Happy Labor Day! I hope you are enjoying your day off of work or for those of you still on duty, I hope you are at least thankful for safe working conditions and reasonable pay. While there may not be an official botanical symbol of Labor Day, today’s post will feature cotton as the ultimate autotrophic symbol of work. So whether your collar is blue or white, even if you don’t have a collar at all, it’s probably still made of some cotton. So, take some time today to consider the labor of cotton in your life.
“All work, even cotton spinning, is noble; work is alone noble … A life of ease is not for any man, nor for any god.” Thomas Carlyle
Cotton plants have been hard at work for thousands of years supplying us with fiber for clothing and other goods. Also, as far as agricultural products go, cotton has historically set the highest bar in terms of human labor commitment. Consequently, this plant fiber has come to be both the most commonplace fabric as well as the most economically polarizing material in history. It is both a virtuous product as well as a historical symbol of labor exploitation because of the physical demands of its production and processing. ‘High cotton’ is synonymous with prosperity and good times. ‘Picking cotton’ was the epitome of slave labor, tedious and toilsome.
So what exactly is cotton? Plants of the genus Gossypium are perennial shrubs that bloom creamy white flowers. These self-pollinating flowers turn pink later in the day after pollination and begin to form a boll structure at the base of the flower that will contain the mature seeds for the plant. Check out the video below for images of developing cotton flowers and bolls in different stages.*
In generic terms, the boll is the seed pod of the cotton plant. It’s basically like its fruit, but instead of making a juicy delicious flesh around its seeds, cotton plants make soft fluffy fibers. When the seeds begin to mature within the boll, the cells of the outer layer of the seed elongate and kick cellulose production into high gear along their cell walls. It is a precise process that follows a specific pattern for reinforcing the thin cells, but also includes a regular deviation producing kinks and curves. It is these ‘imperfections’ that allow fibers to hold together into long threads as they are spun and thus confer their economic value. Once seed development is complete and the bolls burst open, these elongated cells desiccate, leaving behind shells of thin fluffy fibers hiding the seeds.
Thousands of years of cultivation have yielded a number of agricultural practices that make cotton crops easier to manage. While cotton plants will live as perennials, they are grown as annual crops. In order to have more predictable cotton yields, the fields are typically irrigated; however, cotton has high drought and salinity tolerance. So, for return on water use, it is a good crop choice and thrives in areas with long hot growing seasons. Harvesting is done by mechanical pickers that twist the bolls off of the plant. By weight, the majority of the cotton harvest is the seed. Each boll can contain 24 – 45 seeds entangled in the fibers. Cottonseed is valuable in its own right as a source for oil as well as nutritional meal. The separation of the cotton seeds from the fiber requires an enormous amount of effort. This process is now efficiently handled by mechanized cotton gins. The lint fibers are then baled into 500 lb units, which are the raw materials for textile mills that will then spin the fibers together to form threads and skeins of fabric.
The average acre of cotton in the U.S. will yield about 1 1/3 bales of lint. This is a two-fold increase over cotton production in the 1950s, largely due to improvements in land use, varieties, and irrigation. The vast majority of cotton grown in the U.S. is transgenic. It has been genetically modified to be resistant to certain herbicides or pests or both. Research continues on this economically important crop to improve fiber yield and quality as well as confer disease and pest resistance. Plant scientists are also eager to further push the limits of drought tolerance in this species.
The production and initial processing of cotton is only the beginning when it comes to cotton’s economic impact. According to the National Cotton Council, a bale is enough to make 215 pairs of jeans or 1,217 men’s T-shirts or 313,600 $100 bills. Yes, cotton is literally money. The estimated contribution of the cotton industry to the U.S. is $27 billion.
So consider cotton this Labor Day, whether you are enjoying a day off or clocking in. It doesn’t matter if your collar is blue or white, it all comes back to green in the plant Gossypium hirsutum. Both the plant and its processing have come a long way.
*Video by Janice Person. Also check out the links below from her blog. If you want to know more about cotton, it’s definitely the place to visit. A whole blog about cotton! You can also follow her on twitter @JPLovesCotton (see, she really does love cotton).
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