Australian Cotton: The World's Finest Textile   

Australian Fashion Council

Meet Australia's most skilled cotton farmer and learn how to grow a pair of jeans with thanks to Cotton Australia, the peak body for Australia's cotton industry.

Hello from Australia, known for the finest cotton in the world.

Australian cotton: the natural choice
Australia’s wide-open spaces and healthy natural environment make it the perfect place to grow cotton, right on the doorstep of the world’s textile industry.  Australian cotton is a success story with a rich history that has led to an efficient, responsible, modern industry that produces some of the highest quality cotton in the world – using fewer natural resources than ever before.

An ancient fiber

The word ‘cotton’ is derived from ‘qutun’ or ‘kutun’, an Arabic word used to describe any fine textile.

Cotton is an ancient fibre with a story that began around 7,000 years ago in the civilisations of Mexico and Peru. Archaeologists have found 5,000 year old cotton fabric at Mohenjo Daro, an ancient town in the Indus River Valley of West Pakistan. Ancient Greek and Roman civilisations used cotton for awnings and sails as well as clothing. The Aztec civilisation used naturally coloured brown cotton as a principal form of payment.

Cotton Production

Cotton is today produced in more than 100 countries in the world, but six of them – China, India, Pakistan, USA, Brazil and Uzbekistan – contribute about 80% of production. Australia and Egypt produce the highest quality cottons in the world.

A timeline: Australia's cotton history

In Australia cotton also has a long history. Native cotton plants are found across the country and cotton seeds came with the convicts on the First Fleet. Australia's modern cotton industry began in the 1960s and has evolved into an industry that's today providing the world's designers with natural, ethical, sustainable fibres.

1788: The First Fleet brings cottonseed to Australia

1861-65: - American Civil War causes American cotton production to fall. Australia attempts to fill the gap

1870s: - Australian cotton production peaks then falls as world prices decline

1934: - Cotton production reaches 17,000 bales

1975: - Cotton production reaches 110,000 bales

1980: - Cotton production reaches 435,000 bales

1985: - Cotton production reaches 1.1 million bales

1992: - World record yields in Australia lead to record 2.2 million bale crop

1995: - Drought causes harvest to fall to 1.5 million bales

1997: - Cotton production reaches 2.7 million bales

2001: - Crop reaches record high of 3.4 million bales

2005: - Australian crop sets new world record yield, leading to a 2.9 million bale crop

2005/06: - 95% of Australia’s cotton growers plant transgenic varieties, accounting for 80 per cent of total cotton crop

2007/08: - Australian cotton industry severely impacted by drought, leading to smallest crop in 30 years

2010/11: - Record crop of 4.1 million bales, industry in resurgence after almost a decade of drought

2012: : Cotton Australia celebrates the organisation’s 40th anniversary

2014/15: : Australian crop produces an estimated 1.9 million bales

Facts and Figures

In an average year, Australia’s cotton growers produce enough cotton to clothe 500 million people.

There are 43 species of cotton in the world and some cotton grows on trees.

The fibre from one 227kg cotton bale can produce 215 pairs of jeans, 250 single bed sheets, 1,200 t-shirts, 2,100 pairs of boxer shorts, 3,000 nappies, 4,300 pairs of socks or 680,000 cotton balls.

Cotton can absorb up to 27 times its own weight in water.

The cotton plant requires about 180 – 200 days from planting to full maturity ready for harvest 

What is cotton used for?

Cotton is known for its versatility, performance and natural comfort. It’s used to make all kinds of clothes and homewares as well as for industrial purposes like tarpaulins, tents, hotel sheets and army uniforms.

Cotton fibre can be woven or knitted into fabrics such as velvet, corduroy, chambray, velour, jersey and flannel. In addition to textile products like underwear, socks and t-shirts, cotton is also used in fishnets, coffee filters, book binding and archival paper. Cotton is a food and a fibre crop. Cotton seed is fed to cattle and crushed to make oil. This cottonseed oil is used for cooking and in products like soap, margarine, emulsifiers, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, rubber and plastics.

Australia's cotton farmers
Australia is a relatively minor producer on the world scale but is the world’s second largest exporter. There are around 1,250 cotton farms in Australia, in an average season, roughly half in NSW and half in Queensland. Grown by a thousand Australian farming families, in over 150 rural communities. People are the backbone of the cotton industry, caring for their crops all over the globe.

Go behind the scenes with the cotton experts and learn about the fascinating process of making Australian cotton.

Australian cotton farmers grow long, white, strong, contamination-free cotton that makes beautiful garments, accessories and homewares.

Ethical, sustainable cotton: fashion of the future

Australia's cotton farmers lead the world in sustainable, ethical cotton production. They grow more cotton with less land and water than ever before, and use 95% less pesticides than a decade ago. And they care about keeping people safe, and treating them fairly. Using state of the art technology and precision farming techniques, Australia's cotton growers are producing a natural fibre that the fashion of the future needs.

Cotton grower's calendar

1. Plant cotton seeds in long rows called furrows, 2. Plant emerges from the soil after a few weeks, 3. Water the crop if not enough rainfall, 4. Remove weeds, add fertiliser if required, 5. Check for bugs, control pests, 6. Flowers appear and are pollinated by bees and other insects

1. Water the crop, check for bugs, control pests, 2. Cotton grows into a bushy shrub about one metre tall, 3. Cotton bolls appear, then split open to reveal the white fluffy cotton and seeds inside, 4. Prepare crop for picking

1. Pick/harvest the crop and pack the seed cotton into modules or round bales on the farm, 2. Send cotton on trucks to the gin, 3. Cotton ginned to separate seeds from fluffy lint, 4. Packed into bales

1. Cotton bales sent overseas in shipping containers to spinning mills, 2. Grow winter crops like wheat and sorghum, 3. Repair machinery and maintain the farm, 4. Prepare the soil for next season’s cotton crop

How to grow a pair of jeans?
Cotton is a natural fibre grown on a plant related to the hibiscus. The seeds are planted in spring and cotton plants grow into green, bushy shrubs about a metre in height. The plants briefly grow pink and cream coloured flowers that once pollinated, drop off and are replaced with “fruit”, better known as cotton bolls.Inside each cotton boll is the fluffy white lint that we’re all familiar with, as well as a number of cotton seeds. In Australia the cotton is picked with large mechanical harvesters and sent off to the cotton “gin” for processing. During the ginning process, the lint is separated from the seeds and is then pressed into bales and shipped overseas to be spun, dyed, knitted and woven into fabrics like clothes and home furnishings.

Step 1: Do some groundwork

Before cotton can be planted the soil is carefully prepared. Often cotton is planted straight into the stubble of a previous crop, like wheat, which maintains nutrients in the soil and helps keep moisture in. The soil can also be weeded and given nutrients and water before the crop goes in.

Step 2: Plant a seed

Cotton seeds are planted in spring into warm, nutrient rich soil. After a few days the baby cotton plant emerges from the earth and, over the summer, grows into a green bush about a metre high, with pink and white flowers that become the ‘fruit’ or cotton bolls.

Step 3: Give it a drink

While the cotton plant is growing, it needs to be watered a number of times depending on how hot it is and how well the plant is growing. Some of that water comes from rain, while for most cotton grown in Australia, farmers add water in a process called “irrigation”. Australian cotton growers are the most efficient in the world, growing more cotton per drop of water than anywhere else.

Step 4: Maintain a healthy crop

For a healthy crop, farmers need to control pests that eat cotton, just like in a backyard veggie patch. Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is a clever combination of natural and chemical pest control methods, such as attracting ‘good’ insects like ladybugs to eat the ‘baddies’. Special CSIRO varieties bred to repel insects are grown and now Aussie cotton growers use over 80% less pesticides than 20 years ago.

Step 5: Picking

During the heat of summer, the cotton bolls fill with lint and seeds and then split open, revealing the fluffy cotton that’s ready to harvest. Most cotton is picked in autumn using large mechanical pickers that drive along the rows pulling the cotton from the bush and leaving some of the plant behind. The leftover stubble is mulched back into the soil ready for the next crop and the seed cotton is packed into modules or round bales ready to be sent off for processing.

Step 6: Off to the gin

The seed cotton is sent by truck to a cotton ‘gin’, which is short for ‘engine’. There it is put through big machines that separate the fluffy cotton (ginned cotton) from the cotton seed (fuzzy seed). Trash like leaves and dirt are also removed and the ginned cotton is pressed into bales, each weighing 227kg. The cotton seeds can be pressed to make cotton seed oil or used for stock feed.

Step 7: Setting the sail

Almost all of Australia’s cotton is packed into shipping containers and sent overseas to be made into fabric. Australia is one of the largest exporters of raw cotton, shipping cotton to China, Indonesia, Thailand, Japan, Korea, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Step 6: In a spin

Cotton bales arrive at a spinning mill where the ginned cotton is first combed out to disentangle the fibres. The cotton is then twisted into a continuous thread to become different types of yarn. This yarn is then bleached and can be dyed any colour of the rainbow.

Step 9: Woven and all sewn up

Cotton yarn is either knitted or woven into fabric and then sewn into cotton products like clothes, towels, sheets and of course, denim jeans! To make denim, white and blue yarns are woven together into a twill cotton cloth. Cotton of different qualities and weights is used to make various products, from the heavy and hard wearing denim to the superfine lightweight fabric used in cotton shirts.

Step 10: Onto the hips

From a tiny seed to a fashion statement on everybody’s hips, denim jeans make a long journey from field to fabric. Cotton is the world’s favourite natural fibre and denim is at the top of the list, accounting for 14% of cotton consumption worldwide. Jeans are comfy, hard wearing, long lasting and made from a beautiful natural product that we all love, cotton.

About Cotton Australia

Cotton Australia is the peak representative body for the Australian cotton growing industry, led by a Board of nine cotton growers and ginners. Established in 1972 (as the Australian Cotton Foundation) Cotton Australia merged with the Australian Cotton Growers Research Association in 2008 to provide a united voice for cotton growers across research, stewardship, natural resource management and cotton production issues.

Credits: Story

All text and images courtesy of Cotton Australia

Created by Bradley Waters at Australian Fashion Chamber.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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