The Cotton We Love: Turning Fiber Into Fabric

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 second of several posts exploring the cotton we depend on. You may want to read the first post, The Cotton We Love: How it Starts, or visit The CQ Cotton Chronicles page. I hope you will enjoy this exploration, and keep watching for more over the next few months.

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).

Cotton bales heading to market, around 1900.

Cotton bales heading to market, around 1900.

Cotton is farmed in many parts of the world. Some farms are huge, and the work of pulling the cotton fluff (cellulose) from the boll is accomplished mechanically during harvest. But in some parts of the world this work is done by hand. After the cotton lint or fluff is cleaned from the boll casing, it is packed into bales or modules. Samples are taken for grading, and the cotton crop now becomes a commodity, traded like corn and soybeans. During the growing and harvesting stages, many people work to produce the cotton we will later sew into quilts, or use for batts. While commodity traders are essential to moving the crop from bales or modules to the prepared fiber stage, they may never see the actual cotton they are trading. Cotton merchants must have a solid understanding of the global cotton industry, from growing to milling, as well as demands for cotton goods.

Module of harvested cotton awaits sale.

A traditional bale of cotton weighs 400-500 pounds (US) and can be made into over 600 large bath towels. Larger farming operations offer their cotton to market in compressed modules, each the equivalent of 12-20 traditional bales. As these modules enter the market, their moisture content is standardized. In the manufacturing of cotton threads and yarns for fabric, the intake bins at large factories are sized to accommodate these modules, and to mix fluff from several of them.

While these steps are largely automated today, many hands contribute to making the fabric we sew by operating equipment, merchandising, packaging, and other processes along the way. By the time a bolt of fabric is printed and finished, upwards of 200 people may have touched it as it came through the milling steps.

1800 spinning wheel, commons

The classic spinning wheel, pre-automation.

In the first step of the process, the cotton lint is fluffed so seeds can be removed, and individual fibers become accessible to mechanical ‘fingers.’ The seeds are sold to be made into cottonseed oil or other products. These raw fibers are carded, making the fibers line up and readying them for spinning. The carded cotton fibers are drawn off and turned (spun) to begin the process of creating threads to weave fabric. Many stages of turning are required to reach the strong and consistent stage required for weaving fabrics.

The threads may be mercerized (or pearled) to increase their luster, as well as their ability to absorb moisture and dye. This process can also round the thread and straighten it. The thread may be passed through a singeing process to remove minute lint particles. Then caustic soda is applied while the thread is under tension, resulting in a sheen and more polished finish. Not all threads are mercerized, either because the finished cloth does not require the sheen, or because the source cotton fluff does not respond well to the process. (2)

Spinning Machine - commons

Modern spinning machine.

After spinning, the threads or yarns are sent to the weaving mills. Here they are strung on huge automated mills, capable of weaving a poplin or light weight cotton fabric at the rates of 2,000 yards per minute. As these fabrics come of the looms in an unfinished condition, they are called greige goods. These may be treated to a heated plate technique to burn off lint, then processed with hydrogen peroxide in steam chambers (3). The fabric may be mercerized using caustic acid if the threads were not treated before.

Many greige goods are sent on for additional processes, including dyeing, printing, and various finishing steps. According to the Cotton Counts Educational Resources, “Cotton fabrics are probably finished in more different ways than any other type of fabrics. Some finishes change the look and feel of the cotton fabric, while others add special characteristics such as durable press, water repellents, flame resistance, shrinkage control and others. Several different finishes may be applied to a single fabric.” (3)

Interesting Factors in Global Cotton Trading
Hands from all parts of the globe may have touched your cotton fibers!

As of 2008 there was more cotton being produced than demand for finished product on a global basis.(4) Historically the United States has had a cotton surplus. As more land converts to bio-fuel crops, this surplus is diminishing. The production and consumption of cotton is increasing tremendously in Brazil, India, and China. But with an abundance of supply, ample textile competition from synthetic fibers, and the increasing global debate on the use of land for growing food versus fiber or bio-fuel, the cotton market is changing rapidly. This year marked the first notable increase in cotton prices and mill use in fifteen years.(5)

Working Conditions in Textile Mills, 1800’s to 1930’s:
Do you have inherited quilts made in the late 1800’s or early 1900’s? Think about the hands that touched those fabrics, and what working in a mill was like for them.

In England, the United States, and elsewhere, cotton mills in the early 1800’s regularly employed children as young as seven. There were ‘rules of apprenticeship’ that were loosely enforced, limiting work to 12 hour days, requiring education of children in basic reading, writing, and arithmetic, and providing for clothing and primitive sanitation in dormitories. Over the next 100 years more adults became workers, some had grown up entirely in the mill. By the time of the U.S. Civil War, many English mills had women as 50% of their work force, with girls composing 24%, men, 19% and boys the remaining 6%. In the United States, children remained more prevalent.

Women weaving, circa 1910.

Women weaving, circa 1910.

Cotton mills were full of cotton dust, which lead to a high rate of lung disease. Additionally, to keep the threads strong, mills were kept hot and humid. Many workers experienced hearing loss due to the loud, steam-driven machinery. Workers towns developed around mills, often with no sanitation, which lead to numerous outbreaks of cholera. (6) The chemicals used to lubricate the early machines were highly carcinogenic.

Given the depressing state of these working conditions, it is no surprise that many unions arose in the textile industry. (7) While early unions were present in post-revolutionary United States, formal unions began to gain power in various industries throughout the 1800’s. As the Industrial Revolution (@1877) swept through the mill communities, the early beginnings of mill workers’ rights were tested. Protests increased, union organizers and workers sometimes fought violently with owners and their hired protection. By 1900 there were fledgling unions in most milling regions. After World War I there was a reduction in cotton demand, and mill owners lowered wages, converted to more automation, and reduced workforce levels.

I thank these workers, past and present, for their unheralded contribution to my quilts. As you handle fabric to sew or to wear, I hope you too will take a moment to think of the people who ship, broker, spin, weave, or finish the fabric that you are touching.

Click here for footnotes, bibliography, and references.

Check out: Part Two: The Cotton We Love, Turning Fiber Into Fabric, posted July 22, 2010

Watch for The Cotton We Love: The Designers’ Touch, posting in late fall 2015.

Additional Reading Suggestion:
From Fiber to Fabric by Harriet Hargrave

Go to The CQ Cotton Chronicles Page.


About thecuriousquilter

Quilter, sewer, writer, gardener, mother, sister, friend, always learning, always curious.
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9 Responses to The Cotton We Love: Turning Fiber Into Fabric

  1. Pingback: The Cotton We Love, How It Starts | The Curious Quilter

  2. carla louise says:

    Very interesting information. Thanks for sharing!!!!
    Carla Louise

  3. Shane says:

    I started reading, thinking, hmmm, where is the humor? I finished reading it and think this is one very interesting post. We all may know that cotton is spun into yarns before weaving or knitting, but the global scope is interesting. I learned that I like your serious side as well!

    The next time I look at an antique quilt, I will think of the women and children who labored to make the fabric, as well as the quilter!

  4. Donna says:

    I started seeing quilts in museums with my mom many years ago. As a child I remember visiting Mount Vernon and marveling at the quilts. Never once did I stop to think how those fabrics came from fields manned by slaves, or about the children who worked for endless hours in mills. Intellectually, I guess I knew. But I never thought of it in the very personal way of thanking the hands who made the fabrics.

    You probably do not get as much feedback on pieces like this, compared to your hilarious posts, but please do not stop! I suspect MANY readers will find themselves thinking about the HANDS that touched their fabric.

    Thank you. Now I am going to go tell all my kids to read your cotton articles!

  5. katieQ says:

    Thank you for the thought provoking post. Two years ago my husband and I visited the Quilt Museum at Lowell MA. I was disappointed with the quilt museum, but absolutely fascinated with the various museums and exhibits spread around the Federal Historic Urban Park sites in the city of Lowell. You can visit: a preserved mill, hear the machines run (there are fewer of them and the sound is reduced from what the actual factory workers would have experienced), and see a “factory girls” boarding house. There are pictures and videos explaining what the life of the average factor worker was like and exhibits of the fibers and cloth made at the mills.

    It is a trip I would recommend to anyone interested in history or quilting.

  6. Martin says:

    I admit, I delayed reading this one. Your funny ones grab me faster. But then today I was peeking at your blog, and noticed that it is staying up in the “reader’s favorites”, so people MUST be reading it and enjoying it.

    I promise to never skip one of your posts again! I will never look at my nana’s quilts the same way. I had never thought about the actual PEOPLE who touched the fibers, the threads… and how they lived, or were forced to live.


  7. Andrea N says:

    My sister has a quilt my great-great-grandmother made sometime around 1850-60. She lived in Boston, her fabric may well have been made my the women and children working at the mill that Katie Q described above! And slaves probably grew and harvested the cotton.

    I have always admired my great-great-grandmother’s workmanship, but NEVER once thought about where her fabrics came from. I am sending this link to my sister! Thanks for making me think. Great post, love the Secret Dealings too!

  8. Pingback: Homespuns Have History | The Curious Quilter

  9. Pingback: High Cotton | The Girl With Curls

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