When I think about cotton, the first image that springs to mind is soft, luxurious sheets, but cotton has a less than soft past, especially when it comes to the era before the American Civil War where slaves were used to pick this much sought after textile. Although forced labor is still practiced in some countries, there are other less well-known facts about cotton which we will explore. We’ll also delve into some fun facts as well as slang terminology.
Cotton is a fluffy, white lint-like fiber that grows inside a hard case, called a boll. The fibers protect the inner seeds which are dispersed when a boll bursts open naturally. The wind does the rest, removing the seeds from the boll and carrying them aloft within tufts of fibers, a.k.a. the staples. The boll is the result of the formation of a fruit after the plant’s flower dies. The flowers start off creamy-white in color, turn pink, and then become red before dying.
For commercially-grown cotton, seed-planting takes place from February to the beginning of June, with harvesting taking place from July to November, at which point the bushes are about 1m tall.
Harvesting in the U.S.A. is now done using human-driven machines that can collect bolls across up to six rows at the same time. A slave could pick about 20 plants in nine minutes, whereas a machine picks up to 1,200 plants in 30 seconds.
Second to poor weather conditions, the next worse enemy of the plants is the boll weevil. The introduction of genetically modified (G.M.) cotton seeds has virtually eliminated this problem in the U.S.A. as the seed contains a bacterial gene that is toxic to the weevil’s offspring, the bollworm.
As at 2015/2016, the leading global cotton producer, is India (5,748,000 metric tons), followed by China (4,790,000 metric tons), and the U.S.A. (2,806,000 metric tons).
A Bit of History
Originally found in tropical and sub-tropical regions world-wide, remnants of cotton textiles have been dated back to 6,000-5,000 BCE in both India and Mexico. The Greeks and Arabs did not know about cotton until the wars of invasion by Alexander the Great. Upon seeing these plants, a Greek named Megasthenes (circa 350-290 BCE) described the plants as trees “on which wool grows”.
Post-Napoleonic Egypt began producing commercially grown cotton in the 1820’s on the recommendation, to the then ruler Mohamed Ali Pasha, of an enterprising Frenchman named Louis Alexis Jumel, who saw some neglected plants in the garden of a nobleman. Jumel realized that the plants had adapted to the Egyptian climate and could be grown commercially.
Today, Egyptian Cotton is known for its higher thread count, softness and strength. Be aware, though, that only linen made from Extra Length Staples (ELS), grown in Egypt, can be classified as genuine Egyptian Cotton. It is not a generic term for any high thread-count textile made elsewhere.
The etymology of some cotton phrases is easily guessed, whereas others are obscure. The most commonly used phrases are:
- Cotton on – To begin to understand someone or something: She cottoned on to what her friend was saying.
- Be in tall cotton – To be doing very well (as when a crop does well): He is in tall cotton after the successful sale of his business.
- Be in low cotton – To be unhappy or despondent: She was in low cotton after failing the exam.
- Cotton up – To try to make friends with someone: After meeting Jack, Tom tried to cotton up to him.
- Bless her/his cotton socks – Something you say when you want to express affection for someone: Bless her cotton socks, my grandchild said the sweetest thing today.
- Cotton-picking/cotton-pickin’ – What you say to express anger: Get your cotton-pickin’ fingers out of my food!
- Wrap somebody in cotton wool – To over-protect someone and not allow them to make their own mistakes and decisions: After his accident, his mother wrapped him in cotton wool and took over the running of his day-to-day life.
Fun Facts About Cotton
- A bale is 0.48 cubic meters and weighs 227kgs.
- One bale can be used to make 1256 pillowcases.
- Paper money contains cotton and linen. That’s why it doesn’t disintegrate in a washing machine.
- 313,600 $100 notes can be made from one bale.
- The slang term “daily rags”, which is still used today, originally referred to pre-1870s newspapers that were made incorporating cotton and linen fibers.
- Cotton is highly absorbent and is capable of soaking up to 27 times its weight in water.
- In the event that bee-pollination is not possible, cotton flowers can self-pollinate as they are bi-sexual.
- An astounding 680,000 cotton balls can be made from one bale.
- One cotton plant can produce 15-20 bolls. One boll can hold up to half a million staples.
- It is said that a bolt of sheer cotton, woven in ancient India, was 66m long and only weighed 0.5kg!
Market prices of this versatile plant are subject to fluctuations in the market, caused by unforeseen factors such as weather, pests, and political and regulatory changes that affect the growth of the market.
One really has to have an in-depth knowledge of this market before becoming a trader in cotton futures, which are exchange-traded contracts in which a buyer agrees to take delivery, from a seller, of a specified amount of cotton at a pre-set price on a confirmed future delivery date.
Export sales of 1 million bales of Indian cotton recently experienced a sudden glitch, purely due to their government’s decision to ban high-value currency notes. Farmers, who prefer cash payments, have opted to postpone sales. The resulting drop in supply has increased prices in India, and this could lead to buyers opting to buy from other countries instead. This will, no doubt, lead to volatility in cotton futures, so don’t leap into trading futures right now or you could end up in low cotton.
Bless your cotton socks, we’ve clued up and cottoned on and now it’s time to say cheerio!