A history of cotton

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by Jemma


So after my blog on the opium poppy (https://herbologymanchester.wordpress.com/2015/01/23/powerful-poppies/) I have decided to write another; this time on Gossypium barbadense.

Gossypium barbadense seeds from the Materia Medica.
Gossypium barbadense seeds from the Materia Medica.


G. barbadense is a small, tropical tree that produces cotton. The cotton fibres grow in a protective capsule, called a boll, around the seeds to increase seed dispersion. These fibres can be collected and spun into yarn or thread, which then have a variety of uses. These include making textiles, coffee filters and fishing nets. Cotton was even used in the 1890s in the manufacture of fire hoses.

A cotton boll encasing Gossypium barbadense seeds.
A cotton boll encasing the plant’s seeds.

Cotton has been used by humans for at least 7,000 years.  Archaelogists have found signs of G. barbadense domestication (based on cotton bolls found) from around 4,400 BC. It is believed that cotton spread throughout India between 2,000-1,000 BC. Following his invasion into India during 327–325 BC, the troops of Alexander the Great began to wear cotton clothes because they were more comfortable than the alternative woollen ones.


By the medieval period, cotton had spread to northern Europe and was imported in large quantities. It was extremely popular as it was a cheaper alternative to silk but could easily be imprinted on to make patterned textiles. At first there was a common misconception that cotton was produced by plant-borne sheep due to its woolly appearance. However, G. barbardense was soon cultivated in Europe and this misunderstanding corrected. After the introduction of inventions like the spinning jenny in the 1770s, cotton manufacture soared in Europe. The Midlands in England quickly became one of the most profitable production centres for cotton.

Image from the Leo Grindon collection. Inscription: Cotton from India: A Cotton convoy proceeding from Rewah towards to Ganges – night encampment under a Banyan tree
Image from the Leo Grindon collection.
Inscription: Cotton from India: A Cotton convoy proceeding from Rewah towards to Ganges – night encampment under a Banyan tree

From the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in Britain, textiles (particularly cotton) became their primary export. During this time, numerous inventions helped to dramatically increase cotton production. These included (but not limited to) Paul and Wyatt’s flyer-and-bobbin system for drawing cotton, Hargreaves’ spinning jenny and Crompton’s spinning mule. The invention of Whitney’s cotton gin for efficiently separating cotton fibres from the seeds reduced the time and cost of production, leading to cotton becoming one of the most widely used textile in the world. From the end of the 18th century onwards, Manchester became known as “Cottonopolis” due to its domination of the cotton trade.

Spun cotton thread
Spun cotton thread

The cotton trade continued to grow throughout the early 19th century and Britain had become one of the primary exporters. British factories imported vast quantities of fibres from India to produce cotton, but by the 1840s India could no longer supply the ever growing demand. British traders then instead turned to plantations in the United States, who quickly became one of Britain’s prominent suppliers. By the mid-19th century, cotton cultivation became one of the main occupations of slaves in the southern states of America.


During the American Civil War (1861-1865), the Union states blockaded the Southern ports so cotton export dwindled. This led to Britain once again needing a new source of the fibre; turning this time to Egypt. Egyptian cotton has a much higher thread count and is today viewed as a luxury brand of cotton. At the time the Egyptian government invested heavily in the trade and took large loans from European bankers to finance their fledgling cotton plantations. However, the boom in Egyptian cotton was short-lived. After the end of the America Civil War, traders abandoned Egyptian cotton in favour of the cheaper cotton supplied by the Americans. This crippled Egypt’s economy to the point that it declared bankruptcy in 1876.


The cotton industry in Britain reached its peak in 1912 when over 8 billion yards of cloth was produced. However, there was soon a drastic decline in trade with the onset of World War I. During the war, cotton could not easily be exported and other countries soon began developing their own industry. One such country was Japan who, by 1933, replaced Britain as the largest cotton manufacturer. The interwar period then completely destroyed Britain’s declining cotton industry. During this time over 345,000 workers became unemployed and more than 800 mills closed. Britain had become a net importer of cotton by 1958, rather than an exporter, and its remaining mills struggled to remain open. For the next few decades Britain’s cotton industry floundered and a mill closed approximately once a week. By the 1980s, Britain’s textile industry had all but disappeared.


The demand for cotton has doubled since the 1980s and today’s production occurs in lower-wage areas because production is cheaper. China is now the main producer of cotton, closely followed by America and India.

Cotton wool extracted from Gossypium barbadense.
A jar in the Materia Medica containing cotton wool

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