When you’re looking at a finished cotton product, whether it be a cotton ball or a tampon, you may not be aware of the lengthy journey it took to harvest, process, and finalize the material. So what steps are included in the life cycle of cotton?
- Growing + Harvesting
- Nonwoven manufacturing + Final products
Growing + Harvesting
Early each spring, cotton is planted in the southern half of the United States from California to Virginia. After 10 days, the seed begins to emerge from the soil with some help from heat and water. The average growing season spans over 150-160 day period.
By late autumn, most cotton fields are finally ready for harvest. The farmer uses a cotton picking machine to remove the fiber from the boll, then staging it in a module for transportation to the gin. Harvesting is a careful process in which timing is key; a crop must be harvesting before poor weather can negatively impact yield and quality.
When the cotton arrives at the gin, much of the seed, stalk, stem, leaves, and any other visual foreign matter (VFM) is removed. At the gin stand, the fiber is pulled from the seed, then passes through lint cleaners that remove tiny non-fiber particles from the lint. Afterwards, the virgin cotton fiber is then pressed into a 500-pound bale. A small sample of every bale is sent to the USDA Cotton Classing Office where the individual fiber is tested for strength, length, color, and micronaire. These factors ultimately determine the value of the fiber.
Now this is where we come in. Barnhardt Purified Cotton is the largest purifier of cotton in the world and the only supplier of Barnhardt Purified Cotton: The Purest Natural Fiber on the Planet. Once the bale arrives from the gin, it is organized based on properties of fiber length and micronaire. The fiber bales are blended and opened and cleaned even further, allowing for any contamination from the field and plants to be removed. The fibers are then flood rinsed and pressed into dense wet cotton “cakes” before going into a kier. In this stage, alkali is pumped through the cakes, removing any oils or waxes. Lastly, the colored materials are removed by using gentle hydrogen peroxide, leaving the fibers pure, white and bright.
After the intricate purification process, a fiber finish is added to aid further processing. After being dried and compressed into bales, they are sent off to manufacturers to be made into final products. Why add these finishes? Cotton, due to the natural oils and waxes, is hydrophobic and does not absorb liquids easily. However these oils and waxes aid in processing. The fiber finishes applied by Barnhardt increase the purified cottons’ as processability and can make the fiber as absorbent–or not–as the customer desires. This step can also make Purified Cotton fiber more durable among other properties.
Nonwoven Manufacturing + Final Products
Upon receiving the purified cotton bales, manufacturers open the fibers into small tufts and comb them into a web. These webs can be bonded into fabrics by three ways:
- Mechanically entangling, through needlepunching or hydroentangling
- Chemically, gluing the fibers together
- Thermally, using heat and thermoplastic fibers to fuse together at fiber intersections
After manufacturing, these will be cut, shaped, and combined with other components to product an end product for consumers. The great thing about cotton is its versatility; an array of materials can be created from it: feminine hygiene products, disposable baby and adult diapers, disposable wipes (wet and dry), medical products, and even cotton balls and swabs.
We could talk all day long about the sustainability of cotton. By nature, cotton is biodegradable. Biodegradability refers to the chemical dissolution of materials by bacteria or other biological means. Cotton is biodegradable both anaerobically (without oxygen) and aerobically (with oxygen); in modern landfills, cotton degrades anaerobically. Synthetic fibers such as polyester, polypropylene, nylon, and polyethylene are man-made materials, therefore they are not biodegradable.