Cotton — What Happens After Harvest?

Before 2012, I didn’t think very much about where our quilting fabric comes from, or about the history of cotton as a textile. That changed when Jim and I visited the Lowell (MA) National Historical Park. The park museum includes of one of the original textile mill buildings, built in the early 1800s by Francis Cabot Lowell and a group of investors. The industry created in the area signified the birth of the Industrial Revolution in America. Ginning, spinning, weaving, and printing, the textile mills did everything to process cotton after harvest. The museum at Lowell does a wonderful job of telling the story, including the dark side of cotton’s involvement in the growth of slavery.

Since visiting, I’ve tried to be more appreciative of textile history in the United States, and its connection to the riches of goods we enjoy today. I’ll have more to say about the history of the industry another time. This post will focus on contemporary processing.

The last post looked primarily at planting and harvesting cotton. After creating all that fluffy white goodness, what comes next?

From the field, the cotton goes to the gin. The “gin” is the engine or the machinery that separates the harvested cotton into usable parts. The cotton fiber is used for textiles and other cotton goods, while seeds are used for cotton seed (to plant,) for animal feed, and to press cottonseed oil, used in many human foods.

From the National Cotton Council of America,

Today, nearly all cotton is stored in modules, which look like giant loaves of bread. Modules allow the cotton to be Cotton Module stored without loosing yield or quality prior to ginning. Specially designed trucks pick up modules of seed cotton from the field and move them to the gin. Modern gins place modules in front of machines called module feeders. Some module feeders have stationary heads, in which case, giant conveyors move the modules into the module feeder. Other module feeders are self-propelled and move down a track that along side the modules. The module feeders literally break the modules apart and “feed” the seed cotton into the gin. Other gins use powerful pipes to suck the cotton into the gin ginning cottonbuilding. Once in the cotton gin, the seed cotton moves through dryers and through cleaning machines that remove the gin waste such as burs, dirt, stems and leaf material from the cotton. Then it goes to the gin stand where circular saws with small, sharp teeth pluck the fiber from the seed.

From the gin, fiber and seed go different ways. The ginned fiber, now called lint, is pressed together and Cotton Balesmade into dense bales weighting about 500 pounds. To determine the value of cotton, samples are taken from each bale and classed according to fiber length (staple), strength, micronaire, color and cleanness. Producers usually sell their cotton to a local buyer or merchant who, in turn, sells it to a textile mill either in the United States or a foreign country.

The seed usually is sold by the producer to the gin. The ginner either sells for feed or to an oil mill where the linters (downy fuzz) are removed in an operation very much like ginning. Linters are baled and sold to the paper, batting and plastics industries, while the seed is processed into cottonseed oil, meal and hulls.

After separating the fibers from the seed, the fibers are spun into yarn. This video from the series How It’s Made shows the process of cleaning the fibers and spinning it into yarn.

Only after creating yarn (threads,) the yarn is woven into fabric. We’ll look at that process next.

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


5 thoughts on “Cotton — What Happens After Harvest?

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      I’ve looked at Big Cotton but not read it yet. Also there is a new book out late last year, Empire of Cotton, which my library has. As to the t-shirt, Planet Money with NPR did a series on making a t-shirt. I plan to link it, also. Thanks!

  1. katechiconi

    Australia grows quite a lot of cotton too, but our output is always going to be strictly limited by how thirsty the cotton crop is. We have lots of space, and not a lot of water… Cotton needs a lot more water than, for example, sorghum, or beans, or peanuts or sugar cane, and while what we grow is good quality, there’ll never be a lot of it.

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Resources dictate everything, don’t they? It’s unfortunate that Australian quilters are so creative and talented, but are constrained because fabric is so expensive.

      1. katechiconi

        … and kind of crazy that we produce high quality cotton, but are unable to buy it domestically at reasonable prices! Mind you, the cost of bringing over all the designer lines has got to be a major factor.


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