100% Cotton: A History of the World’s Most Important Textile

Close-up of cotton bolls
Image credit: Ranurte on Unsplash

Cotton’s importance in the course of modern history can hardly be overstated. It is the most widely used fibre in the world and has been for two centuries. Whole histories have been written in an attempt to parse its influence on society. It has shaped the fate of nations and touched the lives of untold numbers of people (At one point at the turn of the twentieth century, fully 1.5 per cent of the entire human population was involved in either growing, transporting, or manufacturing cotton).

It’s strange to consider, then, how cotton’s storied history may have been altered had it not been for a chance encounter on a boat. In 1792, Catherine Greene, a woman of society and the widow of a notable Revolutionary War general, Nathanael Greene, was on her way home to South Carolina, having concluded her annual summertime sojourn to Newport, Rhode Island. It was on this voyage that she became friendly with one Eli Whitney. The 27-year-old Mr Whitney was a recent graduate from Yale en route to serving as a tutor for a wealthy family. His new acquaintance, however, convinced him to accompany her to the Greene family plantation for a few days. Whitney, by his own account, had every intention of going on from there to start his new job and continue his studies but got distracted on his visit by some idle chat on the subject of cotton.

It was explained to Whitney that much of America’s cotton crop, a variety known as upland cotton, was extremely difficult to harvest. While upland cotton was prised for its ability to grow in soil types that were ill-suited to other strains of the plant, the business of separating its seeds from cotton fibre was so labour intensive as to render it essentially useless. This meant that America was doomed to remain a non-entity in the global cotton trade. Unless (Whitney’s interlocutors mused) someone were to come along and create some machine to help things along…

Such a machine is precisely what Whitney, who had exhibited considerable mechanical aptitude since childhood, set about building under the patronage of the Greene plantation (specifically from Phineas Miller, the manager and future husband to Mrs. Greene). It was called the cotton engine or ‘gin’ for short. Whitney’s prototype was simply a hand-cranked affair. The device pushed raw cotton against a set of metallic teeth that combed cotton fibres off to one end while managing to keep the seeds at bay in another.

Much as the cotton gin changed Eli Whitney’s own fate, it did the same on a much grander scale for that of his country and the rest of humanity. Before saying more about the impact of the cotton gin, however, let’s pause to consider why cotton has proven such a successful textile on its own merits. 

Cotton derives its name from the Arabic ‘qutn’ or ‘qutun’ and was first cultivated by humans sometime before the third millennium B.C.E. It was present in the ancient societies of India, Greece, Egypt, and Babylon, but it remained a rare commodity in Europe until the 17th century, around which time trade with India (the world’s longest-standing cotton producer) increased dramatically.

As a textile, cotton has a great many advantages. It’s soft, breathable, and absorbent, in addition to being durable and resistant to abrasion. It also accepts many dyes and can generally be washed, dried and ironed with ease and efficiency. It can also be made into a wide array of fabrics ranging from lightweight laces to hefty sailcloths. In fact, it can be woven, napped, or infused to produce just about any desired effect conceivable.

Such versatility leaves little wonder as to why cotton would be in high demand and why Whitney’s cotton gin would prove such a pivotal development. Moreover, the gin’s invention added one more feature to cotton’s laundry list of virtues: for the first time, it became cheap to buy. 

The cultivation of cotton in North America first began in the seventeenth century in part as a means of servicing the great demand in Europe for handsome but expensive cotton textiles imported from India. Around the time that the cotton gin entered the equation about a century later, however, the expense involved in producing cotton was cut down dramatically at two crucial steps in the manufacturing process. Firstly, the grossly exploitative nature of Black slave labour in the American South meant that cotton became very cheap to source. Secondly, once picked, the similarly labour-intensive business of processing became less capital intensive thanks to the steam-powered gins forged by the Industrial Revolution in Europe.

Cotton picking in Oklahoma in the 1890s
Cotton picking in Oklahoma in the 1890s
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

The cotton gin also turned upland cotton into a viable commodity, and not just in America. While other regional cotton variants like pima and Egyptian cotton are still prised for their superior quality, upland cotton today accounts for 90% of total cotton production. 

Bhu Srinivasan brilliantly traces the influence of the cotton gin in Americana: A 400-Year History of American Capitalism:

‘Two years before Whitney made his journey south, the Carolinas and Georgia had produced 3 000 bales of cotton, much of it the satin-like Sea Island variety. Ten years after he invented the cotton gin, annual production stood at 136 000 bales of cotton — equal to 68 million pounds in weight — almost all of the upland variety. This number too would be dwarfed in coming years.’

Bhu Srinivasan

By the mid-1800s, cotton constituted well over half of all American exports and the American South was supplying more than 70 per cent of the world’s raw cotton, weighing in at around one billion pounds. Fast forward to our own time and you’ll find somewhere in the order of 120 million bales of cotton being produced every year, enough to make twenty T-shirts for every living person. Stack them all on top of one another and you’ll get a tower that’s 40 000 miles high; lay them horizontally and you could circle the globe one and a half times. As Sven Beckert puts it in Empire of Cotton

‘Today cotton is so ubiquitous that it is hard to see it for what it is: one of mankind’s greatest achievements. As you read this sentence, chances are you are wearing something woven from cotton. And it is just as likely that you have never plucked a cotton boll from its stem, seen a wispy strand of raw cotton fibre, or heard the deafening noise of a spinning mule and a power loom. Cotton is as familiar as it is unknown. We take its perpetual presence for granted. We wear it close to our skin. We sleep under it. We swaddle our newborns in it. Cotton is in the banknotes we use, the coffee filters that help us awaken in the morning, the vegetable oil we use for cooking, the soap we wash with, and the gunpowder that fights our wars.’

Sven Beckert
Rolls of cotton textiles
Image credit: Ethan Bodnar on Unsplash

Cotton revolutionised countless ways in which we conduct our lives, but nowhere more so than in the way that we dress. It turned the notion of an occasional change of clothing from a rare luxury into an affordable necessity for many millions of people the world over. Without it, we would have drastically different ideas about our wardrobes — heck, we wouldn’t even have wardrobes, with all of the variety that word entails, to have ideas about. If you’re someone who is at all interested in clothing, there are few more significant notions to cotton on to.

* This post may contain affiliate links. If you buy something using them, we get a small percentage of the sale at no cost to you. More info at our affiliate policy.