• Fiber maturity is a composite of factors, including inherent genetic fineness compared with the perimeter or cross section achieved under prevailing growing conditions and the relative fiber cell-wall thickness and the primary -to- secondary fiber cell-wall ratio, and the time elapsed between flowering and boll opening or harvest. While all the above traits are important to varying degrees in determining processing success, none of them appear in classing-office reports.

  •  Micronaire, which is often treated as the fiber maturity measurement in classing-office data, provides an empirical composite of fiber cross section and relative wall thickening. But laydown blends that are based solely on bale-average micronaire will vary greatly in processing properties and outcomes.
        Cotton physiologists who follow fiber development can discuss fiber chronological maturity in terms of days after floral anthesis. But, they must quantify the corresponding fiber physical maturity as micronaire readings for samples pooled across several plants, because valid micronaire determinations require at least 10 g of individualized fiber.

  •  Some fiber properties, like length and single fiber strength, appear to be simple and easily understood terms. But the bale average length reported by the classing office does not describe the range or variability of fiber lengths that must be handled by the spinning equipment processing each individual fiber from the highly variable fiber population found in that bale. 
        Even when a processing problem can be linked directly to a substandard fiber property, surprisingly little is known about the causes of variability in fiber shape and maturity. For example:

  • Spinners can see the results of excessive variability in fiber length or strength when manifested as yarn breaks and production halts.Knitters and weavers can see the knots and slubs or holes that reduce the value of fabrics made from defective yarns that were spun from poor-quality fibre

  • Inspectors of dyed fabrics can see the unacceptable color streaks and specks associated with variations in fiber maturity and the relative dye-uptake success.
  • The grower, ginner, and buyer can see variations in color or trash content of ginned and baled cotton.

    But there are no inspectors or instruments that can see or predict any of the above quality traits of fibers while they are developing in the boll.    There is no definitive reference source, model, or database to which a producer can turn for information on how cultural inputs could be adapted to the prevailing growth conditions of soil fertility, water availability, and weather (temperature, for example) to produce higher quality fiber.

   The scattered research publications that address fiber quality, usually in conjunction with yield improvement, are confusing because their measurement protocols are not standardized and results are not reported in terms that are meaningful to either producers or processors. Thus, physiological and agronomic studies of fiber quality frequently widen, rather than bridge, the communication gap between cotton producers and processors.

    This overview assembles and assesses current literature citations regarding the quantitation of fiber quality and the manner in which irrigation, soil fertility, weather, and cotton genetic potential interact to modulate fiber quality. The ultimate goal is to provide access to the best answers currently available to the question of what causes the annual and regional fiber quality variations 

   From the physiologist's perspective, the fiber quality of a specific cotton genotype is a composite of fiber shape and maturity properties that depend on complex interactions among the genetics and physiology of the plants producing the fibers and the growth environment prevailing during the cotton production season.

 Fiber shape properties, particularly length and diameter, are largely dependent on genetics. Fiber maturity properties, which are dependent on deposition of photosynthate in the fiber cell wall, are more sensitive to changes in the growth environment. The effects of the growth environment on the genetic potential of a genotype modulate both shape and maturity properties to varying degrees.

    Anatomically, a cotton fiber is a seed hair, a single hyperelongated cell arising from the protodermal cells of the outer integument layer of the seed coat. Like all living plant cells, developing cotton fibers respond individually to fluctuations in the macro- and microenvironments. Thus, the fibers on a single seed constitute continua of fiber length, shape, cell-wall thickness, and physical maturity .

   Environmental variations within the plant canopy, among the individual plants, and within and among fields ensure that the fiber population in each boll, indeed on each seed, encompasses a broad range of fiber properties and that every bale of cotton contains a highly variable population of fibers.

    Successful processing of cotton lint depends on appropriate management during and after harvest of those highly variable fiber properties that have been shown to affect finished-product quality and manufacturing efficiency . If fiber-blending strategies and subsequent spinning and dyeing processes are to be optimized for specific end-uses and profitability, production managers in textile mills need accurate and effective descriptive and predictive quantitative measures of both the means and the ranges of these highly variable fiber properties .

    In the USA, the components of cotton fiber quality are usually defined as those properties reported for every bale by the classing offices of the USDA-AMS, which currently include length, length uniformity index, strength, micronaire, color as reflectance (Rd) and yellowness (+b), and trash content, all quantified by the High Volume Instrument (HVI) line. The classing offices also provide each bale with the more qualitative classers' color and leaf grades and with estimates of preparation (degree of roughness of ginned lint) and content of extraneous matter.

    The naturally wide variations in fiber quality, in combination with differences in end-use requirements, result in significant variability in the value of the cotton lint to the processor. Therefore, a system of premiums and discounts has been established to denote a specified base quality. In general, cotton fiber value increases as the bulk-averaged fibers increase in whiteness (+Rd), length, strength, and micronaire; and discounts are made for both low mike (micronaire less than 3.5) and high mike (micronaire more than 4.9).

 Ideal fiber-quality specifications favored by processors traditionally have been summarized thusly: "as white as snow, as long as wool, as strong as steel, as fine as silk, and as cheap as hell." These specifications are extremely difficult to incorporate into a breeding program or to set as goals for cotton producers. Fiber-classing technologies in use and being tested allow quantitation of fiber properties, improvement of standards for end-product quality, and, perhaps most importantly, creation of a fiber-quality language and system of fiber-quality measurements that can be meaningful and useful to producers and processors alike.


    Improvements in textile processing, particularly advances in spinning technology, have led to increased emphasis on breeding cotton for both improved yield and improved fiber properties  Studies of gene action suggest that, within upland cotton genotypes there is little non-additive gene action in fiber length, strength, and fineness ; that is, genes determine those fiber properties. However, large interactions between combined annual environmental factors (primarily weather) and fiber strength suggest that environmental variability can prevent full realization of the fiber-quality potential of a cotton genotype.
    More recently, statistical comparisons of the relative genetic and environmental influences upon fiber strength suggest that fiber strength is determined by a few major genes, rather than by variations in the growth environment . Indeed, spatial variations of single fertility factors in the edaphic environment were found to be unrelated to fiber strength and only weakly correlated with fiber length .

    Genetic potential of a specific genotype is defined as the level of fiber yield or quality that could be attained under optimal growing conditions. The degree to which genetic potential is realized changes in response to environmental fluctuations such as application of water or fertilizer and the inevitable seasonal shifts such as temperature, day length, and insolation.

In addition to environment-related modulations of fiber quality at the crop and whole-plant levels, significant differences in fiber properties also can be traced to variations among the shapes and maturities of fibers on a single seed and, consequently, within a given boll.


    Comparisons of the fiber-length arrays from different regions on a single seed have revealed that markedly different patterns in fiber length can be found in the micropylar, middle, and chalazal regions of a cotton seed - at either end and around the middle . Mean fiber lengths were shortest at the micropylar (upper, pointed end of the seed) . The most mature fibers and the fibers having the largest perimeters also were found in the micropylar region of the seed. After hand ginning, the percentage of short fibers less than 0.5 inch or 12.7 mm long on a cotton seed was extremely low.

   It has been reported that, in ginned and baled cotton, the short fibers with small perimeters did not originate in the micropylar region of the seed . MEasurements of fibers from micropylar and chalazal regions of seeds revealed that the location of a seed within the boll was related to the magnitude of the differences in the properties of fibers from the micropylar and chalazal regions.
    Significant variations in fiber maturity also can be related to the seed position (apical, medial, or due to the variability inherent in cotton fiber, there is no absolute value for fiber length within a genotype or within a test sample . Even on a single seed, fiber lengths vary significantly because the longer fibers occur at the chalazal (cup-shaped, lower) end of the seed and the shorter fibers are found at the micropylar (pointed) end. Coefficients of fiber-length variation, which also vary significantly from sample to sample, are on the order of 40% for upland cotton.
    Variations in fiber length attributable to genotype and fiber location on the seed are modulated by factors in the micro- and macroenvironment . Environmental changes occurring around the time of floral anthesis may limit fiber initiation or retard the onset of fiber elongation. Suboptimal environmental conditions during the fiber elongation phase may decrease the rate of elongation or shorten the elongation period so that the genotypic potential for fiber length is not fully realized . Further, the results of environmental stresses and the corresponding physiological responses to the growth environment may become evident at a stage in fiber development that is offset in time from the occurrence of the stressful conditions.

    Fiber lengths on individual seeds can be determined while the fibers are still attached to the seed , by hand stapling or by photoelectric measurement after ginning. Traditionally, staple lengths have been measured and reported to the nearest 32nd of an inch or to the nearest millimeter. The four upland staple classes are: short (<21 mm), medium (22-25 mm), medium-long (26-28 mm) and long (29-34 mm). Pima staple length is classed as long (29-34 mm) and extra-long (>34 mm). Additionally, short fiber content is defined as the percentage of fiber less than 12.7 mm.

   Cotton buyers and processors used the term staple length long before development of quantitative methods for measuring fiber properties. Consequently, staple length has never been formally defined in terms of a statistically valid length distribution.
    In Fibrograph testing, fibers are randomly caught on combs, and the beard formed by the captured fibers is scanned photoelectrically from base to tip . The amount of light passing through the beard is a measure of the number of fibers that extend various distances from the combs. Data are recorded as span length (the distance spanned by a specific percentage of fibers in the test beard). Span lengths are usually reported as 2.5 and 50%. The 2.5% span length is the basis for machine settings at various stages during fiber processing.

    The uniformity ratio is the ratio between the two span lengths expressed as a percentage of the longer length. The Fibrograph provides a relatively fast method for reproducibility in measuring the length and length uniformity of fiber samples. Fibrograph test data are used in research studies, in qualitative surveys such as those checking commercial staple-length classifications, and in assembling cotton bales into uniform lots.
    Since 1980, USDA-AMS classing offices have relied almost entirely on high-volume instrumentation (HVI) for measuring fiber length and other fiber properties (Moore, 1996). The HVI length analyzer determines length parameters by photoelectrically scanning a test beard that is selected by a specimen loader and prepared by a comber/brusher attachment 

    The fibers in the test beard are assumed to be uniform in cross-section, but this is a false assumption because the cross section of each individual fiber in the beard varies significantly from tip to tip. The HVI fiber-length data are converted into the percentage of the total number of fibers present at each length value and into other length parameters, such as mean length, upper-half mean length, and length uniformity . This test method for determining cotton fiber length is considered acceptable for testing commercial shipments when the testing services use the same reference standard cotton samples.

    All fiber-length methods discussed above require a minimum of 5 g of ginned fibers and were developed for rapid classing of relatively large, bulk fiber samples. For analyses of small fiber samples , fiber property measurements with an electron-optical particle-sizer, the Zellweger Uster AFIS-A2  have been found to be acceptably sensitive, rapid, and reproducible. The AFIS-A2 Length and Diameter module  generates values for mean fiber length by weight and mean fiber length by number, fiber length histograms, and values for upper quartile length, and for short-fiber contents by weight and by number (the percentages of fibers shorter than 12.7 mm). The AFIS-A2 Length and Diameter module also quantifies mean fiber diameter by number .

    Although short-fiber content is not currently included in official USDA-AMS classing office reports, short-fiber content is increasingly recognized as a fiber property comparable in importance to fiber fineness, strength, and length . The importance of short-fiber content in determining fiber-processing success, yarn properties, and fabric performance has led the post-harvest sector of the U.S. cotton industry to assign top priority to minimizing short-fiber content, whatever the causes .
    The perceived importance of short-fiber content to processors has led to increased demands for development and approval of a standard short-fiber content measurement that would be added to classing office HVI systems . This accepted classing office-measurement would allow inclusion of short-fiber content in the cotton valuation system. Documentation of post-ginning short-fiber content at the bale level is expected to reduce the cost of textile processing and to increase the value of the raw fiber . However, modulation of short-fiber content before harvest cannot be accomplished until the causes of increased short-fiber content are better understood.

    Fiber length is primarily a genetic trait, but short-fiber content is dependent upon genotype, growing conditions, and harvesting, ginning, and processing methods. Further, little is known about the levels or sources of pre-harvest short-fiber content . 

  It is essential that geneticists and physiologists understand the underlying concepts and the practical limitations of the methods for measuring fiber length and short-fiber content so that the strong genetic component in fiber length can be separated from environmental components introduced by excessive temperatures and water or nutrient deficiencies. Genetic improvement of fiber length is fruitless if the responses of the new genotypes to the growth environment prevent full realization of the enhanced genetic potential or if the fibers produced by the new genotypes break more easily during harvesting or processing. The reported effects of several environmental factors on fiber length and short-fiber content, which are assumed to be primarily genotype-dependent, are discussed in the subsections that follow.

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