Welcome to You Ask Andy

Mary Seus, age 10, of Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, for her question:

How is cotton processed?

Cotton plants thrive in fertile fields where the year round weather is mild and moist. Their dainty white blossoms open on sunny mornings and last but a day. As they wither through shades of pink, blue and purple, they are being replaced by round seed pods called cotton bolls. After two to three months, the bolls look like green golfballs with pointed tips. At last they burst and free their stuffing. Suddenly the plants are covered with fluffy white pom poms called cotton burrs. These wads of fine fibers are the raw material for making cotton textiles.

Modern industrial processes often seem dull and uninteresting. The streamlined chores are done by cold hearted, labor saving machines that have little use for human hands or imagination. However, most of these mechanical devices are recent inventions    and people have been processing cotton since the dawn of history. Maybe our ancestors enjoyed their time consuming chores. In any case, our machines merely duplicate the same processes they used.

So let's go back to the cotton crops of past history. The fluffy burrs open and the sunny fields look white with snow. Human hands, young and old, gather the wads of cotton fiber, stuff them into big baskets and tote them to be processed, perhaps storing them in great piles on the barn floor. More hands pull the tough wads apart and let the seeds inside fall through seives down into bins.

Later the seeds are crushed to release their rich oil and the dry meal is fed to the cattle. The cotton fibers are made of tough cellulose like the material used to build woody cells. The short lengths are sifted out to make lints, useful for stuffing cushions. The longer threads are washed, bleached in the sun and combed into strands. Then they are wound onto cards and stacked for the spinning process.

In olden days, every home had a spinning wheel with a foot pedal to turn it. Spinning was a peaceful pastime. The carded threads were twisted skillfully into a long strand. The spinning wheel twisted it into a tighter thread. This wound onto a spindle stick. The next process was on the loom. Long strong threads were looped around little pegs to make tight, straight lines between two bars. Afoot pedal moved the bars so that cross threads could be woven over and under. The strip of woven cotton grew row by row. The finished material was washed, stretched and maybe dipped in a colorful vegetable dye. Or maybe carved wooden blocks, dipped in dyes, were used to stamp colorful designs on the fabric.

The olden method seems tedious. Processing the cotton to make a pretty summer dress was a big project. Nowadays, the burrs are harvested by gin machines. More machines sift the lint, sort the long strands and twist them into threads. In textile plants, more machines hum as they weave the cotton threads into smooth yardage. These mechanized processes work much faster and cheaper to perform the same chores once done by human hands. Even the old plant dyes are replaced by synthetic chemicals made from ingredients such as coal tar.



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