The history of cotton from crop to fabric can be traced in India for 5000 years. It has seen many facets, from the glorious appreciations from travelers like Vasco Da Gama to the era of exploitation under the British Raj. Cotton fabrics are both hand woven and created by machinery that then floods into the global market for sale. Most of it being converted into clothing and home furnishings.
History of Cotton
While excavating caves in Mexico, scientists found bits and pieces of cotton balls and cloth which was proven to be about 7,000 years old. In the Indus River Valley in Pakistan, cotton was being grown, spun and woven into cloth 3,000 years before Christ. People in Egypt’s Nile Valley were making and wearing cotton clothing around the same time.
Arab merchants brought cotton to Europe in 800 AD. Columbus found it growing in the Bahama Islands, at the same time when he discovered America in 1492. By 1500’s, cotton was known in and around the world. It was first spun by machines in England in 1730.
A native of Massachusetts, Eli Whitney secured a patent on the cotton gin in 1793. This indicated that the first cotton gin may have been built by a machinist named Noah Homes, 2 years before Whitney’s patent was filed. The gin, short for engine, could do the work 10 times faster than by hand. This gin made it possible to supply large quantities of cotton fiber to the ever-growing textile industry. Just within 10 years, the value of the US cotton crop rose from $150,000 to more than $8 million.
Indian Cotton and Fabrics
The history of cotton from crop to fabrics can be traced in India for 5000 years. The traditional method of cotton weaving revolves around ‘Khadi’. Khadi is known to be woven by hand using handspun yarn.
Fine cotton fabrics are referred to as Muslin. Weaving of cotton is the heart and soul of Indian textiles. There are about 23 different varieties of cotton found in India and about 4 million handlooms producing the same fabric. Cotton is used in making a wide range of items like sari, bed sheets, covers, napkins, shirts, summer wear, tablemats and more.
It remains the most important natural fiber and because of that, it is treated in depth. There are many changing processes at the spinning and fabric- forming stages mixed with the finishing and coloration processes to the manufacturing of a wide range of products. In the year 2007, the global yield was 25 million tons from 53 million hectares cultivated in more than 50 countries. There are about 6 stages in the processing of cotton:
- Cultivating & Harvesting – which includes Ginning
- Preparatory Processes – which includes the preparation of yarn; ginning, bale-making & transportation; opening and cleaning; blending; carding; combing, and drawing the fibers
- Spinning – involves yarn manufacture, checking, folding and twisting; gassing
- Weaving/Knitting – involves winding, warping or beaming, sizing, drawing in, processing the weft
- Finishing – involves processing of textiles, desizing, scouring, bleaching, Mercerizing, Singeing, shrinking, dyeing and printing
Uses of Cotton
Textile mills of the US currently consume about 7.6 million bales of cotton annually. About 57% of it is converted into clothing, more than 1/3rd into home furnishings and the rest into industrial products. It is used in almost every type of clothing, from coats to jackets to foundation garments. Cotton supplies over 70% of the market, with jeans, shirts and intimates being major items.
It is the leading fiber used in towels and washcloths, supplying almost 100% of that market. Cotton fabric is popularly used in sheets and pillowcases, holding 60% of this market.
Industrial products consist of cotton in wall coverings, zipper tapes. The biggest users being in medical supplies, industrial thread and tarpaulins.
The Cotton Trade
The trade in cotton can be traced from the ancient times where travelers like Marco Polo and Vasco Da Gama praised the Indian Cotton in their pieces.
The production of cotton increased in the 16th – 18th century and cotton textile became the largest manufacturing in the Mughal Empire. Further in the 18th century India had a share of 25% of global textile trade where it was exported majorly to China and Japan.
Currently, Bangladesh has emerged as the biggest importer of Indian cotton. Last year it imported around 21 lakh bales of cotton from India overtaking China, which was the largest importer until now. China has imported around 17-18 lakh bales during any given season.
Both US and China are large investors in the textile business. US alone exports 25-28 lakh bales. Sourcing cotton from India is more cost effective and less expensive as compared to other countries.
Exploitation in the history of cotton from crop to fabric:
Under the colonial government Indian Cotton textile weavers and artisans along with the farmers through the agents of East India Company suffered major exploitation.
- Mainly because they were asked to sell the quality cotton fabrics and raw materials at a much cheaper rate than its actual market value.
- The conditions in which the weavers and artisans were expected to work under were inhuman. Apart from the above they had imposed heavy duties on the hand woven cotton fabrics in order to create a market for the machine made goods that they could sell.
- The skilled weavers were forced to buy cotton raw material at heavy prices ultimately making them unable to compete with the machine made cotton fabrics.
- The quality raw cotton was exported, leaving the Indian Hand Weavers with no other choice but to buy the lower quality raw materials.
With thousands of weavers, who were unemployed, the most effected ones were the weavers of Bengal. Due to the British rule and then industrialization many weavers were forced to leave their ancestral skills and turn into mere labourers to earn a livelihood.
Not only this, but the emergence of a textile industry in England contributed to wars against American Indian tribes in the South and encouraged the slave trade. American Indians were removed from their homeland because those fertile lands were needed in harvesting of the cotton crop to supply mills in Manchester and Liverpool.
A recent case of exploitation of cotton garment workers was reported from Bangladesh where even after the workers were continuously complaining about the infrastructure the managers ignored them leading to the collapse of the building that killed several garment workers, this serves as a tragic reminder of the millions in developing countries who work in pathetic conditions.
Further to this, the Western retailers have stopped taking any responsibility for improving working conditions in cloth factories in the developing countries because doing so would increase the cost of making cheap tees.
Companies like Walmart have only contributed modestly to provide funds for workers who died in fires and building collapses where their clothes are made. Their lame excuse is that they did not authorize production in those specific factories and should not have to pay for the choices and mistakes of their contractors and subcontractors.
From the IKF Desk
That is history of cotton. Cotton has been in our lives since time immemorial. And it’s safe to say it will be this way for years and years to come. Due to its organic properties, cotton is now known as a sustainable fiber, only if its production is done sustainably. As of late, cotton has its effect on the society in a lot of ways, good and bad.
But we need to measure our needs and wants so as to see how much cotton is to be consumed and produced by these factories and eventually into our lives. Do we really need this much cotton that it harms the ecosystem and the people involved in its production processes? What can we do to minimize these effects?