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Natural Fabrics Series: Cotton

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Are you currently wearing something cotton? Chances are you are. Cotton is one of the world’s most common fabrics. There are actually over 40 species of cotton that we know of. In fact, over half the fibres worn in the world are cotton-based.

Cotton is not only one of the world’s most widely used fabrics, but it is also one of the oldest. History tells us cotton was likely introduced to the West by Arabic traders around A.D. 800, albeit evidence of cotton production traces back as far as 7000 years ago.

Britain and America quickly realised the crop’s potential. Cotton was originally spun by hand, a time-consuming and physically demanding task. This changed in the 1700s when Britain and America created machinery that sped up and supersized cotton production. 

Britain created water-powered spinning machinery, and America brought out the big guns in the form of the cotton gin (not talking about alcohol). This automated one of the slowest aspects of cotton production: removing the seeds.

Since it could then be produced at a much faster pace, it was only a matter of time until cotton became one of the United States’ biggest exports. Cotton was money to America, both figuratively and literally. Although the American dollar is commonly thought of as ‘paper’ money, it is actually 75% cotton and 25% linen. We guess money can grow on trees after all (cottonwood trees that is).

How is cotton made?

In 2019 machinery has expedited almost the entire cotton manufacturing process. Cotton seeds are mechanically planted by machines at up to 12 rows at a time. One acre of soil alone can produce over 750lbs of cotton.

Just like a good holiday, the ideal growing season for cotton is long and sunny. The seedlings should start to emerge five to seven days after planting. Six weeks later flowers will start to form. These will turn from yellow to pink, and then red before the petals fall away. What these flowers leave behind is the pod that contains that sought-after crop.

The pod – or cotton boll – will mature and grow over a period of 50 to 80 days. This is when all the good stuff starts popping out. The growing fibres push the cotton boll apart, revealing raw cotton ready to be harvested.

Now nature has taken its course, it’s time to bring back the machines. Some cotton matures faster than others, so harvesting is often done in waves. It also needs to be timed pretty well, as if there is too much moisture in the air the cotton can degrade when stored.

The cotton is harvested by machine pickers before being stored in containers. From there, the cotton is fluffed via a module feeder and then sent to the gin (still not talking about alcohol). Once the seeds are removed, the cotton is compressed into bales to be shipped across the world.

All sounding good so far right? Well…not exactly. A lot of time and resources go into cotton, but so can a lot of pesticides. In fact, 16% of all insecticides in the world agriculture are used to grow cotton. On average it takes about 5.3oz of chemicals to process 1 pound of cotton – yikes.

Cotton is a lucrative material when created on a large scale. Unfortunately this involves using a lot of our planet’s natural resources, especially water.

Journalist Stacey Dooley entered the public eye as a participant on the BBC show Blood, Sweat and T-Shirts, where young British fashion-enthusiasts travelled across the world to witness the impact of the fashion industry.

This show focused primarily on sweatshop workers, and the pressures placed on them to feed the demands of disposable fashion. In comparison, her new show, Fashion’s Dirty Secrets, explores the impact of clothes production on the world’s natural resources. One of the most shocking facts Dooley learns is that it takes over 15,000 litres of water to grow the cotton needed for one pair of jeans. “I’ve never associated clothes production with pollution before,” she says.

 It is these kinds of facts that convey both the enormity of the fashion industry, and its impact on the globe. It’s abundantly clear that drastic changes need to be made.

Sustainable cotton: more than a load of fluff.

Now before people start tearing off their t-shirts out of guilt, there is a viable solution. Rather than using pesticides, switch to organic cotton, which is made from more sustainable techniques. These can include:

  • Intercropping (this is a fancy term for growing different crops together)
  • Compost, animal and ‘green’ manure
  • Herbal and mineral powders
  • Minimum tillage (giving the soil a rest from being turned so it doesn’t erode)

Since we know how organic cotton can be made, you may ask why it isn’t the norm. The problem is that organic farming makes less usable cotton than using the nasty stuff. The answer lies in either finding ways to cut costs or to produce enough cotton so farmers can still turn a profit. It'll certainly be worth the work for the impact it will have on the planet.

Removing pesticides saves groundwater from being contaminated. In fact, going organic reduces water pollution in cotton production by nearly 98%.

Cutting out synthetic fertilisers stops nitrogen from being put in the atmosphere. To mention another impressive percentage, this saves up 94% on greenhouse gas emissions. Organic cotton farming maintains soil’s fertility, so it can take in more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

It’s also worth mentioning the benefits of organic cotton production for industry workers. Long-term exposure to pesticides can cause them some pretty serious health problems, such as respiratory problems and even cancer.

It should also be mentioned that cotton garments are mainly manufactured by women and children. The demand for cost-effective garment production means that these people are pushed to work long hours with minimal pay.
The unfortunate reality is that workers rights often fall secondary to keeping costs down.

Fortunately, a new wave of brands like Archie Foal, have started to use sustainably sourced cotton. They are part of a growing trend, the Soil Association’s Organic Textile Report 2019 states the organic clothing market grew by nearly 20% last year.

Hopefully many other retailers will join this sustainable cotton challenge, which aims to use 100% sustainable cotton by 2025. The UK government is also beginning to promote ethical practices in the fashion industry. Last year they began an investigation into ‘fast fashion’. This is the practice of producing clothes fast and cheap to keep up the rapid pace of industry trends. Unfortunately, fast fashion means clothes reach the landfill as fast as they reach the stores. This is a subject you can learn more about in our blog post on ‘throw-away fashion’.

In comparison, the clothes we make at Archie Foal are timeless. We use quality materials made from natural fibres that aren’t contaminated by any damaging pesticides. We aren't interested in fleeting style trends. Instead, we create clothes that always look good, so our customers get fashion that lasts.

Take a look at some of our cotton-based products, such as our luxe and durable ‘Wax Cotton for Men’ collection, or this airy and chic ‘Erica’ shirt dress that’s perfect for Summer.


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