T-shirts are a staple in everyone’s closet. They are simple, cheap, versatile and the right t-shirt can elevate your look. But are you kept up at night wondering how they are made? Well, no worries, I’ve got you!
Although T-shirts are made up of various materials, cotton is the most predominantly used. Cotton is great as it is easy to dye and retains the colour well. It also blends well with other fibres such as elastane. The first evidence of cotton cultivation to turn into fabric dates to 6000 BC in the Indus River Valley (present-day Pakistan). To appreciate the efforts people have gone to since then to perfect the techniques of cotton farming and processing, let’s dive into this complex 10 step process, of turning cottonseed into the T-shirts that are in our wardrobes.
Cotton is a natural fibre grown on the cotton plant. The seeds grow into bushy shrubs with light pink flowers. Once pollinated, the flowers become fruits – known as cotton balls. Inside the cotton ball is the fluffy cotton as well as its seeds. These plants are surprisingly fussy, requiring the correct season, temperature, lots of water and dry weather for harvest – for high-quality cotton. A rather alarming fact is that for one cotton t-shirt made, approximately 970 litres of water is required!! Perhaps think twice before you buy yet another black t-shirt.
Once harvested, the cotton may first go through dryers to reduce their moisture and cleaning equipment to remove dirt/debris. The cotton is then moved to special machinery, known as gins, which will separate the lint (cotton) from the seeds. Gin stands are composed of circular saws which pull lint through tight spaces in which the seeds are trapped and prevents them from passing through. Air is blasted at the saw teeth to release the lint which is then compressed into bales ready for storage and shipping to mills for use.
The ginning process
The compacted cotton bale is then put through the spinning process. And as the name suggests, it’s a series of machines that spin the cotton into yarn. The bale is first beaten and picked to loosen the cotton back up and then turned into ropes of fibre, which is then twisted and turned into yarn.
Spinning cotton bales into yarn
The spun yarn is turned into cloth by pulling loops through one another. For the highest quality cotton, circular knits are created using cylinder knit machines.
Circular knits of cotton
After knitting the cotton yarn into cloth, it is put through the finishing process which includes:
- Remove debris/particulate matters from the cotton cloth
- Bleach/dye it into a consistent colour
- Shrink the fabric
- Soften the fabric to prevent any holes forming
Cotton fabric bleaching
The fabric is cut from the tubes of material received from the finisher. For efficiency, large machines cut several stacks of fabric, allowing many pieces to be created at the same time. The cut is usually in the form of the t-shirt “body” and sleeves” which will be tied together and sent for sewing.
Probably the most labour-intensive part of the process is sewing the bodies and sleeves of the t-shirt to each other via various sewing machines.
Most t-shirts with designs on them will undergo some sort of printing process, such as screen-printing, digital printing, spray painting, heat embossing etc. Usually, t-shirts are printed with water-based inks, so it soaks into the shirt rather than just forming a layer on top of it. This creates a fully breathable print that won’t crack or peel during wearing and cleaning.
Similar to printing, there are various methods and dyes available. After dying the shirts are inspected and shipped. Some fabric manufacturers dye the fabric straight after the finishing process (step 5) depending on the product/company requirements.
- Final product
Finally, we have our finished product. Strange to imagine it first started as a seed! This final product is shipped to retailers and eventually lands in your hands. That’s not to mention the environmental impacts of production, fair labour/wage/trade, import-export etc. Hopefully, now you can appreciate the complexity of turning seeds into garments and cherish your favourite tee even more!