In the early 1800s, there was a great agricultural boom in cotton. Times were ripe for a cheap textile material because power looms could turn out cheap weavings. In addition, the growth of cities provided new markets. The most important factor in the cotton boom was the invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney. The gin brought an end to the long process of hand separation of lint from seed. Since Louisiana had great areas of rich land, the state began to cultivate the highly desirable crop. Cotton has hundreds of uses in our everyday lives. These range from the sheets we sleep on at night, the clothes we put on in the morning, to the laces in our shoes. The world uses cotton more than any other fiber.
In early spring, seeds are planted one to three inches deep by mechanical planters in seedbeds. Plants are irrigated, fertilized and weeded during the 25-week growing cycle. . Cotton is planted in the spring and harvested in the fall by mechanical pickers. The growing season is 150 to 180 days. The first true leaves appear after two to four weeks with the bud, also known as a "square," appearing about five to seven weeks after planting. The white blossoms become pollinated, turn light pink and then wither at about nine weeks, letting the cotton boll develop, producing the fibers and seeds that are harvested. The cotton bolls open naturally over time and a defoliant chemical is applied by ground or air to ensure top quality. This helps the leaves dry and fall off and any remaining closed bolls to open. A mechanical cotton harvester moves through the field picking cotton, which is then packed into truckload-sized "modules" and taken to the gin. There are also picker/baler harvesters, which create smaller, round modules in the field. The gin separates the cotton fibers from the seeds. Cleaning equipment removes twigs and other debris. The fiber, now called lint, is packed into 500-pound bales and then transported to textile mills. The cotton is carded or combed, making all of the fibers run parallel, and then spun into thread. Some whole cottonseed is fed to cattle. Some seed is further processed. The fine "linter" fibers are removed and the seed is pressed and cooked, producing cottonseed oil and meal.
The cotton plant can be broken down into various parts. All parts of the cotton plant are useful. The fiber, or lint, is the most important part and is used to make cloth. The stalk and leaves of the plant are plowed into the soil to help enrich it. Farmers produce an average of more than one bale of cotton per acre of land. A bale of cotton is equal to 500 pounds of lint. Today, when cotton is harvested, it is stored in modules. Modules hold 13 to 15 bales. The fiber to make textiles is only one product we get from cotton. In fact, the cotton plant produces more food for both people and animals than it does fiber. The cottonseed also has value. The cotton seeds can be crushed and separated into three parts — oil, meal and hulls. The oil is used for shortening, cooking oil and salad dressings. The meal and hulls remaining are used in livestock feeds and fertilizers. Cottonseed oil can be found in a wide variety of food products such as chips, crackers and salad dressing, just to name a few. The linters are the short fibers that cling to the seed. Linters are used in film and currency. The hulls are used in animal feed to provide roughage.
When selecting varieties, yield should be the primary factor. Varieties should be chosen based on performance in several different locations over several years. Fiber quality is also taken into account because foreign mills demand more consistently high quality fiber. This is important for the U.S. to continue to maintain and increase its presence in the world market.
The world uses more cotton than any other fiber.
During the Gold Rush, Levi Strauss struck it rich by creating the first pair of cotton denim jeans for miners.
Thomas Edison used cotton to make the filament for the first electric light bulb.
TERMS TO KNOW
Carding - The reduction of entangled mass of fibers to filmy web by working them between two closely spaced relatively moving surfaces closed with sharp points
Combing - A method for preparing carded fiber for spinning
Gin - A machine for separating cotton from its seeds
Irrigation - The supply of water to land or crops to help growth, typically by means of channels
Modules - Forms of packaging or storing cotton
Varieties - Taxonomic categories of a plant. They differ slightly in characteristics
Cotton Pickin’ Science