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  April 6th, 2016 | Written by


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  • The history of cotton in industry
  • Cotton textiles in the age of industry
  • The rise of cotton cloth in global trade

“He who says the Industrial Revolution says cotton,” according to one standard text, and cotton textiles were among the first products produced in recognizably modern factories. But as the story proceeds, we usually focus on the machinery, not the fiber; it seems coincidental that the birth of the factory coincided with a switch in Europe’s principal fiber crop. In fact, it was anything but. Had cotton (long the fiber crop of choice in most of Asia) not replaced flax and wool as Europe’s leading cloth source, it is hard to imagine the Industrial Revolution taking the same course. And had Europeans had to grow the crop themselves, rather than on New World plantations, the increased demands on their land, water, and labor supplies could easily have short-circuited the process.

Cotton was known in India over 2,000 years ago (as was a machine quite close to the modern cotton gin); it spread slowly to the east, north and west. It was easier to twist into yarn than hemp, and much more comfortable to wear. By roughly 1300, it had spread from West Africa to Japan. It was not cultivated in Europe, but it was known there as well. During a medieval wool shortage, Venetian merchants brought the new fiber from Aleppo (in modern-day Syria), where it was combined with wool to make an ersatz cloth called fustian. But these imports were limited. For the next 400 years, cotton largely by-passed Europe while conquering Africa and Asia.

In China, cotton cloth gradually became the fabric of choice for almost everybody; peasants wore the coarser grades and even the very rich wore some cottons in rotation with their silks. The range of quality—and price—was enormous: An 18th century document records that some of the cotton cloth used in temple rituals cost 200 times as much per yard as the grade used by most ordinary people. In India, there were not only cottons of all qualities, but a wide variety of cotton-silk blends, which became the standard of excellence throughout the Old World. Buyers as far away as West Africa and Southeast Asia would draw patterns that merchants would then take back to India, where a particular village with whom that merchant had connections (usually indirect ones) would create fabrics to order for the next trading season. In the 1600s and 1700s, the Europeans got in on the act, too, purchasing so many cheap, high-quality Indian cottons that they provoked riots among English woolens workers, and various acts of protective legislation by Parliament.

But unlike with silk—where the Europeans made endless efforts to learn to produce the yarn at home—cotton plants were never imported to Europe on any significant scale. This may have been just as well for Europe, because self-sufficiency in cotton fiber came at considerable ecological cost for various parts of Asia. In China’s Lower Yangzi region (near present-day Shanghai), huge amounts of soybean cake fertilizer had to be imported (mostly from Manchuria) to replenish the overworked soil; by the mid-eighteenth century the quantity of soybeans used for this purpose could have fed about 3 million people per year if used that way.

In Japan, it was the sea that provided the needed ecological relief for cotton-growing land. Japanese fisheries expanded enormously in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, mostly in the direction of Sakhalin Island (leading to various tense encounters with eastward-moving Russians), but most of the catch was not eaten; instead, it, too, was used mostly as fertilizer, and mostly for land growing cotton. (Paddy rice, the biggest food crop in both China and Japan, produces very high per-acre yields with a minimum of fertilizer.)

And cotton is a thirsty crop, too. By the early 19 century, North China peasants growing cotton were finding that they needed to re-dig most of their wells because of a sinking water table—a problem that has reached crisis dimensions in that region today.

Europeans, meanwhile, were still using much more flax and wool than cotton even in the mid-18th century; through much of the 17th and 18th centuries, Parliament kept passing subsidies to encourage more flax production (with very limited success) rather than trying to secure greater supplies of raw cotton. But two related events—industrialization and population growth—made continuing with those fibers more or less impossible. First of all, 18th century inventions made it possible to spin cotton into yarn, and weave the yarn into cloth, mechanically, achieving astonishing results: a roughly one hundredfold gain in yarn spun per hour over a few decades. Figuring out how to machine-spin oily, rubbery flax took considerably longer, though the problem was eventually solved.

Europeans did quickly figure out how to spin and weave wool mechanically—though not quite as well or as quickly as with cotton—but wool presented different problems. First of all, it was not what was wanted in many strategic markets—especially in the Tropics, where cloth was exchanged for slaves in Africa and used to clothe them in the Americas. Worse yet, wool production faced serious ecological limits. Sheep-raising requires far more land per pound of fiber obtained than raising fiber crops, and as population grew, there simply wasn’t enough land available for this relatively low-return-per-acre use. In fact, replacing just the cotton imported by Britain in 1830 with wool would have required over 23 million acres–more than the entire farm and pasture land of Britain! And the problem would only have gotten worse over time, since Britain’s cotton imports rose by 20 times from 1815 to 1900.

The solution, of course, was cotton from the New World, especially the American South. Imported slaves did the labor, while rural Europe disgorged workers to become factory operatives. Though cotton was very tough on the soil, the land supply in the New World seemed virtually limitless. England’s new textile mills hummed along, heralding a new economic era, while those who produced their own cotton close to home wrestled with environmental decay, land and water shortages, and the need to increase their agricultural labor forces to keep local looms and spindles going. n

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