Sea Island Cotton Preparation for Market

We have little documentation about exactly how Sea Island cotton was planted, maintained or processed on Fort George Island. What information we do have is after Zephaniah Kingsley sold the island to his nephew, Kingsley Beatty Gibbs. His Journal of 1840-1843 is a record of the daily life of a plantation owner commenting on the weather, crop growth, and other daily activities.

Steps to prepare cotton for market:

Picking

Sea Island cotton grows to over six feet tall and blooms continuously from June to December. During the plantation era picking (done by hand) started when the first bolls burst open, usually by late June. Picking was done daily well into December. The cotton was picked every day to prevent damage from rain, wind, and dust. Blooms appear on all levels of a Sea Island cotton plant and the amount of cotton that one plant can produce in a season is impressive.

In general, slaves did not enter the field until after the dew on the cotton had been dried by the sun. The cotton was pulled from the husks and placed into large cloth bags. When the bag was full the cotton was dumped on to sheets and spread to allow further drying. The cotton was then stored in a barn or large shed where it was sorted.

A common assigned task in the Sea Islands was picking 90 pounds of cotton.

Drying

Cotton needed to be dried to facilitate the removal of seeds, and sorting, which included the removal of damaged cotton and debris.

Dryer floors up were up off the ground to allow for circulation. Drying may have also allowed the fiber to absorb some of the natural oil and increase the luster of the cotton.

Sorting or Nubbing

Great efforts were made to have a clean staple. Stained, or damaged cotton, was only suitable for coarse fabrics that were woven on the plantation and was not shipped to market.

During sorting the cotton was picked as free of trash as possible. The removal of all leaves, dirt and yellow cotton was done by hand after the initial picking. The cotton was also sorted by fiber quality. Stained cotton was cotton discolored in the boll by fungus or insects.

Whipping

Whipping shook any sand, leaf particles, weak fibers, or other matter from the sorted cotton.

It may have been done by spreading the cotton on a coarse wire screen across a box and beating with a smooth stick. A “whipper” may have also been a box or barrel with open spaces between the slats. The cotton was placed in one end and a series of rods attached to a crack moved the cotton to the other end. Any debris would fall though the slots.

The cotton was now bulked and allowed to sit for four to six weeks before ginning.

Ginning

This was the process of removing the cotton seed from the fiber without injury to the fiber. Even with the utmost care, fibers would break, or parts of the seed husks, or broken seeds would affect the ginned product.

The entire history of "ginning" involves trying to improve the process to get the best lint (cotton fiber) for market. A few of these methods are discussed below.

The finger ginning method dates back to 4,000 BC. The seed is simply removed by hand. This method was used on some Sea Island cotton plantations but was time-consuming. One person could only gin about four pounds a week. This method might have been used for cloth that would have been used on the plantation.

The single roller gin used a single roller, or foot roller and dates back to the fifth century. The roller was pushed by hand or feet over the cotton on a hard surface. The seeds where then pinched out. This method yielded about a pound a day.

The churkha roller gin dates back to ancient times and is still used in some areas of India today. The roller was operated by one person who fed the cotton between the rollers with one hand and turned a crank at the same time. The rollers worked in opposite directions. The larger cotton seeds were pinched out, but not crushed. This type of gin may well have been used in north Florida and could produce about five pounds of lint (cotton) a day. The double crank hand gin replaced the churka gin and gave about the same output, but needed three people to work. Since it was easy to manufacture it was commonly used.

The foot gin was mentioned in the inventory of items destroyed at Laurel Grove Plantation during the Patriot’s Rebellion. A foot pedal or treadle replaced the crank that operated the rollers and was developed in the Americas. It was still operated by one person. This gin could yield about 25 to 30 pounds of cotton.

The ginning equipment continued to refine and evolve, but these evolutions may not have been used here due to cost and the availability of labor. Eli Whitney is credited with inventing a cotton gin that consisted of spiked teeth mounted on a boxed revolving cylinder. The cotton fiber was pulled through a small slotted opening to remove the seeds from the lint. At the same time a rotating brush operated by a belt and pulleys removed the lint from the spikes. This type of gin could not be used on Sea Island cotton as it damaged the long silky fibers.

Moting

Moting was a continuation of the cleaning process and the last step before packing the cotton into bales. The cotton was examined carefully for stains, seed particles or anything that was not removed. The cotton was also gently shaken. This may have been done on a mote-table.

Packing

Sea Island cotton was packed into bales (bag) by hand. The bags were generally made of hemp and measured 7 1/2 feet in length and 2 1/2 feet in diameter. The cotton lint was pressed into these bags. One method of compressing cotton into a bag was to hang it under a hole in the floor and have a slave pack it down with his feet.

There is much variation about the weight of the bale. Porcher and Fitch in The Story of Sea Island Cotton stated a standard weight for a bale was 300 to 400 pounds.

Last updated: April 14, 2015

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