Field trip to a cotton gin

Guess what I did today? I went to visit a cotton gin. It was so much fun (those who know me would be well advised to steel themselves for yet another foray into the arcane)! Did you know there are more than 5 million different species of cotton? That’s what I was told at the Cotton Ginning Research Laboratory housed on the campus of New Mexico State University (here in Las Cruces NM). I was so tickled to know they were here when I moved here. The lab is part of the Agricultural Research Service in the US Department of Agriculture. Yep, you own it. This is your tax dollars at work. In case you get the idea they’re blowing money on non-essentials, below is a picture of their tractor.

The date of manufacture is 1962. Obviously the roll bar and the brush guard is new, probably OSHA required the retrofit. They use the tractor to move cotton trucks.

My tour guide was Mike Lieberman (Rutgers: physics) and he’s the research physicist on staff. It appears he doesn’t like having his picture taken anymore than I do. He was a good sport. So much of what he said was over my head. I’d mentally transcribe much of it as “wuah wuah cotton wuah wuah technology transference wuah gin wuah wuah thermal defoliator wuah quality wuah wuah sticks and cleaning”. I’ll try to highlight what I could understand. Here is a picture of him.

I don’t even know where to begin, maybe with a revisionist history of ginning in the US. In elementary school we’re all taught that Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin. Well, he didn’t. He invented a cotton gin but it wasn’t the first. Henry Odgen Holmes invented it before there was such a thing as the patent office (he filed what was known as a “caveat”). We may have also learned that Eli went broke over his invention (which feeds the idea that inventors are doomed to fail financially) but Eli went broke because he was trying to make money by controlling the means of ginning the cotton. If he’d sold his machine to folks who wanted one, he probably would have done okay. But then again, competition would have been brisk so he would have had to be competitive because the machine is obvious -once you see it- so any decent blacksmith could have built one. It was an idea who’s time had come, knock offs were inevitable.

If you’re interested in the history of cotton ginning, there’s a book called Inventing the Cotton Gin : Machine and Myth in Antebellum America which I saw at the gin but I haven’t read it. If you think about it, you couldn’t write a history of the United States and fail to mention the cotton gin. Still, cotton gins weren’t even invented here. India is the suspected birthplace. Cotton gins have been around since before the time of Christ. Here’s a picture of a hand operated cotton gin called a “Churka gin” from Thailand:

Below you can see a close up of how the rollers of the gin won’t let seeds pass.

Compare that to today’s technology called “saw and tooth”. Those saw blades don’t have a kerf.

About ginning; as most of us imagine, you grow the cotton, then you pick it, then it’s got to get cleaned up before you can do anything with it. These people study the issues, solve problems (like developing new technology) and they transfer what they’ve learned to businesses and farms. This is what’s meant by technology transference. At this facility, they’ve done quite a few things. One, they’ve built (invented) a thermal defoliator. Sounds boring huh? After a farmer has harvested all the cotton, there is need to have the field cleaned of the residual cotton plants. Cotton plant fiber is slow to break down. Usually, it’s done chemically which contributes to the high chemical load associated with cotton production. This is where the thermal defoliator comes in. You drive this machine much as you would a tractor and burn the plant waste. Here is a picture of a two-furrow (burns two rows at once) defoliator. Check out those propane tanks. This thing is huge (they’re in the process of building a six furrow now).

They have a huge shop and do all their own fabricating. Speaking of fabricating, I saw two cool things they’d made that could be useful ideas for some of us. For example, this hoist they use to move cotton bales:

I could see something like this as very useful for moving equipment and fabric around. If you figure out how to balance your loads correctly, this could take the place of a forklift in a shop. It’ll handle a pallet load and get into small spaces. People who have larger shops will see the beauty of this right away. The other thing I found was this rolling cart.

Note the sides and the bottom are closed. I wonder why they did that? If they did it, I can only imagine that something like that would be useful to some of you but for the life of me, can’t figure out why.

Another thing they’ve done was develop the most successful strain of cotton ever. It’s called Pima 15-17. Speaking of cotton, I asked about the naturally colored cotton strains such as Fox Fibre (their site is down). Mike says they did some testing for a lady in Arizona (I presume Sally Fox). I was told that the naturally colored cotton was of poor quality and has to be mixed (50-50) with a blend of regular cotton to be usable in a commercial application. I also learned that there’s another cotton called “Tennessee Green” and it has the same problems. Plus, that one fades in sunlight. This was disappointing news.

Another thing the facility did was to prove that cotton bales would not spontaneously combust. This proof dramatically lowered insurance premiums of cotton producers. We never even think about that stuff.

I’m running late today so I’ll have to post this now, I may be updating it later. I’ll close with photos I took in their lobby. First is a picture of the common cotton bale. Anybody who lives around here has seen plenty of these.

Here is a picture of an antique cotton gin they had in the lobby. It’s from the 1800’s.

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  1. Jess says:

    This was interesting! I thought I might plant some cotton in the garden this year for fun but when I did a google search I found out that it’s actually illegal for home gardeners to plant cotton in the state of Alabama because of insects.

  2. christy fisher says:

    I LOVE this stuff !
    I spent summers in Mississippi at my relatives’ house that was next to a gin. The stuff blew all over the land and looked like snow.. It was beautiful!! I also like to drive down by Tucson (around the PIMA Indian Reservation) and see the fields in Southern AZ.. Glad that NM is still happening with this.. If you hear of any spinning operations still around, let me know.
    I LOVE Kathleen, our textile reporter in the trenches!!

  3. god, is that why pima cotton is called that? After the indians? I grew up in AZ, but I never made the connection. very cool.

    I love your asides, btw. there’ always great fun, and educational, too. “Delicious and Nutritious”!

  4. christy fisher says:

    Oh..btw.. I saw a rolling rack similar to that one on some site (maybe it was for trolleying around rolls of fabric.. held about 20 rolls at a time..looked like a spacesaver too..I love trollies and buggies of all kinds..
    also liked that cool blue tractor..

    Oh, the glamourous life of a “De-sign-ah”

    We are such dweebs, aren’t we?

  5. La BellaDonna says:

    I’ll have to check my magazines; I actually have a magazine from the 1890’s that lists the name of the woman from whom, the magazine alleged, Eli Whitney bought the machine that he patented. Yes, that’s right, Eli Whitney of cotton gin fame, about whom we all learned in grammar school, did not invent the gin for which he’s credited. At least, according to this magazine; and it seemed pretty nonchalant about the fact, as if everybody knew it, anyway.

    Very disappointing to hear that the naturally-coloured cottons are such poor quality. :(

    Did you get to see examples of different kinds of cotton side by side? I’d like to see how pima cotton looks and feels next to Egyptian cotton.

  6. Jeff says:

    Great work Kathleen. In case you had not mentioned it here before, I thought I’d recommend the fascinating book “The Travels of a T-shirt in the Global Economy” by the ecomomist Pietra Rivoli, 2005.

    For anyone interested in critical insight into, among other things, the history of American cotton markets and their status today, including exceptional study and insight regarding changing conditions in China, it is a must read.

  7. anne says:

    Naturally coloured cotton does fade in sunlight unless it has been boiled. I can’t remember how long it has to be boiled for, but the colour also intensifies. It’s rather cool :-)

    The fibres are shorter than commercial white cotton, but that’s just a matter of breeding – if effort and time was put into it, there’s no reason coloured cotton couldn’t be just as long.

    I can happily spin it – what’s wrong with the commercial spinners?

  8. Wynette Barton says:

    My g-g-grandfatehr was a cotton farmer in Alabama in the 1850s. He had a Gin head in his possessoin when he died. Does anyone know what a gin head is? Also he had a Jack Bol_ier (writing in the middle of this word is illegible) listed in his estate. If anyone can tell me what either of these items is, I would be most grateful. Wynette Barton

  9. Greg Green says:

    How do I get hold of a company that can manufacture small cotton gins for Africa, so that the local villages can process their own cotton into a product that can be sold on the open market, this is for organic cotton processing.

  10. Sarah Sky says:

    I’ve been lurking around here for quite a while. I have found your blog to be one of the most informative and completely engrossing anywhere. I finally bought your book today, I figured I owed you 60 bucks just for the information I’d gotten off of here. And then you write about cotton! you are a woman after my heart!

    I’ve often wondered why if you buy vintage bolts of cotton (or barely worn vintage dresses) it just feels so different than the newer stuff. I wondered if it was the genetic engineering of it? the way it was manufactured? the depleted soil quality? the weaving processes? maybe I’m just running into inferior fabric?

    Maybe I just need to go visit a cotton gin and see what they have to say, maybe you have a theory?

  11. Kathleen says:

    I’m guessing the difference is in finishing, they put stuff on cotton to make it wrinkle resistant. Then there is newer dye and weaving technology. Textile science isn’t a strength of mine. I learned enough to know it was a sort of rocket science and that if I went that way, I’d never come out again or be able to make polite cocktail conversation. I barely do that now as it is.

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