Cotton is one of the most important vegetable fibers, distinguished from all other fibers by the peculiar twist it possesses which makes it especially adapted to spinning. It is cultivated between the twentieth and thirty-fifth parallels north of the equator. This is known as the cotton belt. Within this belt lie the cotton districts of the United States, Northern Mexico, Egypt, Northern Africa, Asia and India.
Although cotton is cultivated mainly for the fiber surrounding the seeds, its by-products, the seeds and stalks, are of great commercial importance, being manufactured into oil-meal, oil cakes, cottolene, etc. There are about fifty species of the cotton plant but only a few are cultivated, the best known and most commonly used being the "American Upland," which is now cultivated in many parts of the world. The two varieties grown in the United States are the "Sea Island" and the "Upland." The former is much more valuable because its fiber is longer. It is cultivated on the islands and low-lying coasts of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. The latter, while not so valuable, furnishes most of the crop and is grown over a wide area.
The plant grows from seven to ten feet high. The leaves are sprinkled with small black dots. The hollyhock-like flowers are white and yellow when they first open, but two days later they turn a dull red. Surrounding the flowers are three or four cup-shaped green leaves which together are called squares. These remain after the petals have dropped, to serve as a protection to the bolls.
Cotton thrives best in a rich, deep soil with a hot, steamy atmosphere. It should have plenty of moisture while growing and a dryer period during the ripening and gathering of the crop. The most of the cotton crop is planted by the twentieth of May. Six weeks after it begins blossoming the first bolls are ready for picking. This is done by hand, and as the bolls do not all ripen at the same time, it is necessary to go over the field many times, and the picking often lasts until 'the middle of December. The cotton is gathered into baskets hung from the shoulders of the pickers.
After the cotton is picked it is taken to the gin which separates the fiber from the seed. Until the cotton gin was invented in 1793, by a Connecticut teacher, then living in Georgia, the cultivation of cotton was not profitable, as one person could only clear the seeds from five or six pounds a day. This machine has revolving teeth which drag the cotton between parallel wires, leaving the seeds behind. With this machine a slave could clean about a thousand pounds in a day. This gave a wonderful impetus to the cotton industry, and its cultivation increased enormously.
After the seeds are removed the cotton is put up into bales weighing about five hundred pounds each, and is then ready for shipping. When these bales are received at the factory the cotton is so closely matted together that it must be broken up or loosened. This is done in the blending room where it is first run through heavily weighted and spiked rollers which pull the cotton apart. It is then blended or mixed to make it of uniform quality. After this it is taken to the carding room. Here the fibers are drawn parallel to one another and bits of leaves and unripe fibers removed, when it is put through the drawing frame, consisting of a pair of rollers. These parallel, untwisted fibers are now called "slivers." From the drawing frame these "slivers" go to the slubbing machines where it is lightly twisted and wound on bobbins. This process is repeated on similar machines each one drawing the thread out and twisting it a little more, until it is finally ready for spinning.
Two systems of spinning are in use at the present time, ring spinning and self-acting mule spinning. The former is done mostly by women and children, and produces a hard, round irregular yarn. The latter machines, operated only by men and very strong women, are complicated, but produce an exceedingly soft and fine yarn.
The thread used for sewing and for the manufacture of lace is made by twisting several fine threads together. Sewing thread is usually composed of from six to nine threads spun separately and then twisted into one. Thread is sometimes passed very rapidly through a flame which burns off the fuzz making it very smooth.
Three operations are necessary in the manufacture of cloth: First, the separation of the warp threads on the loom, so that the shuttle containing the woof can pass through. Second, the movement of the shuttle, back and forth, among the warp threads. Third, the beating up the woof.