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How is Cotton Fabric Made?

By Adam Hill
Updated May 17, 2024
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The process of making cotton fabric has become a highly industrialized one, especially in developed countries. The harvesting of cotton plants has become largely mechanized in the U.S., Europe, and Australia, but there are numerous cotton-producing nations around the world. After harvesting, raw cotton goes through a cleaning and refining process before it is spun into thread and woven into cotton fabric on looms. While synthetic fibers have seen increased use in recent years, cotton fabric alone still accounts for at least half of all clothing textiles in the world.

Cotton is typically planted in spring, again by machines, which can plant 12 rows of cotton seeds at a time. Under good conditions, the plants generally are visible above the ground within a week. The seedlings mature for about a month and a half, and then begin to flower. Flowering is very brief, and in just a few days after the flower appears, it is gone, and in its place remains the part of the plant that ripens into a pod called a boll. Over two to three months, the boll matures and the cotton fibers in it grow to their full length.

Harvesting occurs once the boll has split open, revealing the cotton, and the fibers have had time to dry in the sun. The leaves of the cotton plant must usually be removed chemically before the harvest, but in some areas, freezing temperatures will cause the plant to lose its leaves naturally. This removal of the leaves allows the cotton to be machine-harvested. Most harvesting machines in the United States blow air at high speeds over the plants to remove the cotton from the boll and collect it.

Once the harvest is complete, the cotton is made into bales to be stored until it is ready to be ginned. At the gin, the bales are all cleaned to separate the cotton fibers from dirt, lint, and the small, sticky seeds that grow as part of the ball of cotton fibers. The de-seeded and cleaned cotton is then once again pressed into bales for shipment. At this point, the cotton is still raw, as it has not been spun into yarn or thread.

Cotton fibers actually lend themselves very well to being spun into yarn. Once the fibers are aligned in a process called carding, they naturally interlock as they are twisted and flattened for spinning. Specialized mechanical looms weave the yarn into cotton fabric in much the same way as was done by hand in prior centuries. These looms work at high speeds to interlace the yarns into a woven fabric known as “gray goods.” Cotton fabric in this state must still be bleached and otherwise pre-treated before it can be made into household products and clothing.

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Discussion Comments

By anon1006512 — On Mar 27, 2022

I have been quilting for two years now and I never knew how cotton fabric was made. Thank you for the article.

By anon259777 — On Apr 08, 2012

Cotton is a tiny part of our lives with a big history!

By anon258208 — On Mar 31, 2012

How is the bleaching, etc. done?

By yournamehere — On Sep 18, 2010

What are good tips for buying cotton quilting fabric? I am starting to make my first quilt, and there is a whole world of fabric out there that I have no idea how to navigate.

For instance, is quilted cotton fabric the same as cotton fabric for quilting? And what thread count should I be looking for?

Help!

By musicshaman — On Sep 18, 2010

Many mid-level clothing ranges sell a lot of cotton knit fabric clothes these days. I personally am more of a fan of the organic cotton fabrics, but I'm not militant about it -- it's not like I check out the credentials on cotton fabric suppliers or anything! My favorite of all is the chenille cotton fabric -- so soft!

By closerfan12 — On Sep 18, 2010

This may really age me, but as a child growing up in South Carolina, I picked cotton with my brothers and sisters. Talk about a hard job! Now seeing all these discount cotton print fabrics sold wholesale, all I can remember is how much we hated walking up and down those fields, and how much cotton it takes to make any decent amount of cotton.

Of course, I've got nothing against the fabric -- it's very useful. It just brings back a lot of memories for me.

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