Cotton grows as a bush or small tree in the tropics and subtropics. The cotton plant has a pretty yellow flower. The cotton fruit develops from the flower.
It is a capsule that pops open when it is ripe. White absorbent cotton then spills out of the cotton capsule. These are the heavily hairy seeds of cotton. The cotton fibers adhere very tightly to each seed.
Therefore, you can explore it comfortably from the water and also stay overnight on houseboats — traces of the first settlement in this place date back to the 3rd century BC.
It is not easy to separate the soft but tough cotton fibers from the seeds. For the plant, in fact, the fibers have a purpose. The cotton seeds in their airy cotton bed blow away very easily with the wind.
This allows the cotton to spread. Then, when the cotton gets wet, it stores a lot of water so that the seeds can germinate in it. These three properties of cotton: its lightness, its absorbency and its toughness, make the natural fiber a great and irreplaceable raw material for jeans, T-shirts, towels and underwear.
Cotton plants originally came from Asia, Africa and South America. Cotton was grown by the Mayas in Mexico and the Incas in Peru over 7,000 years ago. T
he same is true of today’s India and Pakistan. The processing of cotton fibers into fabrics and clothing was invented independently in many parts of the world.
Top cotton producing countries
Cotton is grown in warmer regions – in the tropics and subtropics. In India, China and the USA, as well as in many developing countries in Africa, cotton cultivation is the primary source of income – for poor smallholders and wealthy farmers.
In some areas, cotton is so ubiquitous called the cotton belt. Here, nothing but cotton grows as far as the eye can see.
Actually, all plants contain fibers. Plants need fibers as a supporting framework. Only by being reinforced with fibers can thin blades of grass or huge trees grow upright and withstand storms.
Fibers are obtained from the stems of plants. Nettles, for example, are used to making nettle cloth. Linen made of flax is used to making sheets and canvas for paintings. Without plant fibers, there would be no leaves, especially not leaves as large as those of bananas or agaves.
Agave leaves are used to make sisal, which is processed into ropes and carpets. Banana leaves make Manila hemp for ship ropes and fishing nets.
Some fibers from seeds – as with cotton – ensure that the plant is widely distributed.
Coconuts can float across the ocean for weeks thanks to a fibrous sheath.
People could extract and use fibers to make threads, fabrics, sails and clothing thousands of years ago. Our ancestors had sophisticated technologies for fiber production. Worldwide, there are a great many plants that are still used today for braiding, weaving and spinning.
But animals also provide such multifunctional natural fibers, primarily wool. Plant fibers also provide vegan alternatives to typically animal products like down.
The “silk wool tree” is amusing. A silky, shiny “tree wool” spills out of large capsules. This natural fiber is called Kapok. It is light as a feather and water-repellent. The fiber of the silk wool tree floats like bird feathers.
Kapok is used to fill quilts, pillows, life jackets, and life preservers. Lightweight kapok is also ideal for upholstery because of its durability and strength.
Flax is an indigenous cultivated plant from which flax fibers are made. Flax for fibers is also called flax. The flax fibers are produced in the stalk. The seeds are used for oil production, called linseed or flaxseed.
Flax is an annual plant. It is frugal and grows on lean soils practically without fertilization. Flax loves humid climates. It can be grown environmentally friendly without pesticides and without genetic engineering.
Linseed oil and linseed fiber are valuable and serve many purposes. Linseed oil is a healthy edible oil and is also processed into oil paint or linoleum for flooring. In addition, flax fibers are made into linen fabrics, canvas for oil paintings, book spines and fashionable summer dresses.
The cultivation and processing of flax as a fiber plant has a tradition that goes back to the Stone Age. Linen cultivation is even older than cotton cultivation.
Mummies from ancient Egypt are wrapped in linen fabric. Greeks, Romans, Germanic tribes and Gauls cultivated flax very successfully and processed it into fine fabrics. Linen fabric was found at the lake dwellings on Lake Constance.
Linen weaving is a craft profession that has existed since the 16th century. Until the triumph of cotton at the end of the 18th century, flax was the most important European plant for textiles. Today, flax is grown mainly in France, Belgium and Russia, but also in Holland and England.
Flax can also be grown in the USA. It is sown like grain. Harvested, as with grain, the straw and seeds. Flax grows to a height of 60 to 120 centimeters. For best quality, today, special varieties are grown either for oil or for fiber.
The oil flax takes half a year to reach full maturity. During this time, the blue flowers turn into small capsules of oily, shiny flaxseed. Fiber flax has longer stalks than oil flax and is less branched. The tall flax is harvested after 4 to 5 months – still green – to produce the finest fibers.
Of course, it is still possible to obtain linseed oil and linseed fiber from a single plant, as in the past.
Linen is produced from the stalks of flax. Linen is a so-called stalk fiber, quite different from cotton. The fibers are as long as the stalk. However, the extraction process is complicated.
Because a plant stalk must be not only tough but also very stable, the stalk contains wood and putty substances in addition to fibers. To transport water and nutrients and to protect it from drying out, the stalk has a growth layer and an outer skin.
From all these plant organs, the fibers must be separated after harvesting the flax.
A single elementary fiber of flax is structured like cotton fiber. Nevertheless, the properties of flax fibers are different and distinguish this traditional natural fiber.
Linen fabric has a high water absorption capacity without feeling damp. Linen fabrics dry faster than wool or cotton. That is why tropical suits and summer clothes are made of linen.
Linen is very tear resistant and hardly stretchable. Linen fabrics and clothes are lint-free. Linen fabric is suitable for canvas in painting, for sheets, tea towels and for twine.
Despite cheaper competition from cotton and from synthetic fibers, linen is also popular in the fashion industry. Linen fashion is valued for its naturalness, breathability and durability.
Wool or new wool is the name for the hair of the sheep. Sheep are not killed to obtain their wool. They are sheared with shears by hand or machine every year anew. The wool coat grows back again. Besides sheep with their curly wool, there are many other animal species with more or less fluffy, sometimes very fine hair.
Both goat breeds are kept specially to obtain valuable wool. Their fine undercoat or downy hair is carefully combed out of the living animals.
The animals’ wool coat is warmer, the harsher their habitat is. The alpaca, llama and yak live in high mountains. It is their downy hair that insulates them well in regions with wide temperature fluctuations, warming them at night and protecting them from heat during the day.
To obtain it, their owners comb this downy hair out of the fur of the living animals. These fine animal hairs usually become noble, light and soft outerwear.
Camel hair is just as valuable. After the cold winters, for example, in the Gobi Desert, it falls out of the camels by itself in the spring. Their owners collect it or comb it out of their animals. Camel hair is also strongly crimped, very fine, silky soft and good warming. Camel hair but also alpaca are often processed in their natural colors to coats or to blankets.
A spinning wheel can be used to spin a uniform and infinitely long wool thread from crimped wool hairs. During spinning, the thin wool fibers are twisted on and into each other. Together they are much thicker and stronger than individually. The finished wool is then used for knitting.
Wool fibers can also be used to make felt, such as for hats and slippers. Felt is made by kneading and rubbing wool with hot water. During felting, the individual wool fibers stick together because they have a scaly surface. In the finished felt or fleece, they then lie crisscrossed or tangled on top of each other.
In this way, thin wool blankets or voluminous fillings for bedspreads can be produced. Woolen blankets and bedspreads are often made from mixtures of animal and vegetable fibers, for example, cotton and wool.
Felt hats and wool sweaters are not waterproof but are rain-repellent. Wool socks and underwear can absorb a lot of moisture without feeling damp, which is completely different from underwear made of cotton. That is why wool is ideal in bad weather and cold.
On top of that, because it is very stretchy and elastic, woolen clothes are also suitable for sports.
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Silk is a natural fiber and is produced by spinning insects – silk moths. The silk moth is the caterpillar of a butterfly, or more precisely, a moth. Silk is the shiny thread from the cocoon of the silkworm. Silkworms are bred.
They eat the leaves of the mulberry tree. The moth itself eats nothing, lives only a few days and lays many hundreds of eggs. From the eggs, finger-thick white caterpillars grow in 5 weeks.
When they are large, they pupate, which means they spin a cocoon. The silkworm presses the silk thread out of glands on its head. The thread of a single cocoon is over a kilometer long. This takes a lot of energy. That is why the pupae in the cocoon are smaller than the caterpillars.
To unwind the silk thread again and thus obtain silk, the cocoons are thrown into hot water. Silk threads from several cocoons are uncoiled at the same time. They are spun into a tight silk thread.
In the end, the killed pupa remains. It is a delicacy for chickens. People in China and neighboring countries also love to eat the pupae, fried and well-seasoned!
Silk is the most tear-resistant and, at the same time, the thinnest of all-natural fibers. Unlike wool, silk insulates very well. Silk fabrics cool when warm and warm when cold.
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