How to Process Cotton, From Plant to Cloth

Updated March 23, 2017

People have been producing cotton fabric from cotton plants for thousands of years. Cotton fabric is appreciated because it is lightweight and breathable. During the Industrial Revolution in 1796, Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin, which allowed cotton to be processed more quickly. Today, Extra Long Staple (ELS) cotton is produced in a number of countries, including the U.S. and Egypt. This high-quality cotton is called Pima cotton in the United States and is the most widely used quality for cloth because of its strength.

Move cotton grown in warm areas such as Florida, Alabama and Georgia from the field to the cotton gin. The cotton gin will separate the fibres from the seeds and remove any burs, stems, leaves or other undesirable elements.

Condense the fibre into bales, which can weigh up to 227 Kilogram. Cotton bales are valued according to the attributes of the cotton fibre, such as its length, colour and strength.

Clean the bales at a textile mill and put the longest fibres into a carding machine. Fibres are about 1 to 2 inches long.Comb the cotton fibres so that they lie side by side and form a soft rope called a sliver.

Twist the fibres in the sliver with a spinning device that turns fibres into yarn. Weave the yarn into cotton fabric on looms. The fabric produced at this stage is called grey goods.

Bleach, shrink, dye and print the grey goods at a finishing plant. Use a sewing machine to make cotton clothing, sheets or other products.


Look for ELS or Extra Long Staple cotton, also known as Pima cotton, when purchasing cotton products. The long fibres produce strong, soft yarn that creates a strong, soft fabric. High-thread-count sheets are usually made of ESL cotton because longer fibres make thin yarn that is strong enough for sheeting fabric.


Be on the lookout for boll weevils, which are pests that destroy cotton plants. Labelling on Egyptian cotton does not always indicate if the cotton is high-quality ELS cotton.

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About the Author

Sharon Penn is a writer based in South Florida. A professional writer since 1981, she has created numerous materials for a Princeton advertising agency. Her articles have appeared in "Golf Journal" and on industry blogs. Penn has traveled extensively, is an avid golfer and is eager to share her interests with her readers. She holds a Master of Science in Education.