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Understanding How Cotton Is Produced for the Textile Industry

Understanding how cotton is produced is essential to understanding textile manufacturing. Cotton production for textiles centers around the cotton fiber, a thread-like substance called the “staple”. Grown in warm drier climates, cotton requires 4-5 months of 60°F – 86°F weather. Although the textile industry has migrated east, The U.S. cotton industry still thrives, ranking third behind China and India.

The length of the staples determines the quality of cotton and different varieties of cotton have different lengths of staples. The longer the length, the better the cotton is for quality cotton textile production. Staple length varies from .375” to 2.25” depending on the variety and where it was grown. Temperature, fertility, and water stress all affect the length of the staple.

Types of Cotton

There are four main varieties of cotton:

  • Sea Island Cotton – This is the best quality of cotton in the world with the longest staple of 2.25”. Sea Island Cotton is grown in South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, and islands off the coast of these states. Sea Island Cotton is frost-sensitive and thrives in tropical areas with high humidity.

  • Pima Cotton – This strain is related to Sea Island and Egyptian cotton adapted to grow in more arid climates through a partnership between the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Pima Tribe Native Americans. USDA named the cotton after the Pima Tribe to honor the collaboration.

  • U.S. Cotton – U.S. cotton has the 3rd longest staple length and is grown in U.S. states where Sea Island cotton isn’t grown. The staple length varies but may reach a maximum of 1.5”.

  • Asian Cotton – This cotton is grown in countries like India, Pakistan, Japan, and China. It is the most common variety of cotton with a maximum staple length of 1.125”.

The thickness of the cotton staple also determines cotton quality. Finer longer staples yield higher quality yarn. Slim long staples can be spun together to create finer, stronger cloth.

Preparing for Yarn Spinning

The staples for spinning into yarn are prepared by removing foreign objects, separating usable staples, and aligning the remaining staples. The resultant “sliver” is achieved through a process of combing or carding.

Higher quality staples are “combed” through a series of metal teeth that lay the staples parallel to each other. This is a more expensive process as combing cotton will save only the finer, long staples for processing.

Shorter staple cotton must be carded (to survive the process). Cards with wire teeth are used to separate the staples from the detritus however they are not laid parallel.

Yarn Construction

There is a unique measurement system to classify yarn quality. You’ll see numbers like 10/1, 16/1, 20/2 e.t.c., but what are they? How are those numbers determined?

If you take 1 strand of yarn and 840 yards (1 YD = 0.9144 Meter) of the same and if these 840 yards weigh 1 pound, then we can call this 1s yarn. While seemingly a random number, 840 yards is the distance that 1s cotton occupies to weigh 1 pound, therefore all other measurements must use 840 yards and 1 pound as controls.

For example, take 2 strands of yarn, every 840 yds in length, and both together weigh 1lb, then we call this 2s yarn. Twice the yarn weighs the same. As mentioned, the finer the yarn, the better quality the textile.

Theoretically in the textile industry, one can make yarn from 4 counts to 120 counts. The higher the number of counts the finer the yarn is. Normally in the wholesale towel business, we work with 10S up to 30s, with 12s and 16s being the most common. Higher numbers are usually used for making finer fabrics.

1s, 2s, 4s, 8s yarn diagram

Single Versus Double Yarn

Single yarns are twisted using a mechanical process to make them stronger.

For example, if 2 10s yarns are twisted together it will make a 10/2 yarn. You can use the fraction to determine what thickness it would be as a single yarn 10/2 = 5/1. However, the strength of the yarn will be higher as the cotton is wound together (similar to the internal suspension cables in a bridge). The yarn will also feel finer because it uses longer staple cotton.

Towel Construction

The ground consists of warp (purple) and weft (blue) which provide structure and strength. Cotton pile (yellow) absorbs moisture and gives the towel body and softness. Pile yarn is what people feel when using bath towels to dry their bodies.

Single and finer count yarn is used in the pile whereas weft and warp yarn is used to make the base and weave strong. The weft is a single yarn while the ground yarn is usually a double yarn for better strength.

Sometimes blended (50/50 Cotton/Poly) yarn is used in the ground for institutional towels to fortify the towel’s strength so that it can be laundered more often (thus extending the lifecycle and lowering the linen budget).

A well-balanced institutional towel will follow similar ratios to balance lifecycle and cost.

  • Pile Yarn 55-60% 10s — 24s yarn

  • Weft Yarn 22-18% 10s — 20s cotton yarn

  • Warp Yarn 23-22% -10/2 — 20/2 cotton yarn (the warp must be doubled for strength)

Pile, Warp, Weft diagram

Towels vs Other Textiles

In terry towel production a coarser yarn count is used. Whereas other textiles like bedsheets and clothing use a higher yarn count – 50/1, 60/1, and even 100/1 depending on what kind of the desired fabric quality.

Retail towels use 100% cotton yarn special fibers like Modal & Bamboo fiber may be incorporated to give the towel a softer, more plush look and feel. Special fibers are more costly which makes them unsuitable for institutional textile use.

Most retailers use a higher yarn, better quality yarn count to make their towels softer (E.g. 30s Pima Cotton).

Understanding Cotton Production = Better Textile Purchasing Choices

This may seem complicated when you look at it from a “farm to consumer” perspective, but by breaking down each of the processes that factor into cotton textile costing into “bite-sized” pieces we hope to have given you some clarity when it comes to understanding cotton production for textiles.

Tapash Bhattacharjee
Director of Sourcing

[email protected]


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