An Introduction to Cotton

Written by Aurora Hinz, Edited by Esa Staff

Cotton is a truly amazing crop and one that almost everyone has exposure to on a daily basis. Since this crop is so heavily relied upon by the fashion industry, esa believes consumers deserve to know what’s really going into making their garments.

For example, most of us know that America’s historic use of the crop is filled with slavery and human trafficking, but were you aware that this same kind of inhumane treatment may have been used to make your new favorite t-shirt? This is something you may not have known, which is why we’re here! You deserve to know what is truly going on behind the scenes of the textile production because no one wants to directly or indirectly support industries that rely on exploitation. 

Cotton itself is a very unique crop. Unknown to many, this crop is actually a food source as well as a textile fiber (Kansas Farming Bureau, n.d). In fact, it remains one of the most used textile fibers all over the world (Textile School, 2014). The white fluffy stuff that we know as cotton, is actually the cotton boll that grows around the seeds of the cotton plant. The fibers in cotton are mainly made of cellulose that is composed of concentric layers. There can be up to 20,000 fiber attached to each boll of cotton, which is then spun into breathable threads that we use for much of our textile production (Textile School, 2014). 

Turban Cloth (detail), tie-dyed cotton, probably Jaipur, Rajasthan, India, about 1855. Museum no. 5735a (IS), Copywright Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Turban Cloth (detail), tie-dyed cotton, probably Jaipur, Rajasthan, India, about 1855. Museum no. 5735a (IS), Copywright Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The cotton plant has been used by ancient civilizations all over the world since, basically, the beginning of time. The plant is native to tropical or subtropical climates, mainly being grown in the Americas, India, and Africa (Textile School, 2014). Its use has even been tracked all the way back to 3600 BC in Tehuacán Valley, Mexico. It wasn’t brought to the rest of Europe until the 8th century, after Spain’s Muslim conquest. By the middle ages, cotton was of common use. The Enlightenment and the Renaissance led to the fiber being highly popular in Europe due to a shift in the middle-class’s new values of cleanliness and fashionability (History of Clothing, 2018). Workers were typically exploited throughout the history of cotton. This, of course, includes the popularization of the slave trade, child labor, and unethical working conditions.

In 1793, the American cotton industry began to boom thanks to Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin. The cotton gin made separating the cotton bolls from the seeds a quicker and more seamless process, meaning that more and more cotton could be produced at higher speeds.   Because of Eli’s new machine, the United States was producing the majority of the world’s cotton by the 1830s. This then led to the expansion of slavery in the United States, and, “by 1850s slaves made up 50% of the population of the states which produced the majority of cotton in the US: Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana (The History of Clothing, 2018)”.

Today, most of the cotton we use and own from the textile is grown, processed, and manufactured overseas. The use of slavery and exploitative labor that has no regard for the health or safety of the laborers is still a popular way of harvesting cotton in some countries. One of the countries with a very controversial cotton industry is Uzbekistan. In a follow-up article, we will expand on this industry and interview a family that has experienced this industry first-hand.