Cotton is one of the oldest crops in the world, and still the foundation of the fashion industry. Its earliest uses can be traced back to India, but the ubiquitous fluffy white plant really had its breakthrough in the beginning of the 19th century with the industrialisation of textiles. Today, more than one-third of all textiles are made of cotton. Its cultivation occurs worldwide in massive quantities, mainly in tropical and subtropical regions, as cotton grows only in warm climates. But did you ever ask yourself where cotton actually comes from? And why so many people are covered head to toe in the stuff? The following five facts will shed some light on the ongoing popularity of cotton.
1. Historic Insights
The cotton plant was independently domesticated in different places around the world. Coincidentally it happened at almost the same time in the northern Andes (Incas), Mesoamerica (Mayas), southern Africa, India, Pakistan, Indonesia and China. The oldest evidence of cotton clothing is found in India and dates back to 6000 BC.
Cotton used to be treated as a luxury good, a fabric for kings and royalty, not for T-Shirts to wear while cleaning the house. Mayans and Aztecs traded in coloured cotton products and gave it as gifts to distinguished guests. This was also the case with most other ancient societies who later came into contact with cotton. Romans and Greeks, got to know cotton through the conquests of Alexander the Great, and valued it for its colour and subtlety. Around 500 AD, cotton became the standard material for workwear in the Arab world, but it was still rare in Europe. India played the largest role, cultivating and trading various varieties around the region.
Eventually with the discovery of the new world, Spanish conquistadores finally brought back and popularised cotton in Europe. Until the 17th century, cotton was still a real luxury item due to its rarity and its labour-intensive production. However, with more and more raw material coming from America, manufacturers needed new methods to speed up and simplify the laborious carding of cotton fibres and removal of seeds. This problem was solved by Eli Whitney’s “cotton gin” that made separating the seeds from the fluffy part as easy as turning a crank. As the Industrial Revolution kicked off, the cotton gin allowed cotton to be used on an industrial level with production increasing enormously, especially in the newly formed United States of America.
2. Influence on Fashion
In the following century, cotton reached a global market share of 80 percent. Even today, with polyester and other synthetic fibres on the rise, cotton still accounts for about 30 percent of the market.
Cotton triggered far-reaching cultural and technical changes. It spurred on a textile industry and later a fashion industry; opening the way for new products and the mass marketing of fashion to every level of society. Cotton allowed for the creation of new fabrics, yarns and fibres with new functions and roles in the rapidly developing global market. Due to the versatility of cotton, designers can create ever new patterns and cuts in an increasingly diverse fashion ecosystem.
3. Cultivation of Cotton
The cotton plant consists of a capsule that pops up at the height of flowering, which contains the valued fluffy contents. Cotton is a perennial plant, grown once a year. There are several months between sowing and harvesting, where it ripens irregularly. The remains of leaves and seeds must be separated from the cotton fibres and this is done with the help of the ginning machine. Leftover cotton fibres are pressed into bales and sent to a spinning mill. With a carding machine, the fibre is brought into the right shape. Thereafter, a cotton thread is twirled with the spinning machine.
4. Characteristics of Cotton
Cotton’s properties lent itself well to mass adoption on a global scale. The material absorbs moisture as well as salts, acids and fats. It feels dry even when absorbing 20 percent of its weight in water and only drips when it’s more than 65 percent soaked. Wet cotton fibres are even more tear-resistant than dry, which is why cotton is so easy to wash. White or colourfast cotton items can be cooked and hot-ironed, properties that are important for hygiene. Despite it not being very heat-insulating, cotton is extremely breathable. It feels soft, comfortable to wear and doesn’t matt or accumulate electrostatic charge.
5. Cotton Varieties and Qualities
However, cotton varieties are far from being equal. The quality of cotton is categorised by its fibre length (or “staple”). The longer the fibre, the higher the quality of the cotton. Some cotton varieties have short fibres while other have long or even extra-long fibres.
Yarns made of longer fibres generally produce more durable and softer fabrics. Most cotton fibres that are used in high-street garments are short or medium length. Luxury brands quite often use cotton from premium species that have long or extra-long fibres.
At SANVT, we want to make a T-Shirt that feels ultra-soft and will last forever. Therefore, we have chosen the best of the best. Our Perfect T-Shirt is made from the highest-grade cotton available, 100% extra-long staple cotton, grown exclusively in the United States.