No one knows exactly how old cotton is, but scientists searching caves in Mexico found bits of cotton bolls and pieces of cotton itself that proved to be at least 7,000 years old. In the Indus River Valley in Pakistan, cotton was grown, spun and woven into cloth 3,000 years B.C. At about the same time, natives of Egypt’s Nile valley were making and wearing cotton clothing. Arab merchants brought cotton cloth to Europe about 800 A.D. When Columbus discovered American in 1492, he found cotton growing in the Bahama Islands, By 1500, cotton was known, generally, throughout the world.
Cottonseed are believed to have been planted in Florida in 1556 and in Virginia in 1607. By 1616, colonists were growing cotton along the James River in Virginia. It was first spun by machinery in England in 1730. The invention of the cotton gin in Savannah, Georgia paved the way for the important place cotton holds in the world today.
Eli Whitney, a native of Massachusetts, secured a patent on his cotton gin made of wires and brushes in 1794. In 1796, Hogdon Holmes, a mechanic from Augusta, Georgia, obtained a patent for his improved version, made with saws instead of wires. Soon Holme’s gins were in common use. The gin, short for “engine,” could do the work 10 times faster than by hand. The gin made it possible to supply large quantities of cotton fiber to the fast growing textile industry. Within 10 years, the value of the U.S. cotton crop rose from $150,000 to more than $8,000,000.
Cotton in Georgia
Georgia’s 2010 Cotton Acreage was 1,330,000 acres planted. A bale of cotton weighs about 480 pounds and can produce 4,321 socks, 249 sheets, 690 towels, 3,085 diapers, 21,960 handkerchiefs or 215 pairs of jeans. Those 1.33 million acres produced about 2,250,000 bales of cotton. The top ten counties in production of cotton in 2010 were: Mitchell, Colquitt, Worth, Dooly, Bulloch, Irwin, Miller, Coffee, Decatur & Brooks.
Every part of the cotton plant is used in production. Cottonseed and linters, which are the short fibers that cling to the seed, after the ginning process, go into everything from photographic film to paper currency, to cellulose products used in foods like ice cream, maple syrup and chewing gum. The invention of the cotton gin, which separates the cotton fiber from the seed, helped spur the development of cottonseed in everyday products. In 2010, cottonseed represented an average 10% of the cotton crop produced.
How Cotton is Grown
In Georgia, cotton planting takes place from April until early June. Seeding is done with mechanical planters which cover as many as 10 to 24 rows at a time. The planter opens a small trench or furrow in each row, drops in the right amount of seed, covers them and packs the earth on top of them. The seed is planted at uniform intervals in either small clumps (“hill-dropped”) or singularly (“drilled”).
Machines called cultivators are used to uproot weeds and grass, which compete with the cotton plant for soil nutrients, sunlight and water. About six to eight weeks after planting, flower buds called squares appear on the cotton plants. In about three weeks, the blossoms open. Their petals change from creamy white to yellow, then pink and, finally, dark red. After three days, they wither and fall off, leaving green pods which are called cotton bolls. Inside the boll, which is shaped like a tiny football, moist fibers grow and push out the newly formed seeds.
The fibers continue to expand under the warm sun and, as the boll ripens, it turns brown. Approximately sixteen weeks into the growing season, the boll splits apart, and the fluffy cotton fiber bursts forth ready for harvest. In about another four weeks, the cotton is harvested.
Since hand labor is no longer used in the U.S. to harvest cotton, the crop is harvested by machines, either a picker or a stripper. Cotton picking machines have spindles that pick (twist) the seed cotton from the burs that are attached to plants’ stems. Doffers then remove the seed cotton from the spindles and knock the seed cotton into the conveying system. Conventional cotton stripping machines use rollers equipped with alternating bats and brushes to knock the open bolls from the plants into a conveyor.
A second kind of stripper harvester uses a broadcast attachment that looks similar to a grain header on a combine. All harvesting systems use air to convey and elevate the seed cotton into a storage bin referred to as a basket. Once the basket is full, the stored seed cotton is dumped into a boll buggy, trailer or module builder.
Today, nearly all cotton is stored in modules, which look like giant loaves of bread. Modules allow the cotton to be stored without losing 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 alongside 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 building. Once in the cotton gin, the seed cotton moves through dryers and through cleaning machines that remove 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 made into dense bales weighing about 500 pounds. To determine the value of cotton, samples are taken from each able and classed according to fiber length, 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 in the United States or a foreign country.
The seed usually is sold by the producer to the gin. The ginner either sells them for feed or to an oil mill where the linters (short fibers left on seed after ginning) 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.
There more than 60 gins in the state of Georgia and one cottonseed oil mill.