Invoking visions of big, soft, white fluffy cotton balls or perhaps a favourite well-worn t-shirt, cotton is that familiar wardrobe staple we can’t seem to live without. It feels good, washes up well, and looks good. It’s also breathable, helps to absorb moisture, is durable, and hypoallergenic – making it perfect for everyone in the family - even those with the most sensitive of skins.
The cotton you wear on your back, was once a PLANT!
In the western world where we have the luxury of retail at our fingertips, we often forget, or don’t consider, the rather significant journey a product has been on before it lands on the store shelf. The cotton you wear was once an agricultural product. It was grown in the ground and harvested like a fruit or vegetable, was then rigorously cleaned, spun, dyed, knitted or woven into a fabric, before being sewn into the garment you wear. All of this uses significant resources, including water, chemicals and manpower to achieve. To put this into perspective, it takes 10,000 litres of water to produce 1 kilo of cotton, - or around 2,700 litres to make just 1 cotton t-shirt! Incredible really when you think about it! In addition to the vast water usage, pesticides and fertilizers used during the manufacturing process have also sadly been linked to water contamination and even drinking water pollution.
Realising this environmental impact, many cotton farmers have turned to organic cotton farming instead. Organic cotton farmers use a range of natural products and methods (many of them being ancient techniques) to support the growth of healthy crops. They avoid the use of toxic pesticides and artificial fertilizers. Let’s take a closer look at the process of organic cotton manufacturing, or click here to discover the benefits of organic cotton vs conventional cotton.
How is organic cotton harvested and processed?
Below are the steps in the harvesting and processing of organic cotton into clothing:
1. Plantation and growing
The whole idea behind organic cotton farming is working with nature. It’s about maintaining ecological balance and sustaining the environment - and NOT using chemicals (that ultimately provide short term benefits but long term problems - such as depleting the health of the soil).
Organic cotton farmers respect the soil - they view it as a living system and not just a means to grow plants. Ensuring the soil is always healthy doesn’t just mean avoiding chemicals like herbicides (sprays that destroy weeds) and pesticides (sprays that destroy insects/bugs), but actually ensuring the soil is at its optimum health. Farmers do this through various methods including using natural fertilisers, composting and crop rotation. Organic cotton is typically rotated with other crops, which replenishes the soil but also helps farmers economically by ensuring they aren’t dependant on a single crop.
2. Ginning - cleaning the cotton
“Ginning” is the term used for the process of turning raw cotton balls into clean fibres. After the cotton is dried to remove moisture content, the ginning machine, with its revolving circular saws, pushes the lint through a narrow grill to prevent seeds from passing through. Rotating brushes pull the cotton (now called “lint” at this stage) from the grill, and compress it into large bales.
3. Cotton spinning
“Spinning” is the stage where the cotton fibres turn into “yarn” (long, continuous strands of cotton) with a little help from machinery.
The cotton bales are laid down, opened and blended, and once again cleaned to remove any remnants of dirt, leaves and seeds. Next, the fibre is fed into a “carding” machine which separates the threads and pulls them into a single, continuous, loose rope. Removing any final waste and making it finer, stronger and smoother, “drawing” is the process where the fibres are blended, straightened and finessed to achieve the desired density, in preparation for the spinning machine.
There are a few different types of spinning machines, with ring spinning being the most commonly used worldwide. Ring spinning machines spin the fibres to create long threads of yarn, the output being large reels of cotton yarn (threads).
4. Knitting or weaving
Knitting involves looping the threads onto each other to form various fabrics - such as stretchy cotton jersey (think of a standard t-shirt). Fabrics can also be woven (think of the overlapping strings on a tennis racket and how they cross each other vertically and horizontally).
You can tell if a fabric is knitted or woven by doing a few simple tests, one being the stretch test. A knitted fabric will stretch quite easily along its width, whereas a woven fabric will barely give.
5. Fabric finishing
The last step in the manufacturing process, most fabrics undergo one or more finishing touches to make them look and feel more attractive. There are hundreds of different ways to finish cotton, including cotton brushing for extra softness, printing and dyeing. To produce truly organic end product, the production doesn’t just need to avoid the use of harmful chemicals in the agricultural stage - but in the finishing stage also. We go into fabric dyeing in more detail below.
5a. Fabric finishing - Fabric dyeing
The dyeing process in standard cotton production can include harmful chemicals such as formaldehyde - which isn’t just a risk to the environment and workers, but ultimately the end user being the customer!
Low impact fibre reactive dyes aren’t made up of harmful chemicals and don’t require toxic mordants (substances that help dyes stick or adhere to fabric). They also use less water during the dyeing process, which reduces overall waste.
Dyes can also come from natural sources such as fruits and vegetables like beetroot and turmeric, however, as environmentally fantastic as this sounds - it’s not practical, particularly on a larger scale. Because these dyes aren’t as highly pigmented as low impact dyes, they require significantly larger quantities to dye garments to a comparable colour using low impact dyes, plus they fade much faster. Environmentally, large masses of land would be required to be cleared to grow the fruits and vegetables needed for dye production - when this could be used for food production instead. We will be keeping a close eye on any innovations in this space though!
Once the cotton has had its finishes applied, it’s done, and ready to be stitched together! Believe it or not - garment sewing is done by real people (not machines!). These highly skilled workers will sew garments according to a pre-specified ‘pattern’, and are extremely skilled in the art of sewing, stitching and operating various machinery.