by Suzanne Labry
The Cotton Gin: Eli Whitney’s Gift to Quilters
Although other fibers have long associations with quiltmaking, no other material is so closely identified with quilts as cotton. Cotton fabrics, cotton thread, cotton batting—these have always been the stock tools of the trade for the majority of quilters all over the world.
Nowhere is this truer than the southern United States, the history of which is inextricably interwoven with cotton. In fact, the term “King Cotton” was a slogan originating during the American Civil War (1861-1865) to indicate that the Confederacy could use its control of cotton exports to ruin the textile industry of New England, and also force Great Britain and France to provide military assistance to Confederate troops because those countries’ economies depended on cotton grown in the South.
Perhaps the major contributing factor to the importance of cotton during that era was the invention of the mechanical cotton gin by American inventor Eli Whitney in 1793.
To understand why this invention was so significant, it is necessary to know a characteristic of raw cotton: 60% of the weight of a cotton boll comes from seeds that are tightly attached to the surrounding lint (fiber). Separating the lint from the seeds is a laborious process when done by hand, requiring an entire day to pick clean a single pound of cotton lint.
Photo Left: Quilt on display at the Texas Cotton Gin Museum.
Eli Whitney’s invention automated this process using a wooden cylinder surrounded by rows of slender spikes, which pulled the lint through the bars of a comb-like grid, while brushes continuously removed the loose cotton lint to prevent jams.
The so-named “Little Cotton Engine” (which became shortened to “gin”) was capable of cleaning 50 pounds of lint per day. That tremendous savings in time and labor became an economic game changer. By extension, it also made life easier for quilters of that era, who had less work to do to in order to get the raw material for their quilts.
Whitney’s Little Cotton Engine has undergone numerous improvements over the past couple of centuries—modern-day cotton gins can gin up to 55 five-hundred-pound bales of cotton per hour.
The basic process remains the same, however, and there is a place where you can go to learn about not only the development of ginning through the years but also about the cotton industry: the Texas Cotton Gin Museum.
Billed as the “Official Cotton Gin Museum of Texas,” the Farmers Gin, located in the tiny Central Texas town of Burton, was built in 1914 and is the oldest operating cotton gin in the United States. The gin has been designated a National Historic Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
A visit to the Museum is fun and informative, as the knowledgeable docents make learning an interactive experience. A tour of the cotton gin offers a first-hand look at a process that has been benefitting quilters for over two centuries. Highly recommended!