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What is cotton and how is it produced?

What is Cotton?
Almost every person on this planet has used cotton. Cotton is one of the most popular materials of every day wear, used in nearly 35% of all fiber used around the world.

While Cotton is often spun and woven into yarn or used in textiles industry for creating t-shirts, jeans, socks, towels, bed sheets, etc, it is also used to produce cottonseed oil, which is akin to other vegetable oils. Cotton is used in a variety of other products outside the textile world as well, including fishnets, coffee filters, tents, gunpowder.

Cotton is essentially  a crop—an agricultural commodity. Planted typically in April or May, the first few weeks of growth are crucial for cotton plants. In order to thrive, the cotton crop requires plenty of sunshine, moderate rainfall (24 to 48 inches) and heavy, fertile soil. These conditions are naturally found in the tropics and sub tropic regions of the world, both in the Northern and Southern hemispheres.

The cotton shrub is a perennial plant that should be shielded from frost and provided sufficient irrigation. Thus it cannot be transplanted from its original subtropical growing regions.

Raw cotton is a soft, fluffy fiber, contained within bolls (capsule like coverings around cotton seeds) of the cotton plant. Historically, cotton has been called the wool plant, due to its fiber, which is similar in texture to wool. The fiber is almost 100% cellulose, and hence the textile it produces is soft and light.

Most of the cotton around the world is harvested by mechanically by a cotton picker or a cotton stripper which obtain the cotton from the bolls. In many developing countries, cotton however continues to be picked by hand. After harvesting, cotton is collected in one place and sent for “ginning.” Ginning involves the separation of dirt, branches, seeds and other materials from cotton fiber. The ginned fiber is called lint, and is pressed together into 480 lb bales graded by staple (fiber) length, strength, color etc. These bales are then sold to textile mills for further processing.

Currently, the world produces around 25 million tons of cotton annually. Cotton occupies around 2.5 percent of the world’s arable land. China is the world’s largest cotton producer, consumer and importer. The U.S. is the largest exporter of cotton. India is also a cotton production giant, but it consumes most of its cotton domestically.

The U.S. and Africa lead worldwide exports, with over $6 billion dollars in trade. The bulk of these exports head to China to meet the demand of the bustling manufacturing industry.

cotton-futures.jpgBrief History of Cotton
Cotton has been an integral part of many civilizations throughout history, which shows just how widely used the commodity has been. Cotton has been used to produce textiles for over 7000 years.

Cotton was discovered and domesticated independently in the Old world and the New World, and has long played a crucial, if controversial, role in history.

It was cultivated extensively for 6,000 years in India and clothed people of ancient India, Egypt, Persia and China. Cotton fabric has been excavated from sites in Mexico and the Indus Valley Civilization, dating back to 5000 BC.

Arab merchants introduced cotton clothing to Europe by around 800 A.D.  In fact, the English word “cotton” comes from the Arabic word “al qutn.”

Cotton seeds were planted in Florida in the U.S. in around 1556 and by the end of the 16th century, cotton had spread extensively from its home base in Asia, and was cultivated throughout the sub-tropical regions of Asia and Americas.

Britain as the reigning superpower exercised great control over the cotton market, and gained large revenues from cotton trade. The British had mastered a highly lucrative trade system. They would purchase raw cotton from colonies, manufacture the finished products in cotton mills in England, and then export the goods back to captive markets in Africa, India and China.

Throughout history, cotton had been picked manually but the Industrial Revolution changed that. A number of inventions in the 1700s—including the roller spinning machine and spinning mule—improved the cotton industry’s production capacity in Britain.  The city of Manchester even gained the name “Cottonopolis,” due to the sprawling cotton industry in the city.

In 1793, the cotton gin was invented by Eli Whitney in America. The cotton gin is a machine that quickly separates cotton seeds from the fiber. This machine helped make cotton processing faster and cheaper, causing British textile manufacturing and exports to soar.

Around the 18th century, the United States had domesticated two native American species of cotton that were proving to be superior to the cotton from India and other colonies. This “King Cotton” from the U.S. came to capture global markets and unsettled the British government.

With the growing popularity of U.S. cotton, Britain decided to de-industrialize the Indian cotton industry and build its own cotton industry in the 19th century. It rapidly transformed India into a global supplier of raw cotton, cut down its manufacturing assets and even forced Indian markets to buy finished cotton goods from British companies.

When the American Civil War caused cotton exports to drop, Britain and France saw an opportunity to recapture the cotton market. They invested heavily in Egyptian cotton, however British traders abandoned Egyptian cotton as soon as the Civil War ended, thus sending Egypt into massive deficit.

While U.S. cotton enjoyed massive global popularity, its domestic story was tainted with slavery and bloodshed. The cotton grew mostly in the southern U.S. where slaves worked on plantations, but fuelled the trade and port based economy of the North. Things changed with the use of machines to harvest cotton. Today, the U.S. cotton industry is largely dependent on machines, and utilizes little manual field labor. Cotton is one of the major exports of the U.S. and a majority of the world’s cotton comes from America.

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