The Story Book of Science  by Jean Henri Fabre


"C OTTON, the most important of the materials used for our woven fabrics, is furnished by a semi-tropical plant called the cotton plant. It is an herb or even a shrub from one to two meters high, and its large yellow flowers are followed by an abundant fruitage of bolls, each as large as an egg, filled with a silky flock, sometimes brilliantly white, sometimes a pale yellowish shade, according to the kind of cotton. In the middle of this flock are the seeds."


Cotton Plant

(a) Cotton Boll

"It seems to me I have seen flock of that kind fall in flakes in the spring from the top of poplars and willows," said Claire.

"The comparison is very good. Willows and poplars have for their fruit tiny little long and pointed bolls three or four time as large as a pin's head. In the month of May these bolls are ripe. They open and set free a very fine white down, in the middle of which are the seeds. If the air is calm, this down piles up at the foot of the tree in a bed of cotton wool, as white as snow; but at the least breath of wind the flakes are borne long distances, carrying with them the seeds, which thus find unoccupied places where they can germinate and become trees. Many other seeds are provided with soft aigrettes, silky plumes, which keep them up in the air a long time and permit them distant journeys in order to disseminate the plant. For example, who is not familiar with the seeds of thistles and dandelions, those beautiful silky plumed seeds that you take pleasure in blowing into the air?"

"Can the flock of poplar bolls be put to the same use as cotton?" Jules asked.

"By no means. There is too little of it, and it would be too difficult to gather. Besides, it is so short it might not be possible to spin it. But if we ourselves cannot make use of it, others find it very useful. This flock is the little birds' cotton; many gather it to line their nests. The goldfinch, among others, is one of the cleverest of the clever. Its house of cotton is a masterpiece of elegance and solidity. In the fork of several little branches, with the cottony flock of the willow and poplar, with bits of wool that hedge thorns pull out from sheep as they pass, with the plumy aigrettes of thistle seeds, it makes for its young a cup-shaped mattress, so soft and warm and wadded that no little prince in his swaddling-clothes ever had the like.

"To build their nests, birds find materials near at hand; they only have to set to work. When spring comes, the goldfinch does not have to think of the materials for its nest; it is sure that the osier-beds, thistles, and roadside hedges will furnish in abundance all that it needs. And it ought to be thus, for a bird has not the intelligence to prepare a long time in advance, by careful and wise industry, the things that it will need. Man, whose noble prerogative it is to acquire everything by work and reflection, procures cotton from distant countries; a bird finds its cotton on the poplars of its grove.


Picking Cotton by Hand

"At maturity the cotton bolls open wide, and their flock bursts out in soft flakes that are gathered by hand, boll by boll. The flock, well dried in the sun on screens, is beaten with flails or, better, submitted to the action of certain machines. It is thus freed from all seeds and husks. Without any other preparation, cotton comes to us in large bales to be converted into fabrics in our manufactories. The countries that furnish the most of it are India, Egypt, Brazil, and, above all, the United States of North America.

"In a single year the European manufactories work up nearly eight hundred million kilograms of cotton. This enormous weight is not too much, for the whole world clothes itself with the precious flock, turned into print, percale, calico. Thus human activity has no greater field than the cotton trade. How many workmen, how many delicate operations, what long voyages, all for a simple piece of print costing a few centimes! A handful of cotton is gathered, we will suppose, two or three thousand leagues from here. This cotton crosses the ocean, goes a quarter round the globe, and comes to France or England to be manufactured. Then it is spun, woven, ornamented with colored designs, and, converted into print, crosses the seas again, to go perhaps to the other end of the world to serve as head-dress for some woolly-haired negro. What a multiplicity of interests are brought into play! It was necessary to sow the plant; then, for a good half of the year, to cultivate it. Out of a handful of flock, then, provision must be made for the remuneration of those who have cultivated and harvested. Next come the dealer who buys and the mariner who transports it. To each of them is due a part of the handful of flock. Then follow the spinner, weaver, dyer, all of whom the cotton must indemnify for their work. It is far from being finished. Now come other dealers who buy the fabrics, other mariners who carry them to all parts of the world, and finally merchants who sell them at retail. How can the handful of flock pay all these interested ones without itself acquiring an exorbitant price?

"To accomplish this wonder two industrial powers intervene: work on a large scale and the aid of machinery. You have seen how Ambroisine spins wool on the wheel. The carded wool is first divided into long locks. One of these locks is applied to a hook which turns rapidly. The hook seizes the wool and in its rotation twists the fibers into one thread, which lengthens little by little at the expense of the lock held and regulated by the fingers. When the thread attains a certain length, Mother Ambroisine rolls it on the spindle by a suitable movement of the wheel; then she continues twisting the wool again.

"Strictly speaking, cotton could be spun in the same way; but, however clever Mother Ambroisine may be, the fabrics made from the thread of her wheel would cost an enormous price on account of the time spent. What, then, is to be done? A machine is made to spin the cotton. In rooms larger than the biggest church are placed, by hundreds of thousands, the nicely adjusted machines proper for spinning, with hooks, spindles, and bobbins. And all turn at the same time with a precision and rapidity that defy watching. The work goes on with noise enough to deafen you. The flock of cotton is seized by thousands and thousands of hooks; the endless threads come and go from one bobbin to another, and roll themselves on the spindles. In a few hours a mountain of cotton is converted into thread, the length of which would go several times around the whole earth. What have they spent for work which would have exhausted the strength of an army of spinners as clever as Mother Ambroisine? Some shovelfuls of coal to heat the water, the steam of which starts the machine that sets everything going. Weaving, the printing of the colored designs,—in short, the various operations that the flock undergoes to become cloth are executed by means quite as expeditious, quite as economical. And it is thus that the planter, broker, mariner, spinner, weaver, dyer, and merchant can all have their share in the handful of cotton flock which has become a piece of calico and is sold for four sous."