Cotton in Pakistan - From Harvest to Hand

Until the entire supply-chain for cotton and textiles from the start is not in sync, the industry will suffer.

Cotton in Pakistan - From Harvest to Hand
Cotton in Pakistan - From Harvest to Hand
Sarah Asif
November 10, 2022

Cotton is a major cash crop of Pakistan and is used as a major export item for trade. As a very finicky crop, cotton requires an abundance of consistent irrigation, proper pesticide treatment and sunlight. Cotton contributes 0.8% in the overall GDP and an additional 4.5% in agriculture value addition, making it a lucrative cash crop for the country. 

The history of this precious commodity can be traced back to the plant Gossypium arboreum’s domestication, possibly as far back as 4500 BCE. Evidence from excavations in the Indus Valley shows that cotton was a major crop in the region and that the Harrappans had already developed the technology to weave cotton into cloth at that time. To say that two thousand years ago, the Indu Valley already had an advantage in textile production is a massive feat for the subcontinent.  The said advantage stemmed from a technological edge that enabled artisans and traders to paint and dye the cloth - making the region a world leader in textile production. 

The Indus tradition has long contributed to technologies and manufacturing methods still being practiced in Pakistan. The importance of the handicraft industry can be better comprehended with the example of the ‘Ajrak’. The legacy of Indus artisans is reflected in Pakistan’s Sindh province, as the area grew well-versed in the sophisticated process of creating luxuriously airy textiles. From harvesting raw cotton, ginning, spinning, dyeing and weaving; Sindh became a central hub for accumulated generational knowledge. The Ajrak was, and to an extent, is a unique form of woodblock printing using natural dyes that evolved cotton fabrics into captivating sacred garments. 

Different Ajrak designs.

However, what historically was cherished and handmade in harmony with nature, has now become a mere symbol of occasionally celebrated culture, much like what has been the case for other handicrafts (statues, beads, pottery works etc.). The causes for this loss of heritage and tradition can be chalked up to industrialization, the expansion of a global culture, change in lifestyle and customer’s needs which forced the hand of crafters to drastically reduce prices, and the lack of interest from the younger generation in learning the craft. What this has done is flood the market with cheap, low quality Ajrak, consequently putting the more expensive hand weavers out of business leading to a more long term loss of culture, heritage and tradition.

Cotton also serves as the raw material for the largest agro-industrial sector of the country - the textile industry. As such, one can only imagine the multitudes of processes and hectic supply chain this crop goes through, from the moment it is sown, to harvesting to making its way into factories to be processed, eventually ending up in your hands as a shirt, bedsheet or a towel. 

Looking into the supply chain and its various byproducts will help us make more sense of cotton’s processes and the value it holds in our daily lives. Currently, before the ginning process, the cotton industry operates on outdated technologies and methodologies. The value-addition sector has been updated. Until the entire supply-chain for cotton and textiles is not in sync, the industry will suffer. Cotton has multiple byproducts that come about as a result of the processing.

Cottonseed Meal/Cotton Cakes: Known as Khal in Urdu, cottonseed is the primary byproduct derived from extracting cottonseed oil from the crop, and is most often seen used as protein supplements in beef cattle food. It is the residue that remains as a result of extracting Cotton Seed Oil from cotton kernels. It contains crude protein (CP), making it edible and accessible for livestock feed, serving as a strong source of phosphorus and protein for livestock animals.

Cotton Seed Oil: Cotton Seed Oil is another byproduct that is extracted from the cotton plant during the ginning process, where the fabric lint of cotton is separated from oils that release from the kernels. This oil can be used in cooking and as an edible oil.

Cotton Linters: Cotton Linters are the short fibers and pieces of fuzz left on the seed after ginning. These are mostly used for industrial purposes and as important parts of cellulose products and chemicals, such as cellulose acetate, carboxymethyl cellulose, viscose rayon, special paper, absorbent cotton. The longer fibers can be used even in medical supplies, while shorter fibers can be used in x-ray films.

Cotton Hulls: Cotton Hulls are extracted from the covering of the cotton kernels which are usually very tough and strong. The hulls in question are then removed and, being a secure source of cellulose and protein, while having low bulk density, can be used as cattle feed.

It is also important to know the kind of waste products the supply chains are currently creating. Using cotton byproducts to further create and be used in existing product chains can be an effective step in ensuring our agri industries work efficiently and grow economically.

Let us also walk through the supply chain process of the cottonseed which is used to make fabric – from the moment it reaches the ginning factories to the moment it leaves as cotton fibers.

Firstly, the cotton is mechanically cleaned using a processing machine that opens up the bunches of tightly-packed fibers while discarding the plant-part of the crop itself, including any grass, dirt or leaves. Then, water is used to hydrate the cotton, which is shaped into circular molds.

The scouring process uses a strongly alkaline solution to pressurize the cotton mounds and soften them after which, the cotton becomes absorbent and soft.

Purifying the cotton means using hydrogen peroxide solution to make the cotton fibers white, as well as removing any and all impurities in it. They become solely cellulose-based after this.

A fiber finish chemical is applied to the fibers in the fiber-finishing step, which makes the final finishing of the cotton lint fibers, which makes it easier to be processed. Finally, the wetted fibers are opened up and dried extensively to reveal the final product of usable cotton fabric fibers. The moisture content is also measured for each bale.

Naushera Cotton Ginning Factory.

This entire process is understood as “Cotton Ginning”, the primary purpose of which is to separate the cotton fibers from the cotton byproducts, as noted above, and turning cotton bolls into cotton fibers.

After this process, the cotton fabric is ready to go to textile factories to be processed into clothing materials.  

But before that, the cotton fibers, which are still rough and unprocessed, must be worked into a smooth and taut cotton thread. This is primarily done by running it through a carding machine in a spinning factory. This process has a couple of steps. The spinning process consists of the cotton fibres being thoroughly cleaned and passed through various machines, essentially “combed” through, so they may come together to form a soft-textured yarn material. After the cotton yarn has been formed through rigorous spinning, it can go forward into the processes of weaving or knitting. Weaving and knitting simply mean the way that the cotton yarn threads are crossed over or laid over one another to form fabric. To achieve this, the yarn goes through a machine known as a loom which stretches and weaves it to create patterns of overlay.

Once the cotton fabric has been knitted properly, it can go forward into dyeing. Giving the fabric color is an extremely crucial step of cotton production, as the kind of clothing or use the fabric is going into determines the colors it will be dyed in. This includes colors like blue and black (and every color in between the two, a spectrum) for denim, or any other color for any other industry or textile factory/warehouse.

One of the biggest environmental problems in recent years has come about due to the cotton dyeing process. Water waste and toxic chemical usage and wastage is extremely common. Not only is roughly 25 to 40 gallons of water needed for every two pounds of fabric, it is a necessity as the color will not look proper unless that large amount is used. Furthermore, most industrial dyes are extremely toxic and can cause damage to ecosystems when released as waste products from factories and not disposed of properly. The average consumer might not be happy to hear that around 80% of the chemicals remain in the clothing we buy for months afterward.

Some textile processors have managed to try to combat this issue by using organic dyes and naturally-made chemicals, such as Indigo, turmeric, etc. However, this comes with the drawback of having less bright and vibrant colors, as synthetic dyes give better color payoff. Finally, once the cotton fabric has been dyed, it is sent over to garment factories to be constructed, sewn and distributed.

This process entails operations where employees sit and sew the garments into the needed shapes and cutouts to be wearable. Design teams discuss various sizes, cuts, and colors to be done together with the workers and give sample designs to replicate. The stitching and cutting can be done either by hand or with large industrial sewing machines for mass production. Finally, the stitched clothing is further cleaned, ironed and packaged. The packaged goods are sent to warehouses to be stocked and shipped for customers to purchase from retailers, and that’s how you end up with authentic cotton garments and items in your very hands, from the farms to the table.

Cotton Bales after harvest.

Cotton production in Pakistan is integral to the economic development of the country. The nation is largely dependent on the cotton industry and its related textile sector, and the crop is the deserving holder of a principal status in the country. Cotton is grown as an industrial crop in 15% of the nation's land during the monsoon months of May to August, known as the Kharif period, and is grown at a smaller scale between February and April. Pakistan occupied the fourth position among the cotton growers of the world, while in respect of exports of raw cotton, Pakistan holds third position and is the fourth in consumption (about 30 and 40 percent of its production). The country is also the largest exporter of cotton yarn.

The abundance of fertile lands owing to the Indus river and its tributaries, has led the textile industry of Pakistan to remain one of the most vital sectors for the economic growth of the country. Yet, the sector suffers. This division of Pakistan has struggled to maintain its footing due to high manufacturing expenses, frequent power shortages, faulty strategies and lack of support policies from the government. A worldwide recession, global tension and quality competence are also major threats to the sector. To add on to this, the textile industry has never gotten further since the development it saw in early 2000s owing to challenges like frail infrastructure, obsolete technology, adverse law and order situation and lack of investment.

Cotton in Pakistan - From Harvest to Hand

Content Writer & Part of Research Team at PAR

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