Cotton today is the most used textile fiber in the world. Its current market share is 56 percent for all fibers used for apparel and home furnishings and sold in the U.S. Another contribution is attributed to nonwoven textiles and personal care items. It is generally recognized that most consumers prefer cotton personal care items to those containing synthetic fibers. World textile fiber consumption in 1998 was approximately 45 million tons. Of this total, cotton represented approximately 20 million tons. The earliest evidence of using cotton is from India and the date assigned to this fabric is 3000 B.C. There were also excavations of cotton fabrics of comparable age in Southern America. Cotton cultivation first spread from India to Egypt, China and the South Pacific. Even though cotton fiber had been known already in Southern America, the large-scale cotton cultivation in Northern America began in the 16th century with the arrival of colonists to southern parts of today’s United States.The largest rise in cotton production is connected with the invention of the saw-tooth cotton gin by Eli Whitney in 1793. With this new technology, it was possible to produce more cotton fiber, which resulted in big changes in the spinning and weaving industry, especially in England.
Cotton was used in the Old World at least 7,000 years ago (5th millennium BC). Evidence of cotton use has been found at the site of Mehrgarh, where early cotton threads have been preserved in copper beads. Cotton cultivation became more widespread during the Indus Valley Civilization, which covered parts of modern eastern Pakistan and northwestern India. The Indus cotton industry was well-developed and some methods used in cotton spinning and fabrication continued to be used until the industrialization of India. Between 2000 and 1000 BC cotton became widespread across much of India. For example, it has been found at the site of Hallus in Karnataka dating from around 1000 BC. Cotton fabrics discovered in a cave near Tehuacán, Mexico have been dated to around 5800 BC, although it is difficult to know for certain due to fiber decay. Other sources date the domestication of cotton in Mexico to approximately 5000 to 3000 BC.
The Greeks and the Arabs were not familiar with cotton until the Wars of Alexander the Great, as his contemporary Megasthenes told Seleucus I Nicator of “there being trees on which wool grows” in “Indica”. This might actually be a reference to “tree cotton”, Gossypium arboreum, which is a native of the Indian subcontinent.
According to the Columbia Encyclopedia:
Cotton has been spun, woven, and dyed since prehistoric times. It clothed the people of ancient India, Egypt, and China. Hundreds of years before the Christian era, cotton textiles were woven in India with matchless skill, and their use spread to the Mediterranean countries.
In Iran (Persia), the history of cotton dates back to the Achaemenid era (5th century BC); however, there are few sources about the planting of cotton in pre-Islamic Iran. The planting of cotton was common in Merv, Ray and Pars of Iran. In Persian poets’ poems, especially Ferdowsi’s Shahname, there are references to cotton (“panbe” in Persian). Marco Polo (13th century) refers to the major products of Persia, including cotton. John Chardin, a French traveler of the 17th century who visited the Safavid Persia, spoke approvingly of the vast cotton farms of Persia.
During the Han dynasty, cotton was grown by non-Chinese peoples in the southern Chinese province of Yunnan.
In Peru, cultivation of the indigenous cotton species Gossypium barbadense was the backbone of the development of coastal cultures such as the Norte Chico, Moche, and Nazca. Cotton was grown upriver, made into nets, and traded with fishing villages along the coast for large supplies of fish. The Spanish who came to Mexico and Peru in the early 16th century found the people growing cotton and wearing clothing made of it.
During the late medieval period, cotton became known as an imported fiber in northern Europe, without any knowledge of how it was derived, other than that it was a plant. Because Herodotus had written in his Histories, Book III, 106, that in India trees grew in the wild producing wool, it was assumed that the plant was a tree, rather than a shrub. This aspect is retained in the name for cotton in several Germanic languages, such as German Baumwolle, which translates as “tree wool” (Baum means “tree”; Wolle means “wool”). Noting its similarities to wool, people in the region could only imagine that cotton must be produced by plant-borne sheep. John Mandeville, writing in 1350, stated as fact the now-preposterous belief: “There grew there [India] a wonderful tree which bore tiny lambs on the endes of its branches. These branches were so pliable that they bent down to allow the lambs to feed when they are hungrie [sic].” (See Vegetable Lamb of Tartary.) By the end of the 16th century, cotton was cultivated throughout the warmer regions in Asia and the Americas.
India’s cotton-processing sector gradually declined during British expansion in India and the establishment of colonial rule during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. This was largely due to aggressive colonialist mercantile policies of the British East India Company, which made cotton processing and manufacturing workshops in India uncompetitive. Indian markets were increasingly forced to supply only raw cotton and were forced, by British-imposed law, to purchase manufactured textiles from Britain.
Industrial Revolution in Britain
The advent of the Industrial Revolution in Britain provided a great boost to cotton manufacture, as textiles emerged as Britain’s leading export. In 1738, Lewis Paul and John Wyatt, of Birmingham, England, patented the roller spinning machine, as well as the flyer-and-bobbin system for drawing cotton to a more even thickness using two sets of rollers that traveled at different speeds. Later, the invention of the James Hargreaves’ spinning jenny in 1764, Richard Arkwright’s spinning frame in 1769 and Samuel Crompton’s spinning mule in 1775 enabled British spinners to produce cotton yarn at much higher rates. From the late 18th century on, the British city of Manchester acquired the nickname “Cottonopolis” due to the cotton industry’s omnipresence within the city, and Manchester’s role as the heart of the global cotton trade.
Production capacity in Britain and the United States was improved by the invention of the cotton gin by the American Eli Whitney in 1793. Before the development of cotton gins, the cotton fibers had to be pulled from the seeds tediously by hand. By the late 1700s a number of crude ginning machines had been developed. However, to produce a bale of cotton required over 600 hours of human labor, making large-scale production uneconomical in the United States, even with the use of humans as slave labor. The gin that Whitney manufactured (the Holmes design) reduced the hours down to just a dozen or so per bale. Although Whitney patented his own design for a cotton gin, he manufactured a prior design from Henry Odgen Holmes, for which Holmes filed a patent in 1796. Improving technology and increasing control of world markets allowed British traders to develop a commercial chain in which raw cotton fibers were (at first) purchased from colonial plantations, processed into cotton cloth in the mills of Lancashire, and then exported on British ships to captive colonial markets in West Africa, India, and China (via Shanghai and Hong Kong).
By the 1840s, India was no longer capable of supplying the vast quantities of cotton fibers needed by mechanized British factories, while shipping bulky, low-price cotton from India to Britain was time-consuming and expensive. This, coupled with the emergence of American cotton as a superior type (due to the longer, stronger fibers of the two domesticated native American species, Gossypium hirsutum and Gossypium barbadense), encouraged British traders to purchase cotton from plantations in the United States and plantations in the Caribbean. By the mid-19th century, “King Cotton” had become the backbone of the southern American economy. In the United States, cultivating and harvesting cotton became the leading occupation of slaves.
During the American Civil War, American cotton exports slumped due to a Union blockade on Southern ports, and also because of a strategic decision by the Confederate government to cut exports, hoping to force Britain to recognize the Confederacy or enter the war. This prompted the main purchasers of cotton, Britain and France, to turn to Egyptian cotton. British and French traders invested heavily in cotton plantations. The Egyptian government of Viceroy Isma’il took out substantial loans from European bankers and stock exchanges. After the American Civil War ended in 1865, British and French traders abandoned Egyptian cotton and returned to cheap American exports, sending Egypt into a deficit spiral that led to the country declaring bankruptcy in 1876, a key factor behind Egypt’s occupation by the British Empire in 1882.
During this time, cotton cultivation in the British Empire, especially India, greatly increased to replace the lost production of the American South. Through tariffs and other restrictions, the British government discouraged the production of cotton cloth in India; rather, the raw fiber was sent to England for processing. The Indian Mahatma Gandhi described the process:
English people buy Indian cotton in the field, picked by Indian labor at seven cents a day, through an optional monopoly.
This cotton is shipped on British ships, a three-week journey across the Indian Ocean, down the Red Sea, across the Mediterranean, through Gibraltar, across the Bay of Biscay and the Atlantic Ocean to London. One hundred per cent profit on this freight is regarded as small.
The cotton is turned into cloth in Lancashire. You pay shilling wages instead of Indian pennies to your workers. The English worker not only has the advantage of better wages, but the steel companies of England get the profit of building the factories and machines. Wages; profits; all these are spent in England.
The finished product is sent back to India at European shipping rates, once again on British ships. The captains, officers, sailors of these ships, whose wages must be paid, are English. The only Indians who profit are a few lascars who do the dirty work on the boats for a few cents a day.
The cloth is finally sold back to the kings and landlords of India who got the money to buy this expensive cloth out of the poor peasants of India who worked at seven cents a day.
In the United States, Southern cotton provided capital for the continuing development of the North. The cotton produced by enslaved African Americans not only helped the South, but also enriched Northern merchants. Much of the Southern cotton was trans-shipped through northern ports.
Cotton remained a key crop in the Southern economy after emancipation and the end of the Civil War in 1865. Across the South, sharecropping evolved, in which landless black and white farmers worked land owned by others in return for a share of the profits. Some farmers rented the land and bore the production costs themselves. Until mechanical cotton pickers were developed, cotton farmers needed additional labor to hand-pick cotton. Picking cotton was a source of income for families across the South. Rural and small town school systems had split vacations so children could work in the fields during “cotton-picking.”
It was not until the 1950s that reliable harvesting machinery was introduced (prior to this, cotton-harvesting machinery had been too clumsy to pick cotton without shredding the fibers). During the first half of the 20th century, employment in the cotton industry fell, as machines began to replace laborers and the South’s rural labor force dwindled during the World Wars.
Cotton remains a major export of the southern United States, and a majority of the world’s annual cotton crop is of the long-staple American variety.