Cotton — Where Does Your Fabric Come From?

That’s a silly question, huh? Fabric comes from the store, either online or bricks-and-mortar. Or it comes from your stash or that of a friend or relative. Or perhaps it comes from an auction or estate sale.

Just like canned tomatoes come from the grocery.

In fact there is a large story of where cotton — and your cotton quilting fabric — comes from. This is the first in a series of posts to explore that.

Cotton has a long history as a cultivated crop for textiles. Archeological evidence shows it in Central America at least 7,000 years ago. Besides the Americas, it’s been found in the Middle East from at least 3,000 years ago, and Europe more than a thousand years ago.

Currently it is one of the most important crops grown in the United States. It is used in the textile industry, the livestock industry, and in processed foods for humans. From the National Cotton Council of America, a little introduction. Emphasis added by me.

Cotton continues to be the basic resource for thousands of useful products manufactured in the U.S. and undefinedoverseas. U.S. textile manufacturers use an annual average of 7.6 million bales of cotton. A bale is about 500 pounds of cotton. More than half of this quantity (57%) goes into apparel, 36% into home furnishings and 7% into industrial products. If all the cotton produced annually in the U.S. were used in making a single product, such as blue jeans or men’s dress shirts, it would make more than 3 billion pairs of jeans and more than 13 billion men’s dress shirts.

An often-overlooked component of the crop is the vast amount of cottonseed that is produced along with the fiber. Annual cottonseed production is about 6.5 billion tons, of which about two-thirds is fed whole to livestock. The remaining seed is crushed, producing a high-grade salad oil and a high protein meal for livestock, dairy and poultry feed. More than 154 million gallons of cottonseed oil are used for food products ranging from margarine and cooking oils to salad dressing.

The average U.S. crop moving from the field through cotton gins, warehouses, oilseed mills and textile mills to the consumer, accounts for more than $35 billion in products and services. This injection of spending is a vital element in the health of rural economies in the 17 major cotton-producing states from Virginia to California.

Besides the 7.6 million bales of cotton used in the U.S. annually, we also export over 10.5 million bales to the rest of the world.

Where does cotton come from? Cotton grows as a crop in the southern U.S. and in countries around the world. In 2013 the U.S. was the leading exporter of cotton, followed by India. This chart shows the detail.

Screen Shot 2015-03-04 at 8.45.58 AM

A video from University of Tennessee shows how all that cotton is cultivated and baled. Please note, I know there is no mention or recognition of slave labor in the early years of the U.S. industry. Though the video mentions the history of cotton cultivation in the U.S., the intention is to show contemporary methods.

At the end of the video above, you get a taste of the ginning and baling process. Next time I’ll show more of what happens after harvest.

If you’d like to read my posts on quilting as a business, you can find them here:

Cotton — Where Does Your Fabric Come From?
Cotton — What Happens After Harvest?
Cotton — Weaving Fabric
Cotton — Batik Production
Cotton — Printing Designs

Quilting for Pay — The Longarm
Conversations with Artists
Price vs. Value of a Quilt, Part 1
Price vs. Value of a Quilt, Part 2
You Should Write Patterns
“It Feels Weird Asking for Pay”
Pay for Quilters (And other Crafters and Artists)
You Should Sell Those: A Play in Three Short Scenes, With Commentary


13 thoughts on “Cotton — Where Does Your Fabric Come From?

  1. Pingback: Unintended Consequences | The Snarky Quilter

  2. farmquilter

    Living on a farm in eastern Washington, seeing cotton being grown/harvested/processed is not part of everyday life, so it was cool to see the specialized equipment used for this. You won’t see those in our wheat or alfalfa fields! Love learning about this facet of the quilting industry. Looking at the chart, I guess Egypt doesn’t grow much cotton, comparably…now I understand even more why my extra-long staple cotton thread is a bit spendy!

  3. KerryCan

    Cool info! I always like to read the backstory of the things we take for granted. I’m reading a book about textiles in the Civil War and, as you might expect, the use of cotton became very politicized during that period.

  4. shoreacres

    It’s a very real part of my life. Though this part of the coastal plain isn’t cotton country, I don’t have to travel very far to find it growing. There’s a gin about 35-40 miles from here, and a little farther down the coast, after harvest, the fields are filled with huge, semi-trailer sized “bales” covered with tarps, waiting to be taken for processing. In the panhandle, the fields stretch forever, but there’s also a good bit around Corpus Christi, Uvalde, and other west Texas areas.

    One of the Civil War battles my great-great-grandfather participated in, very near to Indianola, involved the capture of ten bales of cotton. 🙂

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Ten bales of cotton was an awful lot of cotton then, very valuable. I found this: “Upon the outbreak of the Civil War, the Confederate States, comprised of the cotton-producing south, devised a plan to use cotton as leverage. The South burned over two million bales of cotton in an attempt to create a shortage and therefore draw in Britain as an ally in exchange for the material. The “cotton famine” was staved off until 1862, due to a surplus in Britain, but when cotton ran out, the price of a pound escalated from 10 cents to $1.89. ” I don’t know how many pounds in a bale but that would be a lot of money.

  5. Debra

    Really interesting! It matters where it comes from and where it grows because as you say — it is so much a part of our lives.

  6. Melanie McNeil Post author

    Reblogged this on Our View From Iowa and commented:

    Cotton is part of all of our lives. It’s in our clothing and other textiles, our money, our food, and our livestock feed. If you’ve ever wondered where your t-shirt comes from, here is part of that story.


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