From cotton to cloth

Lancashire weaving shed

Mill lads in a Lancashire weaving shed © Manchester Library and Information Service: Manchester Archives & Local Studies

Cotton fibre

Cotton fibre surrounds the seeds of the cotton plant. The natural properties of the cotton fibre make it easy to spin into a strong thread. Each seed is surrounded by many single cotton fibres, which look like very fine hairs. Beneath these lies a second layer of short, fuzzy fibres. These are known as linters.

Cotton fibres are not straight, but actually spiral like a twist in a rope that is being held by two people twisting in opposite directions. These twists mean that the fibre surface is rough, so when a number of fibres are placed together, they interlock and twist. This makes cotton so suitable for spinning into thread.

The new world cottons have longer fibres than their old world cousins. This means they can be spun into finer and stronger yarns. Almost all of the cotton grown today is of the new world variety.

Spinning and weaving

Cotton in its raw state is not naturally strong. To make it into a strong yarn, it needs to be twisted or spun. It can then be woven into cotton cloth.

Until the late 18th century, all spinning was done by hand and took a long time. The whole family would be involved. Cotton was usually mixed with linen to make ‘fustians’ or ‘Manchester cottons’ because hand spun cotton yarns were not strong enough to be used alone. Technological developments like James Hargreaves’s Spinning Jenny, Richard Arkwright’s waterframe and Samuel Crompton’s Spinning Mule meant faster spinning and stronger yarn. This was the beginning of the factory system and mass-produced cotton.

Once the cotton has been spun, it can be woven into cloth. Cotton can also be knitted.

T-shirts are made of cotton jersey, which is a knitted cotton fabric. Not all cotton is woven or knitted. Non-woven products include disposable nappies, wipes and feminine hygiene products.

18th century dress

18th century dress

Finishing touches

Once cotton has been woven or knitted into a cloth, it is ready to be decorated in many different ways. It can be dyed, printed or embroidered. People around the world have developed varied techniques to decorate their cloth.

Different styles come and go with fashion, and people are often influenced by the designs they see on imported fabrics. Textile design has long been a complex set of interactions and influences between cultures and people often thousands of miles apart.

Fine cotton muslins and beautifully dyed chintzes imported from Southern India made cotton fashionable in the 18th century.

The rich colours and beautiful designs were much admired in Europe, where the secret of successfully dyeing cotton had not yet been discovered. British silk and wool manufacturers felt so threatened by the popularity of cotton, that they lobbied Parliament to ban it. In 1701, the wearing of imported printed fabrics was made illegal. In 1721, this ban was extended to printed fabrics made in England. When the ban was finally lifted in 1774, there was a huge demand for printed cottons.

Cotton could be made into a wide variety of fabrics, from fine white muslins, to heavy velvets and corduroy. These factory-produced cottons were cheaper than traditional woollen, linen or silk fabrics, bringing better clothing to the whole population.

Next: find out what is made of cotton