ve you ever been asked “how old is dirt”?
Cotton is high on the list to be just about as old, because, since ancient times — 1,500 years before the birth of Christ — men have gathered the soft, fleecy fibers which cover the seeds of the cotton plant. Natives of India were weaving cotton into fabrics by spinning it into thread, and weaving it into cloth.
After the Saracens brought cotton to Spain in 712 AD, the Europeans liked the fabric and started manufacturing it. By the 1400s, manufacturing had spread to Central Europe, Barcelona and Venice, which used cotton to make sails for ships. I guess that’s what helped Columbus in 1492 to sail the oceans blue and discover America.
Even before then, in 1298, England had learned of cotton where it was used as wicks for candles. Soon, Edward III, the “Weaver King”, persuaded weavers from Flanders to settle in Manchester, where the town became famous for its cotton goods. Weaving became a leading occupation in England. In the middle 1700s, weaving was done in the home of the weavers before a number of machines were invented, including the ‘fly-shuttle’ in 1733 and the ‘drop-box’ in 1760, which made it possible for the weaver to use three shuttles, each a different color thread. That made it possible to produce cloth in large factories.
The United States did not start manufacturing cotton until the late 1700s. In 1790, Samuel Slater left England and built a cotton mill in Rhode Island. England had tried to keep the cotton business from the United States so the colony would have to sell it raw cotton and then buy back the finished product. But the cat was out of the cotton bag. When Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin in 1793, that really put the manufacturing of cotton in the United States in high gear, sharply increasing the production of cotton crops in the South.
Back in the 1940’s in Winnsboro, S.C., there was a cotton mill called the United States Rubber Company. As a teenager, my husband worked there as a “doffer,” a person who carried bolts of cloth that had just been made from one of many looms. Women operated the fly-shuttles with skeins of thread to weave cloth.
When he first told me this story, I didn’t understand why, if it was a cotton mill, it was named a rubber company. He explained that the company also produced tires, a process that used cotton in production. In the area of Johnsonville and Hemingway, S.C. where his kinfolk live, we can always see fields and fields of cotton — some ready for picking, some that the cotton gins have already been through — when we go up to visit.
If we draw a line from the mouth of the James River at Norfolk, Va., west through Cairo, Ill., and on to Oklahoma City, and south through central Texas to the Gulf of Mexico, we have enclosed the cotton belt.
The United States is still by far the largest producer of cotton. Only a small fraction of the world’s cotton is grown between the Equator and 37 degrees north latitude. Here in the South we have the tropical and temperate region required for the long growing season of the cotton plant, which is 200 days free from frost.
I learned a great deal about cotton while researching this story. For instance, a cluster of cotton blooms has many bolls with each boll being made up of five locks or lobes of fluffy fiber. Inside each lobe are from 8-10 seeds. From each seed sprout 10,000 one inch fibers. Thus, a single boll is made up of nearly a half-million fibers. Yet these fibers are so light that it takes about 70 bolls, seeds and all, to make one pound of cotton.
At harvest time when cotton is taken to the gin, approximately 1,500 pounds of clean-picked seed cotton will produce a 500 pound bale and about 1,000 pounds of seed. That’s not bad considering that science has found uses for almost every part of the cotton plant.
The cotton fibers that make cloth and fabric are used in everything from clothes to parachutes.
When pressed, the rich cotton seeds provide valuable oil used in cosmetics, lard, soap and candles.
The hulls from the seed are used as stock feed, fertilizers, explosives and paper.
The cotton linters are used in cellophane, photographic film, battery boxes, among other things.
The stalks are turned into paper and various chemicals.
Absolutely nothing is wasted.
No wonder cotton is king.
Contributor Jean Tanner is a lifetime rural resident of the Bluffton area and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.