Monday, September 9, 2019

Cotton Facts

We're all big cotton consumers but we don't know much about it---at least it looks that way from the kind of comments I get about the price, importation, trade and the fabric advertised as "made in America," etc.

Cotton is so bound up in American identity that we seem to hear more myth than facts.

To understand the current industry you have to know the history---
Subtleties of different cotton plants, grades of fiber and geography
are not easy to understand.

French painter Edgar Degas worked in his family's cotton business
in Louisiana in the mid-19th-century. He painted a man grading cotton.

Marion Post Wolcott photo, Library of Congress
Same job, a century later

I  found a good summary of American cotton production in a history of Charleston. Walter J. Fraser, Jr. wrote Charleston! Charleston!: The History of a Southern City about 30 years ago.

Some quotes from the book:
"Sea-island cotton was a very fine, strong cotton that came to be grown near the coast from Florida to Georgetown, South Carolina. Although susceptible to damage by spring frost and autumn fog, it was grown successfully and shipped abroad through Charleston, Beaufort and Savanna until the boll weevil ruined the crop in the early twentieth century.

The Sea Islands are a barrier reef/tidal island chain from the Santee River
down to Florida in the Atlantic Ocean.
"Short staple or 'upland cotton', more difficult to weave in mechanical looms, was neither as strong nor felt as luxurious as sea-island cotton, and therefore never commanded as high a price. Methods of extracting seed for long-staple or sea-island cotton had been perfected earlier, but short-staple cotton remained of no commercial value until the new ginning technology introduced in the early 1790s by Eli Whitney.
Man operating a cotton gin (engine) that combs out the seeds

Freed slaves working at a cotton gin during the Civil War
Library of Congress
"Thereafter, since short-staple cotton could be grown in a far wider region than the sea-island cotton, it spread, and slavery with it...

Dark green shows sea island cotton areas. 
Short staple, upland cotton areas in lightest yellow-green.

Today's cottons range from Egyptian cotton's longest staple (fiber length)
down to American Upland. 

We do not grow Sea Island Cotton anymore.
"For years the upland cotton was exported almost exclusively through Charleston.... Cotton crops were planted in the spring, picked from September to October, ginned and compressed during October and November, and then carried to local ports for shipment to English and European manufacturing centers. 
Shipping cotton out of New Orleans, 1880s
Photo by William Henry Jackson, Library of Congress 
"After the collapse of the indigo market in the late 1790s because of the competition from British India, the [Charleston] export trade was based primarily on rice and cotton. In 1791 South Carolina grew 1,500,000 pounds of cotton, a decade later, 20 million and production doubled again within the next ten years."

Production drove the price down

The book:
Walter J. Fraser, Jr., Charleston! Charleston!: The History of a Southern City. University of South Carolina Press, 1990

Cotton prices over a year 2018-2019
About 90 cents a pound last summer

The last I looked cotton was a little below 60 cents a pound, down 30% from the summer of 2018. The price of quilting cotton per yard may not drop but I'll be optimistic that it won't be going up soon.


  1. Very interesting. Is there a way to determine which type of cotton is used to manufacture a particular line/collection of quilting fabric? Thanks.

  2. Seems like fabric prices have been rising steady in my area. Fascinating read this morning.

  3. 10+ years ago I read "Cotton: the Biography of a Revolutionary Fiber" by Stephen Yafa. When I googled to verify the title I saw a reference to "Empire of Cotton" by Sven Beckert. It was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. The reading list never gets shorter.....

  4. Pat---some textile scientist might know. I'm not the least bit qualified to tell you.

    And Lori---Have you tried to buy cotton sheets lately? Yikes. Somethings going on that is alarming. My optimism may be misplaced. Could be tarrifs.

  5. I did enjoy this post - I can imagine the squidging of the cotton. I didn't know sea cotton was different either. I wonder why it isn't grown now, seeing as it was a good quality fibre.

  6. I lived many years next to cotton fields in southern Arizona - Pima cotton country - and watched the seasons of cotton growing. Too much rain at the wrong time, turns the bolls hard and inseparable. Not enough makes it a poor crop, as well. It's grown there through canal irrigation (not sprinkling systems) and there is nothing more wonderful than a field full of cotton just before harvest time. It's hard work, whether you are a single farmer, an Indian tribe, or agribusiness. 60 cents a pound is a terrible price for the farm businesses! Someone else is making a lot of money from cotton, but it isn't the farmer.

  7. As Nan mentioned: EMPIRE OF COTTON, A Global History By Sven Beckert..

    I have ploughed through parts of it - tells the tale of history through cotton - and I had no idea it was so influential! it is worth getting the book, or at least finding a good detailed review on-line.

  8. Thanks, Barbara, for ALL your blogs! You lead me down so many rabbit holes! I love it!!! For more technical answers about cotton --dyeing, finishing, mercerization etc--I have found my (1975) 5th Edition copy of "Fiber to Fabric" by Bernard Corbman helpful. He covers a lot more than just cotton though. Fabrics are simply fascinating period. It is so amazing how cheap they are today!