Cotton - A Natural Fiber


Cotton is a plant that produces fibers , which are used to make clothes and other products, like towels , carpets or sheets . Clothes made out of cotton are especially light and comfortable .


What Cotton is Used For

Every part of the cotton plant can be used. The long cotton fibers are used to make cloth , the short fibers can be used in the paper industry. You can make oil or margarine out of the seeds of the cotton plant. The leaves and stalks of the cotton plant are plowed into the ground to make the soil better. Other parts of the plant are fed to animals.


Where cotton is grown


Cotton is a subtropical plant that grows in many warm areas of the world. It started out as a plant of the tropics but today it is grown in other warm areas that have at least 200 frost-free days. The most important cotton-growing countries are the USA, China, India, Pakistan and Australia.

China produces about 30% of the world’s cotton fibre, mostly in the eastern part of the country. In the United States cotton is grown in the southern states, the biggest cotton producer is Texas.

Cotton needs a hot, sunny climate to grow. The plant needs soil that is well - drained and a lot of rainfall during the growing season. During the harvest season it should be sunny and dry. Some areas grow cotton on irrigated land.

Cotton needs soil that has a lot of nitrogen in it. Farmers use chemical fertilizers to improve the soil .



Growing and processing cotton

Cotton plants can reach a height of up to 2 meters.

After plowing the soil in spring cotton seeds are planted in rows by hand or machine. Three weeks after the plants come out flower buds begin to form. They produce white flowers that turn red and fall off . The flowers have a green fruit, called boll, which has seeds in it. White fiber of different lengths grows around the seeds . Cotton can be harvested when the boll bursts open and shows the fibers inside. The longest fibers are up to 6 cm long and are used for the best cloth . Most fibers, however ,are much smaller.

During the growth period cotton farmers must be careful that their crop does not get any diseases . They spray insecticides to keep insects away from the plant. Such insects destroy almost 15 % of the world’s cotton every year. Weeds also do damage to the cotton plants. They take away moisture that plants need so much.

Cotton is harvested about 150 to 200 days after farmers plant it. In industrial countries picking machines drive through the fields, harvest the cotton and transport it onto a trailer . In the Third World cotton harvesting is often done by hand.

Gins separate the cotton fiber from the seeds . Cotton is then combed , dried, cleaned and pressed into bales . Cotton buyers or brokers buy the raw cotton and then sell it to textile mills . There, spinning machines spin cotton into yarn . The yarn is woven into cloth, which is bleached and sometimes dyed .



History of cotton


Humans realized very early that the soft, fluffy cotton fibers can be used to make comfortable clothes.

Cotton was first grown in Pakistan and the Nile valley about 3,000 years ago. Native Americans started growing cotton at the same time in North America. Europe was introduced to cotton through Arab merchants at about 800 A.D . By 1500 cotton was known all over the world.

When Europeans founded colonies in America they relied on cotton to make a living . In the early days, growing and harvesting cotton was a hard job that was done manually by slaves .

In 1793 an American, Eli Whitney, invented the cotton gin , a machine that separated seeds from fiber. This new invention allowed farms to produce even more cotton.

In the second part of the 20th century people started to produce synthetic fibers , like nylon and acrylic. The importance of cotton fiber began to drop . By the middle of the 1970s cotton made up only one third of all fibers worldwide . Many cotton farmers had to close their farms. Governments , especially in America, had to help cotton farmers during this economically difficult period .

By 1990 the demand for cotton clothes became bigger, simply because people saw that cotton was a natural fiber and very comfortable to wear. By the turn of the millennium cotton regained its importance .

Towards the end of the 20th century farmers started experimenting with organic cotton , grown without chemicals or pesticides . Such cotton, however , has turned out to be more expensive than normal cotton.


Downloadable PDF Text- and Worksheets



  • A.D. = anno domini = after the birth of Christ
  • bale = cotton that is tied together tightly to form a big block
  • bleach = to make something white by using chemicals
  • broker = a person who buys and sells things for other people
  • bud = a rolled up flower before it opens
  • burst = break
  • carpet = heavy piece of woven material used to cover floors
  • century = a hundred years
  • cloth = material used for making clothes
  • comb = to make straight
  • comfortable = something that makes you feel good or relaxed
  • cotton gin = machine that separates the seeds from the cotton
  • damage = harm, hurt
  • demand = need
  • destroy = to damage completely
  • disease = illness
  • drop = fall
  • dye = to put color into a material
  • economically = about finances and money
  • especially = above all
  • fall off = fall down from the plant
  • fertilizer = material that you put into the soil to make plants grow better
  • fiber = thin parts of natural materials
  • fluffy = soft like a feather
  • found-founded = to start something new
  • frost-free = temperatures that are above 0°C or 32° F
  • government = the people who rule a country
  • growth = when something grows
  • harvest = when you gather crops from the field
  • height = how high something is
  • however = but
  • importance = being important
  • improve = to make better
  • industrial countries = rich countries in Europe, America, as well as Japan and Australia
  • insecticide = a chemical used for killing insects
  • introduce = come to a place for the first time
  • invent = to make or design a new machine
  • irrigate = to bring water to land, or a field in dry places
  • length = how long something is
  • make a living = to earn money to survive
  • manually = by hand
  • merchant = person who buys and sells things
  • moisture = wetness
  • Native Americans = Indians, people who lived in North America before Columbus came
  • natural fiber = a material that grows out of a plant and is not made by people in laboratories
  • nitrogen = gas that has no color or smell; it is a chemical element that is used to make soil better
  • organic cotton = cotton that is produced without chemicals
  • period = time
  • pesticide = a chemical material used to kill insects and small animals that may destroy a cotton plant
  • picking machine = machine that harvests cotton
  • plow = to turn over the earth with a machine so that you can plant the seeds
  • produce = create, turn out
  • raw = natural
  • realize = to find out
  • regain = to get again
  • rely = depend on, need
  • row = line
  • seed = small hard object that is in plants
  • separate = divide
  • sheet = a large piece of thin cloth that you put on a bed to lie on
  • slave = someone who is owned by another person and works for them without getting paid
  • soil = the top layer of earth on which plants grow
  • soil = the top layer of earth on which plants grow
  • spinning machine = machine that makes cotton into thread by twisting it
  • spray = when liquid comes out of a bottle in very small drops
  • stalk = narrow part of a plant that comes up from the ground and has flowers or leaves on it
  • start out = begin
  • synthetic = not natural, made by man
  • textile mill = factory that makes cloth out of cotton and other materials
  • towards = near
  • towel = a piece of cloth that you use for drying your skin after you wash yourself
  • trailer = a wagon that you pull behind a tractor or truck
  • turn of the millennium = at the beginning of the next thousand years
  • valley = land between two hills with a river flowing through it
  • weave—woven = to make cloth or a carpet by crossing thin pieces under and over each other
  • weed = a wild , unwanted plant
  • well-drained = when water can flow away from the field
  • worldwide = around the world
  • yarn =thick thread made out of cotton