Cotton In Our Lives
A Short History of Cotton
Cotton was considered a luxury fiber in Western Europe and America until the 19th century when mass production made possible by the cotton gin, invented in the late 18th century, made cotton available to more consumers than ever before. However, cotton's history began much earlier since it is believed that cotton was being used for textiles in India by about 3500 B.C. and in Peru by about 3000 B.C. Herodotus, a 5th century B.C. historian, stated that in India "wild trees bear wool more beautiful and excellent than the wool of sheep."1 An early illustration of cotton shows it as a tiny sheep cradled in the bole of the plant.
It is not surprising that cotton balls are still called "cotton wool" in England. Pliny, a first century Roman naturalist, wrote this about the cotton fabrics used in Egypt, "No kinds of thread are more brilliantly white or make smoother fabric than this."2 The cotton spun and woven in India was also appreciated for its fine, smooth qualities since the finest fabrics were known as "woven wind." 3 Cotton was known in the Mediterranean among the ancient Greeks and Romans and fragments of very early cotton textiles have also been found in western Europe. However, it wasn't until the 16th century, during the Age of Exploration, when cotton textiles were among the luxury goods traded from Asia to Europe.4
The cotton grown by Pre-Columbians of the coastal regions of Peru and northern Chile tended to be natural brown cottons but also could be red brown, or green grey. Although it was traded into the highlands, it was never used as a principal fiber there because its qualities for wicking moisture, thus cooling the body were not as necessary in the cool, mountain climates.5 Colored cottons are prohibited in regions of the world that grow cotton for large-scale manufacture since cotton cross-breeds easily, and colored cottons would have to be bleached before they could be dyed. Even so, researchers are working to develop colored cottons in deep tones since they believe that naturally colored cottons might not be as subject to fading.
1 Watson, Andrew M. (1977). "The rise and spread of old world cotton." Studies in Textile History. Veronika Gervers, Ed. Toronto, ON, Canada: Royal Ontario Museum. 357.
2 Wilson, Kax. (1979). A History of Textiles. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 17.
3 Franck, Lavina (1983). History of textile class notes.
4 Watson, 358-360.
5 Rodman, Amy Oakland. (1997). "Weaving in a high land: A continuous tradition." Traditional Textiles of the Andes. Lynn A. Meisch. New York, NY: Thames & Hudson, 16.
Copyright © 2008 Department of Textile and Apparel Management, University of Missouri, 137 Stanley Hall, Columbia, MO 65211
The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary: a Curious Fable of the Cotton Plant, to Which Is Added a Sketch of the History of Cotton and the Cotton Trade.