How Is Cotton Made Into Fabric?

Gloria Cabada-Leman/CC-BY-2.0

Cotton goes from fiber balls on a plant to fabric through a multi-step mechanical process. Cotton fibers, known as lint, are separated from the seeds then organized in lengths that are eventually spun into yarn.

Prior to the Industrial Revolution, cotton processing was done by hand from picking through weaving. However, the United Kingdom became known as the workshop of the world for cotton manufacturing as it imported raw cotton from America’s southern states and exported the finished cotton abroad. Several inventions by British subjects, such as John Kay’s Flying Shuttle and James Hargreaves Spinning Jenny, allowed cotton to be processed at a faster pace. The introduction of the first reliable weaving machine, Robert’s Power Loom, as well as the use of chemicals to bleach, dye and print fabric resulted in all stages of processing occurring in a single factory.

Ginning After picking, cotton bolls move to gins where they undergo a drying process that removes excess moisture and foreign particles to improve the fiber quality. Gin stands with circular saws separate the seeds from the cotton fibers, also called lint, then compress the fiber into 500-pound bales for shipping to a textile mill. Up to 60 bales per hour are produced in modern factories, according to the National Cotton Council of America.

Carding Textile mills are highly automated to ensure that the lint from several bales is mixed and blended together to provide a uniformly consistent blend of fibers. Carding machines, which can process more than 100 pounds per hour, separate the fibers into a sliver (pronounced SLY-ver), which is a pliable, rope-like strand that is blended together into as many as eight strands for further refinement. These strands are spun through different methods depending on the yarn thickness or count desired for weaving or knitting fabric, then wound on bobbins.

Fabric Manufacturing Weaving is the oldest fabric-making method. Traditionally, workers manually moved a wooden shuttle horizontally back and forth across a loom, entwining the filling yarn with the warn yarn that runs lengthwise. Modern looms today can carry filling yarns across the loom at more than 2,000 yards per minute. Fabrics such as gingham and chambray are a plain weave, while denim, gabardine and ticking are produced from a more stable diagonal ridge weave called twill. The satin weave, which produces a smooth fabric with a high sheen, is the least common weave.

Cotton knit fabric is similar to that produced by hand, but modern machines might use up to 2,500 needles. A basic flat knitting machine makes over a million stitches at a time and because it’s programmable, it produces a variety of fabrics, shapes and designs.

Cotton Fabric Uses Of the approximate 7.6 billion bales of cotton manufactured yearly in the United States, more than 50 percent is used for clothing, more than a third for home furnishings and the rest is used in industrial applications such as book bindings, zipper tapes and coffee filters. Clothing and home furnishings such as sheets, pillowcases and towels are widely used because cotton fabric is soft, breathable and absorbs and releases moisture quickly. A 500-pound bale of cotton makes approximately 800 men’s dress and business shirts, 325 pairs of jeans, 850 blouses and shirts for women, 350 knit and woven dresses, 3,000 diapers and 1,200 pillowcases according to Cottons Journey.