Chances are that the first fabric to touch your skin was cotton. It is by far the most common and versatile fabric known to man. Baby diapers used to be almost exclusively cotton and are still popular among many families.
The earliest use of cotton has been estimated to have occurred between 3000 to 5000 BC. and was worn by the Egyptians as far back as 2500 BC. It has been a major factor in the world economy and continues to be the leading commercial fiber in the United States since around 1800. Cotton is grown in semi-arid regions of the southern United States and at one time was called King Cotton as it was the primary commercial concern of the south. Cotton is still a major American export and it even has its own museum in South Carolina.
One of the most amazing properties of cotton as a fabric is its ability to breathe. Cotton can retain nearly 30 times its weight in water. Thus it quickly absorbs perspiration from the wearer and releases it to the air through evaporation. Other remarkable properties include the propensity to stand up to high temperatures for sterilizing and ironing without disintegrating. It whitens well with chlorine bleach and absorbs dyes easily. It wears well and stands up to friction. It is often blended with polyester, wool, or other fibers.
Cotton fiber is gathered from the seed pod of the cotton plant and ginned. A gin is a machine that separates the seeds from the cotton fiber. It was invented by Eli Whitney in 1793 and is one of the revolutionary events in cotton processing. The fiber is then spun into thread and woven into fabric. The commercial process is actually far more complicated and complex but those are the general steps.
Cotton fabrics include muslin, flannel, gingham, seersucker, terry cloth, gauze, drill, swiss, duck, sateen, poplin, organdy, lawn, flannelette, percale, velveteen, outing flannel, whipcord, sailcloth, polished cotton, and others.
Currently there is a trend toward organically raised cotton. It uses compost and other natural fertilizers but no synthetic fertilizers, and utilizes ladybug introduction and other natural pest control measures. Earthtone cotton fabrics use no dyes, reducing the cost of the cotton up to 40% as compared to chemically dyed cotton. There is a return to naturally colored cotton. Not all cottons grow white. Some cottons can be grown that are brown, light purple and rust.
The finest cotton is considered by many to be Egyptian cotton. Fabric made from Egyptian cotton has a smooth, silky texture. Pima cotton is grown in the United States an exported around the world while Indian cotton is generally the least expensive and can be course.
Cotton has survived drought, boll weevils and seeds have crossed entire oceans on the wind. It makes a tough, useful fabric that will never go out of style.