A short introduction to cotton...

exactly how long is a cotton picking minute?

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Although we are unsure of when cotton was first used to produce clothing and textiles, we do know from findings of cotton cloth in Mexican caves that its use dates back for at least 7000 years!

The cotton plant is a shrub that grows in tropical and sub-tropical regions around the world which benefit from long days of sunlight and little or no frosts in the winter months. From planting the seeds, it takes just a couple of months for the shrubs to start to grow above the ground and then just another month for the flowers to blossom. The flowers will change in colour from white to yellow to pink and finally to red before falling from the shrub to leave behind a green pod called a cotton boll.

As the bolls ripen in the sun they develop fibres which expand and finally burst out in the form of cotton. These are then harvested either mechanically or by hand, depending on the type of cotton and the type of farming that is being employed.

Whilst almost 80 countries around the world grow cotton, there are 4 species, the most prominent being an upland variety.

These 4 species are;

Glossypium hirsutum, native to the USA and the Caribbean this is a short staple upland cotton and represents nearly 90% of global production.

Gosypium Arboretum, which is native to India and Pakistan is a tree cotton

Gossypium Herbaceum, which along with Arboretum makes up approximately 2% of global production is native to Africa and the Arabian peninsula.

Gossium barbadense, alone this variety is used for 8% of the worlds cotton farming, this is an extra long staple native to tropical South America.

The top 10 growers of cotton are:

  1. India
  2. China
  3. USA
  4. Pakistan
  5. Brazil
  6. Australia
  7. Turkey
  8. Uzbekistan
  9. Mexico
  10. Burkina Faso

In today’s world, China is also the world’s biggest importer of cotton. This has not always been the case as in the 19th and early 20th centuries it was the UK. Even today, Liverpool in the UK is still the biggest cotton market and became well established due to its proximity to the Lancashire mills. Indeed, the Liverpool cotton market was the first market in the UK to trade in futures or derivatives contracts and had its own Clearing House to enable the payments to be made on contracts.

Still today the International Cotton Association is based here, ensuring that Liverpool is still central to the global market for cotton trading.

Over the years there are certain countries that have become synonymous with cotton, Egypt being probably the most prominent ‘brand’ of cotton growers. Whilst Egypt does indeed grow some of the best cotton, most notably Egyptian Giza 45, not all farms grow this variety.

The world’s best cottons are:

Sea Island Cotton

The Caribbean Islands’ tropical climate is perfect to grow this extra long staple variety that has for been grown in Barbados for over 300 years. Whilst today Sea Island Cotton is the most coveted with fibres up to 60mm long allowing for super soft, super strong yarns to be spun to create fabrics with the highest of thread counts. Making up just 0.0004% of cotton production this is also probably the most expensive and desirable. Indeed, even Queen Victoria insisted on having her handkerchiefs made from its luxurious fibres!

Indian Suvin Cotton

Known as White Gold, this is a hybrid of Sea island cotton from St Vincent and Sujata which is indigenous to India, Suvin is grown in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. With a limited growth of just a few thousand bales annually it is truly one of the great cottons. Suvin is a trademark of the Cotton Association of India.

Egyptian Giza 45

From the same variety as Sea Island cotton, Giza 45 is by far the most expensive Egyptian cotton. Harvested by hand, as a long staple cotton it is grown on larger bushes and often on difficult terrains.

American Pima

Named after the native Pima Indians who farmed in Arizona in the early 20th century this is the name for extra long staple American cotton. Supima, which is a trademark of the Supima Association is a premium cotton grown in the far south west and west America.

Short staple cotton is by far the most commonly farmed variety, grown on vast farms and harvested mechanically from smaller bushes than the premium cottons grow on.