A single cotton fiber experiences many different places and processes before finding its way onto a shelf and into our lives. From the field to the closet, we can dive into the lifecycle of cotton!
Starting as a seed, cotton is typically grown for six months beginning as early as February and as late as June (depending on the location). Flower buds will form from a month to six weeks later. When the flowers fall off, the white cotton boll that we see in the fields is left behind to thicken, forming hollow fibers. Air dries and fluffs the fiber until ready for harvest.
Cotton is packaged and stored after harvest until being sent to the gin to separate lint and seed. From here, the cotton will migrate to textile mills to become yarn for weaving or knitting. Weaving interlaces the yarns horizontally in swift motions and complex patterns. Woven fabric can be used for textiles like denim, gingham, etc. Satin weave is the most common type, producing smooth fabrics with high sheen. Knitting uses the yarn to construct patterns with interlocking loops which can be noticeably large or extremely small.
After weaving or knitting, raw cotton fabric, or greige, undergoes scouring to remove impurities. This is the most important process phase in that it will determine the characteristics and quality of the finished goods. After scouring, cotton fabric is mercerized in a bath of caustic soda. Mercerization swells the fibers making them easier to dye, hold their shape better and more absorbent. Cheaper cotton goods that have not undergone mercerization will be lower luster, fade and stretch out of shape.
Once preprocessing is complete, cotton fabrics must undergo several dyeing and finishing steps that involve textile chemicals. It is dyeing and finishing that really make cotton’s life interesting. For example: after being washed and cleaned, one fabric may undergo a bath fixative process to secure dyes or a printing process that involves patterns of dyes. After being dyed and dried, it’s time for textile finishing. The cotton fabric can be treated with chemicals such as antimicrobial, water repellent, flame retardant backcoating agents, or softening agents that enhance the textile performance. More than one finish can be applied to a single cotton fabric creating a wide variety of products!