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Cotton facts for kids

Kids Encyclopedia Facts
Cotton ready for harvest.

Cotton is soft fiber that grows with the seeds of the cotton plant. (Fiber is long and thin, like hair.) After the cotton fiber is gathered from the plant, it can be made into thread. The cotton thread can then be made into cloth. The cloth can be used to make clothes for people and many other things. Cotton clothing is very nice to wear, especially in hot weather, and is easy to move around in cotton sweaters and etc. Cotton is a close relative of okra and hibiscus.

There are different types of cotton plants. Some cotton plants grow wild in tropical and subtropical areas of the world. This is how cotton was discovered many years ago. Most of the cotton gathered to make cloth comes from crops grown on cotton farms. Cotton farms can be found in Africa, Asia, Europe, Australia, and the Americas. Cotton soaks up to 24-27 of its own weight in water (very absorbent). All parts of cotton plants are useful.

Current estimates for world production are about 25 million tonnes or 110 million bales annually, accounting for 2.5% of the world's arable land. China is the world's largest producer of cotton, but most of this is used domestically. The United States has been the largest exporter for many years.


Cotton pollination 5892
Gossypium hirsutum: Cotton blossom with bumblebee pollinator, Hemingway, South Carolina

Cotton has been used to make very fine lightweight cloth in areas with tropical climates for millennia. Some authorities claim that it was likely that the Egyptians had cotton as early as 12,000 BC, and they have found evidence of cotton in Mexican caves (cotton cloth and fragments of fibre interwoven with feathers and fur) which dated back to approximately 7,000 years ago. There is archaeological evidence that people in South America and India domesticated independently different species of the cotton plant thousands of years ago. Cotton has been grown in India for more than three thousand years, by the end of the 16th century BC, cotton had spread to warmer regions in Americas, Africa and Eurasia.

The Indian cotton industry was eclipsed during the British Industrial Revolution, when the invention of the Spinning Jenny (1764) and Arkwright's spinning frame (1769) enabled cheap mass-production in the UK. Production capacity was further improved by the invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney in 1793.


Feld mit reifer Baumwolle
Cotton plants

Cotton is in the mallow family and produces delicate, lovely flowers. Other members of the mallow family include hollyhocks and hibiscus, used to brighten gardens all over the world. The cotton fiber forms around the seeds of the cotton plant and is helps carry the seeds long distances on the wind so that the plant can distribute itself. Early humans realized that the soft, fluffy fibers might be suitable for textile use and began to breed the plant, selecting for fluffy, easily spun varieties.

Cotton is a natural fiber harvested from the cotton plant. Cotton is one of the oldest fibers under human cultivation, with traces of cotton over 7,000 years old recovered from archaeological sites. Cotton is also one of the most used natural fibers in existence today, with consumers everywhere wearing and using cotton for various purposes. Millions of acres globally are devoted to the production of cotton, whether it be new world cotton, with longer, smoother fibers, or the shorter and coarser old world varieties.


Offloading freshly harvested cotton into a module builder in Texas; previously built modules can be seen in the background
Cotton picking in India
Cotton being picked by hand in India, 2005

Most cotton is harvested mechanically, either by a cotton picker, a machine that removes the cotton from the boll without damaging the cotton plant, or by a cotton stripper which strips the entire boll off the plant. Cotton continues to be picked by hand in developing countries.

After harvesting, cotton must be combed to remove the seeds. This was a laborious process until the industrial revolution and invention of the cotton gin, which quickly separates the seeds from the fiber and combs them for spinning. While a single cotton fiber is not terribly strong, when multiple curling fibers are straightened and twisted together, they form a strong, smooth thread that can be knitted or woven, as well as dyed.

Cotton Processing

After cultivation, cotton is harvested at the farm, and goes through multiple processes. Before processing, there are 3 stages:

  1. Ginning
  2. Spinning
  3. Weaving

After weaving, cotton typically fabric passes through several processing stages. After some stages the fabric can be directly used in the final product, for example unbleached cloth is used in grain bags. Typical stages are:

  1. Singeing
  2. Desizing
  3. Scouring
  4. Bleaching
  5. Mercerizing
  6. Dyeing
  7. Finishing

Old British cotton yarn measures

  • 1 thread = 54 inches (c. 137 cm)
  • 1 skein or rap = 80 threads (120 yards or c. 109 m)
  • 1 hank = 7 skeins (840 yards or c. 768 m)
  • 1 spindle = 18 hanks (15,120 yards or c. 13.826 km)


In addition to the textile industry, cotton is used in fishnets, coffee filters, tents and in bookbinding. The first Chinese paper was made of cotton fiber, as is the modern US dollar bill and federal stationery. Fire hoses were once made of cotton.

Denim, a type of durable cloth, is made mostly of cotton, as are T-shirts.

The cottonseed which remains after the cotton is ginned is used to produce cottonseed oil, which after refining can be consumed by humans like any other vegetable oil. The cottonseed meal that is left is generally fed to livestock.

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