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The truth about cotton fibers

by CJ Flores 2 years ago in history
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A look at the important cash-crop

Opened cotton boll

Cotton fibers are one of the most versatile of all fibers. From warm weather apparel, active wear, upholstery, draperies, area rugs, towels, and so much more. Cotton is a cash crop in more than 80 Countries, because of its pleasing appearance, easy care, and moderate cost to produce. It has become essential to regions with climates that are capable of growing the plant. With rising demand for output of cotton and other plant based fibers, can these fibers continue to be sustainable for the environment?

Of all the seed fibers, cotton is the most important. Nearly 25 million tons of cotton is produced worldwide annually. It has a significant economic impact of at least $600 billion, in certain countries it is known as “white gold.” In the United States we produce about 3 million tons annually, which is almost half of what India and China, the first and second highest producing countries respectively, produce annually which is about 6 million tons each.

Cotton grows on bushes 3 to 6 feet high and the fibers grow within a pod or boll. After the fibers blossom, they drop off. Inside the boll are seven to eight seeds, each seed could have as many as 20,000 fibers growing from its surface. When the boll is ripe and the size of a walnut, the fluffy white fibers expand and eventually split the boll open.

Cotton is primarily picked by machine, causing most of the fibers within each boll to be immature, which is impossible to avoid when cotton is mechanically stripped from the plants. After it is picked the cotton will be pressed into a brick weighing 22,000 lbs. The brick is then ready to be processed; it is taken to a gin to separate the fibers from the seeds.

Cotton is a staple fiber, this is important because it affects how the fiber is handled during the spinning process. Longer cotton fibers will produce finer and stronger yarns. Cotton fibers range from 1/2 inch to 2 inches. The longer staple fibers are considered to be higher quality and are used to produce softer, smoother, and more lustrous fabrics. They are typically identified on labels as Pima, Supima, Egyptian, or Sea Island. Or they may just be referred to as long-staple, or ELS (extra-long-staple) cotton.

The natural color of cotton is a creamy white. It is highly desirable because of its ability to be dyed or printed to meet the needs of the end product. These fibers may yellow with age. Naturally colored cotton fibers produce fewer fibers per acre, but sell for twice the price of white cotton. Naturally brown, rust, beige, and green colored cottons are available. These colors deepen with age and care, which is the opposite of what dyed or printed fibers do. Naturally colored cotton is shorter, weaker, and less absorbent than white cotton.

Picking and ginning affect the appearance of cotton fibers as well. Carefully picked cotton is cleaner. Well-ginned cotton is more uniform in appearance and color. Poorly ginned cotton contains bits of leaves, stem, or dirt. This results in a decrease in the fibers quality.

Despite how vital cotton is to the economic well being of many countries, it cannot be produced without some environmental impact. The most impact being water. Cotton is a water intensive crop. It requires at least 20 inches of rain per year. In many areas of the world, where rainfall is low, or irregular, irrigation is used. Excessive irrigation can upset the water level in the soil. In some regions, irrigation is so extremely inefficient; up to 50% of water is wasted. In some parts of the world where irrigation comes from rivers and lakes, so much water can be diverted for cotton production that rivers disappear and lakes dry up. This destroys ecosystems.

Another major impact to the environment and essential to cotton production is chemical use. Mainstream farming methods that produce cotton make extensive use of agricultural chemicals to fertilize the soil, fight insects and disease, and control plant growth. These all used to help the production of cotton. Excess rain can create issues with runoff contamination. Many of these chemicals are toxic to other plants, insects, animals, and people. This is not as much of a concern in developed countries because they have modified agricultural practices to reduce the use of agricultural chemicals and usually have genetically modified cotton plants, which significantly reduces the amount of pesticides used.

These are a few of the concerns in the production of cotton. Despite environmental concerns, cotton is still and will always be a major seed fiber because of its versatility in its creation of many different products. With genetically modified cotton plants, many concerns of the production of cotton can be eliminated. Overall it is a sustainable fiber if produced in moderation.


About the author

CJ Flores

Hello, my name is CJ D and I am writer. I love to garden, travel, and explore the world

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