Cotton is a soft, fluffy staple fiber that grows in a boll, or protective capsule, around the seeds of cotton plants of the genus Gossypium. The fiber is almost pure cellulose. Under natural condition, the cotton balls will tend to increase the dispersion of the seeds.
The plant is a shrub native to tropical and subtropical regions around the world, including the Americas, Africa, and India. The greatest diversity of wild cotton species is found in Mexico, followed by Australia and Africa. Cotton was independently domesticated in the Old and New Worlds. The English name derives from the Arabic (al) qutn قُطْن, which began to be used circa 1400 CE. The Spanish word, "algodón", is likewise derived from the Arabic.
The fiber is most often spun into yarn or thread and used to make a soft, breathable textile. The use of cotton for fabric is known to date to prehistoric times; fragments of cotton fabric dated from 5000 BCE have been excavated in Mexico and the Indus Valley Civilization (modern day Pakistan). Although cultivated since antiquity, it was the invention of the cotton gin that so lowered the cost of production that led to its widespread use, and it is the most widely used natural fiber cloth in clothing today.
Current estimates for world production are about 25 million tonnes annually, accounting for 2.5% of the world's arable land. China is the world's largest producer of cotton, but most of this is used domestically. The United States has been the largest exporter for many years.