The Cotton We Love, How It Starts

A cotton boll ready for harvesting.

My curiosity is sometimes as obsessive as my fabric collecting. What is cotton? Who grows it? How is it processed? Who designs the lovely patterns? There are so many questions to explore. This is the first of several posts exploring the cotton we depend on. I hope you will enjoy these articles, and keep watchingThe CQ Cotton Chronicles for more over the next few weeks.

When playing with fabric, I often think of all the hands that have touched this particular piece. So many people have helped to prepare this fabric for me to sew. We are intimately connected with fabrics—we wear them, sleep on them, sit on them, make bandages from them, dry our skin with them. I am very curious about learning how these fabrics came to be in our lives. I enjoy learning about all fabrics, but for quilters, cotton is the basic material of our craft. The cotton industry labeled it well when they coined the “Fabric of Our Lives©” slogan in 1989 (1).

An early cotton gin.

Cotton has a rich history, covering both the growing and the use of the wonderful fiber. Archaeological records find cotton fabrics in use in the Indus River Valley in West Pakistan as early as 3000 B.C., and in Peru around 2500 B.C. (2). These early cottons were probably prized, as harvesting the crops and picking the fibers away from the attached seeds was tedious work. The fibers were then spun into yarns, or matted. Dyes were made from plants, and often applied to the strands before weaving. Until the invention of the Cotton Gin by Eli Whitney in 1793, mass production of cotton fiber was not possible (3).

Probably the first people whose hands helped to bring my fabrics to me are the farmers and their work crews. Today these people may be anywhere in the world, and the conditions of their farms can vary widely. They may be in one of the 17 states in the U.S. that produce cotton, on a Chinese cotton farm, a South American cotton plantation, or in other parts of the world. Perhaps the particular piece of fabric has cotton fibers touched by hands from more than one country! What an amazing thought.

A large cotton field being harvested.

The farms themselves may be owned and run by a mega-corporation, or by a small organic farming group. Their methods would have similarities, as the actual harvesting of cotton from the seed boll remains labor intensive. Stripping or picking machines may be used to pull the fibers out of the boll, but it may still be done by hand. One farm may strive to keep their fibers organic and natural, while another uses pesticides and herbicides to develop their crop. This makes me even more curious about what has been used to raise my fabric’s fibers, and what effect it may have on the people who harvest it.

But today I am thinking about the actual individuals who touched the ground, the plants, used the farm machinery, harvested the bolls. Who tilled the field and planted the cotton? Who tended the growing crops? Who picked the seeds from the fibers that would one day become a quilt in my home? How different was the farm, and the worker, who created the fibers for my antique quilts?

I thank these growers and workers for their unheralded contribution to my quilts. And I intend to learn more about how my fabric choices may be affecting the quality of their lives. As you handle fabric to sew or to wear, I hope you too will take a moment to think of the people who grew and harvested the cotton fibers that you are touching.

Read Part Two: The Cotton We Love, Turning Fiber Into Fabric

Click here for footnotes, bibliography, and references.

Go to The CQ Cotton Chronicles Page.

If you want to learn more:
http://www.answers.com/topic/cotton – includes a step-by-step detail of the growing, harvesting, and all pre-mill processes.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Organic_cotton – includes discussion of ecological and health impact of growing cotton organically
http://www.fair-trade-hub.com/fairtrade.html– perhaps most often thought of with coffee, the fair trade movement and various certifications are working with cotton farmers throughout the world to ensure workers are supported in a fair and just manner

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About thecuriousquilter

Quilter, sewer, writer, gardener, mother, sister, friend, always learning, always curious.
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8 Responses to The Cotton We Love, How It Starts

  1. Sarah S says:

    Mostly I wonder about the fabric designers! I never thought about the actual cotton being grown. Of course there are people raising and harvesting it, and I never gave them a thought. How nice to take a minute and think about the farmers and growers all over.

    In my dreams I would live a “green” life, buying only local food, organic items, and so on. But I am a long ways from that dream, as are most of us I think. Should I feel bad using fabrics that are not organic? I can not allow myself to think that!

    • Oh heavens, no! I agree with you on the ideal, but you probably do not know where or how the fabrics you have were grown. And there it is, already made, NOT using it would be wasteful too.

      I do look for organic alternatives when I buy new now, but cannot always find them. Sometimes I have taken to writing to manufacturers and asking them to consider moving the next printing of product X to an organic process. I think they need to know that people care.

  2. Auggie says:

    what a lovely way to think about it… when I have received a quilt, I thought of the person who stitched it, appropriately… but now I will also think of the people who touched it before then… thank you for the new, personal spin on this…

  3. J. Johnson says:

    Fair Trade should apply at home too! Ask any employee of a chain fabric store what they are paid hourly, even the supervisors. They work hard, share information willingly, and have to put up with heavy lifting, constant standing, and picking up after people’s kids.

  4. LazyStitcher says:

    I started reading this piece, thinking, geesh, everyone knows cotton grows on farms. Then I realized you were really talking about the workers, and how the work affects them. How their work later contributes to the items I make. Nice thought. Like getting to know your baker and bying artisan bread. I had never given any thought to the people who worked the farms. Come to think of it , THANK YOU FARMERS, not just for cotton but for food!

  5. P. says:

    Found your blog through Stash Manicure today, and I’m loving it!

    My late grandmother, who would have been born 100 years ago, grew up in the South and remembers picking cotton, riding along in a wagon her father drove taking it to the cotton gin, carding it, and putting it together for quilt bats. It was backbreaking and exhausting work. When the first polyester quilt batting came on the market, she switched to polyester! I find that so ironic, but she knew the hard work that went into making a cotton batting, so to her, being able to buy it already made with no labor involved on her part was a godsend.

    • What a wonderful family memory to share with us. Thank you very much! We all need to pause sometimes and think about where the fabrics we love come from. In some parts of the world cotton is still raised and processed by hand.

  6. Pingback: The Cotton We Love: Turning Fiber Into Fabric | The Curious Quilter

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