A Love of Cotton

Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

We love cotton: it is soft, gorgeous, versatile and easy to work with. At PIMP our days are surrounded by cotton! We spend our time unraveling bolts of fabric, cutting, sewing and packaging up finished pads for our customers. We are a little obsessed with working with cotton and wanted to learn more about its history and how it’s grown, so we did some research!

A Brief History

Cotton is one of the oldest domesticated crops in the world. It has been grown in the Old World for 7000 years and in the Americas for 5000! Before the 1800s there were several different cotton species grown by humans but the most commercially viable was Gossypium hirsutum, a variety from the Americas that proved to have higher yields and better fibers for making cloth.

Before the industrial revolution, cotton was processed completely by hand and mainly by women. Cotton fibers were harvested, picked clean of debris and then combed to make them ready to be spun. Spindles and spinning wheels were used to create strong threads by tightly spinning the fibers. The thread was then used to make cloth on a loom.

File:Spinning-wheel.png - Wikimedia Commons
Drawing of a spinning wheel. By Nopira

Cotton was far from new in the Americas but with the arrival of colonists, its production went to a whole new level as cotton plantations were created. These plantations were large and labor was needed to run them. The owners who were focused on profits and not human decency turned to the Transatlantic Slave Trade to meet their labor needs. African people were stolen from their homeland and forced to work plant, tend and harvest cotton to the profit of white plantation owners for over 200 years. Through the use of stolen labor the United States became the largest grower of cotton in the world.

Eli Whitney patented his cotton gin in 1794. The gin removed the seeds from the cotton fibers 10 times faster than slaves could. It was first believed that the use of the gin would decrease the need for slaves, however, the gin increased supply which led to an increase in the demand as cotton cloth became a luxury product.

Labor Day's Link to the History of Slavery in America | Time
African Americans forced to pick cotton on Southern plantation around 1850. MPI/Getty Images

In 1865, the 13th Amendment was passed and led to the freedom of all slaves in the United States. Despite this Amendment a new form of slavery emerged in the U.S. prison system and still exists today. To learn more about this form of slavery checkout this article: https://medium.com/@annabelle_67699/understanding-the-prison-industrial-complex-in-the-us-and-uk-for-beginners-efa66d383785

The plantation owners were then required to pay their workers (except those forced to work through the prison system) and the cotton industry became much smaller in the U.S. as owners looked towards more profitable crops. Today, China is the world’s largest producer of cotton followed by India and the United States.

Growing Cotton

Cotton fiber is what is used to make cloth and it grows within the cotton flower on a small seed. As many as 16,000 fibers can grow on each seed! A cotton fiber is actually a single cell that can grow up to 3.6cm long and 25 micronmeters thick. To put that into perspective, a human hair is measures between 17 and 181 micronmeters thick. The longer and finer the fiber is, the better it is for making cloth.

File:A bag of cotton seeds.JPG
Cotton seeds
Photo by Thamizhpparithi Maari

The cotton plant takes about 5 months to complete its growing cycle and, within that timeframe, the fiber takes about 45 days to reach maturation within the seed pod. At the end of its cycle the living part of the cotton fiber dies, leaving only the cellulose walls. The dried seed pod will open, exposing the fluffy white fibers.

File:Cotton field kv43.jpg
A partially harvested cotton field. Photo by Kimberly Vardeman

Cotton is mechanically harvested and then the fibers are separated from the seeds with a mechanical cotton gin. The fibers are baled and shipped to a spinning factory, most of which are in India and China. They are then knitted in another factory into a grayish material that is treated with heat and various chemicals to make them soft and white or colorful. Today almost all of the cloth making process is done by machines.

Factory cotton spinning machine – Stock Editorial Photo © antoniotruzzi  #124137774
Modern spinning machine. Photo by antoniotruzzi

Cotton requires an enormous amount of water, synthetic fertilizers and more pesticides than any other crop in the world! The toxins used to grow cotton can be devastating to the workers applying them and to the surrounding landscapes. Organic cotton is made without synthetic chemicals, to the great benefit of the people and the land, but it only makes up 1% of all the cotton grown around the world. At PIMP we are only able to have a small selection of organic cotton pads and accessories because of the tiny supply. As more people become aware of the environmental and health concerns of conventional cotton there will be a higher demand for eco-friendly, conscientious products. We hope we will be able to make all our pads in organic cotton one day!

PIMP and Cotton

This roll of birdseye is ready to be cut!

To make our pads we use 2 types of cotton fabric: a super absorbent birdseye diaper cloth for the insides and fun patterned cloth for the tops! About once a month we get deliveries of fabric from all across the globe. Delivery days are very exciting and we like to open our fabric packages as soon as they arrive to marvel over the beautiful cloth.

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We use A LOT of fabric and do our best to carefully align our patterns to make the most of every one of those gigantic rolls. Despite our best efforts, at the end of all our tracing and cutting there is usually a small pile of oddly shaped scraps. We are crafty people to say the least and digging through scrap piles every week to find the perfect piece for a project is one of our favorite things. There are still more scraps than we can realistically use so we like to do scrap giveaways on Facebook and Instagram that way our creative followers can make them into something beautiful!

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Art by Laura Rovi. Made entirely of pad scraps!

We also giveaway creative pieces that we make! Checkout this incredible, boob-inspired piece! ->

Some of our scraps are plain birdseye cotton, which is not ideal for fun projects. Those scraps are used by our staff members as compostable toilet paper and tissues! Want not, waste not!

Wanna learn more about cotton? Check out these sources used to create this post:

Why is cotton everything? -Michael R. Stiff By : TED-Ed


The life cycle of a t-shirt- Angel Change


Slavery in America


The Domestication History of Cotton (Gossypium) by Nicoletta Maestri


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