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Cotton – a quick history

April 14, 2010
raw unprocessed cotton boles

raw unprocessed cotton boles

Cotton (genus Gossypium) fragments have been found in caves in Mexico as well as in the Indus valley (now Pakistan). These shreds of cloth and raw bolls have been dated to approximately 3000 B.C. Varieties of cotton will grow in dry or sandy soil in warm to hot climates. The actual harvest is taken from the cellulose fibres that form around the seed boll of the plant and enable it to be scattered in the wind. Although the work is intensive, in many areas of the world the harvest is still hand picked.
The first cotton to reach England was probably Indian, already block printed with vegetable dyes. It arrived as a by product of the late Tudor demand for exotic spices such as pepper, cloves and nutmeg. Merchant adventurers stopped off at Indian ports on their way to the Spice islands ( Indonesia) in order to buy the light airy fabrics which they traded for spices. Competition between countries was fierce, and goods sometimes had the edge over gold.
It was quickly realised that this material had the advantages of linen in that it could be laundered,  was  fairly resilient and had  the same absorbent properties as the native grown linen. The threat to home industries was quickly appreciated and for most of the 17th century imports were banned. Domestic instability during the Civil War also undermined trading  ventures. However, with the Restoration in 1660, society was ready to experiment with new things. Tea, coffee and chocolate rapidly became fashionable and as trade expanded so cotton began to flood in. Its comfort and ease in making up made it initially a high fashion material. Imports steadily increased during the 18th century and mechanisation rapidly developed to manage the imports of raw baled cotton. Parts of Lancashire, Yorkshire and Cheshire proved ideal for processing as the land was cheap, the atmosphere was damp which made the fibres stick together, and there was plenty of water. At first this was needed for processing and printing but it also enabled the switch to water powered and then steam machinery. As soon as cotton fabrics became widely available they ceased to be as fashionable and became the preserve, firstly of  the middle classes, and then of the workers who often relied on buying second hand clothes.
By the late 18th century the demand for raw cotton was so immense that India and the slave plantations in the West Indies were no longer able to supply enough. America had some history of cotton growing: it had been seen growing during an expedition of 1540-2  and early settlers had tried growing it in Virginia. Plantation development was an obvious move and slavery was the consequence.
Samuel Slater was an Englishman who emigrated to America in 1790. From memory he built the first American cotton mill. This meant that a more efficient means of separating the cotton fibres (lint) from the seeds was needed and Eli Whitney in 1793  patented a cotton gin (short for engine). This enabled the workers to increase their lint volume from about 450 gms. a day working by hand to about 20 kilos.
The hey day of English cotton production was roughly 1770 -1860. At its peak cotton was exported all over the world: in 1843 India was the largest customer. However, restrictions on exporting machinery were lifted in 1843 which enabled other countries to establish their own industries: India (1840‘s); Brazil (1860); Japan (1870’s). The American Civil War  1861-4, where one of the issues was slavery, caused shortages in supply. Slowly the industry declined. Two World Wars and a reluctance to  embrace new methods led to mills being scrapped. Today some of the best cotton ( with the highest thread count) is imported from Egypt. 

Today in England, the only full scale working cotton mill is at Styal, just south of Manchester. It is in the care of the National Trust but has a team of dedicated and knowledgeable demonstrators, most of whom spent their working life in and around the mill. it is possible to follow the path of cotton from its raw state in the bale right through to the finished product, in both its woven and printed state. Also in the area is the excellent Platt Hall, part of the Manchester group of museums which houses a collection of English domestic dress from the 18th century through to the 20th.

From → Textiles

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