The history of cotton. A tale of trade, politics and industry

Paulina Kulczycki

Nowadays we take our cotton clothes for granted. Mostly without any awareness of where and how cotton is produced or what the history behind the fabric is. And while some innovative, sustainable fibres like Lyocell were developed only a few years ago, or synthetic fibres like polyester in the middle of the last century, traditional yarns like cotton, silk or linen have a history that goes back thousands of years. A history that not only influenced fashion but also had political, economic, social and industrial impacts. At SANVT, we've read up on the history of cotton and tell you the tale behind one of the world's most popular fabrics.

The first thing we need to understand is that cotton was once one of the world's first luxury goods, after sugar and tobacco! It's hard to imagine when you consider that nowadays you can buy a cotton fast fashion shirt for just a few bucks. The history of cotton is therefore the history of trade and industry with a complex political and economic background. And while cotton is now considered the most widely used textile in the world, the early days of cotton production date back to almost 4000 BC in India and Mexico. The oldest cotton fabric ever found to date – found in Huaca Prieta in Peru – is even dated to around 6000 BC! Cotton was traded throughout the Mediterranean sea to meet the demands of the nobility. It made its way throughout Europe in the Middle Ages and during the Renaissance.

As you can see, cotton has quite a long history behind it. But let's start from the very beginning.

The history of cotton from India to Europe

The cultivation of cotton as a crop has a millennia-long tradition in India. But it was not until the invasion of Alexander the Great in 327 BC that cotton acquired the status of a luxury good. Greek and Roman merchants began trading cotton with India, followed by Arab traders in the 1st century AD. And while cotton was only destined for the nobility among the Greeks and Romans, Arab countries established cotton from a luxury good to everyday clothing because of its functionality.

In the early Middle Ages, the Italians developed their own cotton industry through trade with Arab countries. Especially in northern Italy, entire centres for the production of cotton fibres were established between 1000 and 1300 AD. And what can we say: even then, the Italians were known for their fashion finesse! They combined cotton with other materials, such as wool and flax, to produce a wide variety of fabrics. The most famous was a blended fabric called Fustian – an innovation at the time, a mix of linen and cotton. It offered a robust and versatile fabric that was relatively affordable, in comparison to the luxury good of pure cotton. From 1300 onwards, cotton production finally spread throughout Europe but for a long time it remained accessible only to the aristocracy and kings.


The history of cotton in Great Britain

In 1615, the British East India Company began importing printed cotton fabrics into Great Britain. However, cotton was competing with the British wool industry at the time, which even made it illegal to wear printed textiles until the late 1700s! In the meantime, other nations established their own trading companies with India, including the French East India Company and the Dutch East India Company. Inexpensively printed cotton fabrics imported from India were very popular and highly traded in the European market. No wonder: after all, those textiles were far more colourful than anything seen in Europe before! Ironically, it was precisely these printed cottons that were worn as cheap workwear in Persia and Turkey at that time.

By the end of the 16th century, printed cotton fabrics, known as chintz, were available in all degrees of quality across Europe. The most expensive patterns were produced by a complex, multi-step dyeing process and hand painting, resulting in elaborate floral patterns. These were made into fashionable dressing gowns for men and day dresses for women. More modest and cheaper prints were made with roller blocks, which produced a simpler, repeating pattern. With this, cotton slowly made its way from the royal houses and the aristocracy to all levels of society.

The history of cotton in America

The reason cotton was considered a luxury good for so long was the need for manual labour involved in the process. But this gradually changed when cotton arrived in the southern colonies of America in the mid-1700s. The ideal climatic conditions in the South and the shameful exploitation of slave labour made the American cotton industry grow rapidly between 1750 and 1790. But it was not until 1789, when the British engineer Samuel Slater arrived in the newly founded United States and began building the first water-powered textile mill in Massachusetts, that the first step towards cheap mass production of cotton was taken.

Still, the cotton industry only became truly profitable with the invention of the cotton gin (or “cotton engine”) by Ely Whitney in 1793. With the gin, half a tonne of cotton could be processed daily for the market, as opposed to the 2-3 kilograms that had previously been sorted by hand! The combination of Slater's textile mills and Whitney's cotton gins, kick-started the American textile industry. By the 1860s, America was already producing 2/3 of the world's cotton. Not without reason did people use the famous phrase "Cotton is King" to describe the growth of the American economy in the 1830s and 1840s. But "King Cotton" came at a high price: namely the suffering of slave labour, which is still evident today in many cotton plantations through unfair working conditions and child labour. Today, the US is still a leading cotton exporter.

Cotton today

The history of cotton continues to write itself with each passing day. The natural fibre has become the most popular and widely used textile worldwide. Whether for clothing, home textiles, bed linen or cosmetics and hygiene products: cotton is multifunctional and theoretically biodegradable. Of course, there are still differences in quality today, which are mainly determined by fibre length. The longer the staple length and the smaller the fibre diameter, the stronger, softer and higher quality the cotton. Egyptian cotton and Pima cotton, for example, are two varieties known for their staple length and luxurious softness. Egyptian cotton is often used for fine bed linen, whereas Pima cotton is popular for premium t-shirts.

You can read more about why cotton is so popular here.


After our little history lesson, we hope we have been able to create a greater appreciation for the once luxurious natural fibre of cotton. After all, cotton is much more than just a soft fabric that caresses our bodies. It is a piece of history! And to make sure you're buying ethically sourced cotton, we recommend choosing fairly produced organic cotton. Preferably GOTS certified!

Find out more about the benefits of organic cotton here.