A Short History of Cotton

Updated on: December 7 2012

We use it every day of our lives, whether in the form of clothing, table linen napkins, bath linens or even the cotton pads we cleanse our face with in the morning.

Many of us, however, don’t know precisely about the origins of it, where it was discovered or how it gradually became the most reliable and historic material in the global textile industry. Consistently renowned for its breath-ability, strength and versatility, it’s no surprise really that cotton quickly became an essential and highly valued commodity.

Different civilisations and cultures have played a huge role in the progress of cotton production into fabrics, with the first domestication of the plant said to have begun around 4500 BC. Although the early history of it is complex and not accurately known, the oldest discovered cotton bolls were found in Mexico’s Tehuacán Valley and dated back to approximately 5500 BCE – way before major historical events like the emergence of Christianity. Whether this is where it spread its first roots or not, ancient bolls of the crop have also been found in corners of the globe such as Europe, India, Arizona, Mexico and China!

While the planting of it became a major feature in India and Iran throughout these ancient times, it wasn’t until the 8th century – during the Muslim conquest of Spain – that the cotton trade expanded to a vast European market, so much so that by the 15th century Venice, Antwerp and Haarlem had all become major cotton ports.

But one of the most well-known and tumultuous periods in it’s history came during 1861-1865, where the crop became an even more valuable commodity. Cotton became so desired by this time that hundreds of slaves were required to pick cotton all day long for their masters, while armed marshals watched diligently over them from horseback. Although unethical and widely controversial, the slave trades role in the story of cotton saw America gain a strong economic backbone through its massive, continued production.

With later distribution, the import and sales of cotton and fabrics became profitable across the globe, with the British commercial empire coming to the fore as the most influential country to ever promote the global significance of this textile product; Lancashire in particular heading up both cotton production and the British industrial revolution.

From being loom-woven in peoples’ living rooms in the Middle Ages to emerging into fashion trends of our modern age, cotton cultivated the standards and value of high quality linen sheets and fabrics throughout history. Now, the demand for cotton hasn’t just doubled, but tripled since 1980 with the expansion of textile mills to China, Bangladesh and other parts of Latin America. Although this means that, to an extent, Great Britain has lost something of a part of its cultural heritage, we can rest safe in the knowledge that our little country helped promote a textile revolution.

The linens in a B&B, small hotel or guest house may just be regarded as a small, every day thing for most, but these historic tales clearly illustrate how influential this famous crop really is throughout the globe, and how it had a significant effect on not just the economies of countries the world over, but their people too.

Picking up a pack of wool in your local supermarket won’t have the same effect again…

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Hilden Team
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Hilden Team

Hilden Team

Michelle Pegg is the Assurance and Compliance Manager at Hilden Linens.