks, at least – studying up on the subject. Cotton is the most important of the vegetable fibers found on planet Earth. Cotton fibers are harvested from the cotton plant. But the cellulose fibers are not the only part of the plant that is useful. If you want to know just about everything there is to know about cotton, from the physiology to the statistical data of cotton production, check out the wealth of online publications available.

For those who don’t have a couple of weeks to spend absorbing the knowledge of the cotton industry, we’ve put together a condensed version of some of the more significant information we know about this remarkable plant:

The Cotton Plant

There are different varieties of cotton but we’ll be talking generalities here. The cotton plant is usually a shrubby looking plant with broad, three-lobed leaves. The seeds grow in capsules called bolls. Each of the seeds is surrounded by a downy fiber that is usually white or creamy in color. Its most desirable characteristic is that it is easily spun. As the boll dries, the fibers naturally flatten and twist.

Cotton originated in tropical climates but it has found a very lucrative home in temperate climates where rainfall is well-distributed. Even so, cotton produced in the western U.S. is grown under irrigation, as is one-third of the cotton grown in the Southern U.S.

Planting, Harvesting and Production

Cotton crops have to be planted annually. The seeds are planted in furrows that are then thinned and weeded as the spring growing season progresses. There are numerous diseases and insects that love the cotton plant. The most notorious and destructive of these is the boll weevil. It has caused enormous damage and loss in cotton fields over the decades.

Scientists are working to develop genetically altered varieties of cotton plants that can resist some insect infestations and diseases.

Cotton is harvested with mechanical harvesters. The harvesting is preceded by the spraying of a chemical defoliant that removes the leaves. Only the fluffy white cotton bolls remain on the plants. These are collected and taken to the gin. Here the fiber is separated from the seeds, and then collected into bales. A normal bale of cotton weighs 500 lb. and is covered with jute before being bound with iron hoops. The U.S. Department of Agriculture sets the standards for grades of cotton. After undergoing carding, combing and spinning, the raw fiber is transformed into yarn or thread that can be used for weaving.

Made of 100% Cotton

The number of commodities made from cotton are almost innumerable. The major products come from the fiber that is separated for the seed, called lint. These products are mostly textile and yarn goods. Automobile-tire cord and plastics are reinforced with cotton fiber, as is cordage. Cotton fiber is also used in making cordage, automobile-tire cord and for reinforcing plastic. The short, cut ends, called linters, that are removed from the seed after it’s ginned are a valuable source of cellulose. The hulls from the cotton bolls are used in fertilizer, packing and fuel. Pressed paper and cardboard are made from the stalk.

Cottonseed oil is the chief by-product. The oil content in cotton seeds is about 20%, and after it has been properly refined, cottonseed oil is used in salad dressing and cooking oil, in the manufacture of margarine and shortenings, and in cosmetics.

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