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A Brief History of Cotton: How Much Do You Know About the World’s Most Popular Fabric?

"Gandhi would spin his own yarn and weave his own cloth, a practice that was quickly deemed illegal."

Mohondas Karamchand Gandhi india cotton archives

Gandhi at his spinning wheel / Image: Getty

Gossypium hirsutum is the Latin name for the Upland Cotton Plant.

After it was discovered growing in a multitude of places all over the world, cotton has been at the center of wars and political movements several times in the past 150 years, large and small scale. It is nearly impossible to calculate the toll that it has taken on human lives and the environment since 1800. 

The "Free Produce Movement," created in 1827 by the Quakers, is an interesting example of a growing awareness of ethical consciousness regarding the production of cotton: it had actually made a case for an all-encompassing boycott of slave-produced cotton. In lieu of this, dry goods stores along the Eastern seaboard of North America sold cotton that had been grown in North Carolina, without the stain of slave labor attached to it. This is an early example of principals taking precedence in the dialogue of cotton and ethics. 

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Cotton harvesting in the Southern US, mid 19th century / Image: Getty

The legacy of cotton development in India lasts to this day. Because of the great demand for cotton during and after the American Civil War as well as the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain, the growth of cotton production and exportation in India grew by 700%. As of 2009, India was second in both overall production and exports of cotton.

The influences of cotton in India are not just agricultural, however; the mercantile nature of the British Empire meant that all cotton produced in India was to be sent to Great Britain, the cloth being sold back to the Indians by British mills. In fact, in protest of this policy, Mahatma Gandhi would spin his own yarn and weave his own cloth, a practice that was quickly deemed illegal.

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Indian cotton cleaners / Image: Getty

The continuous controversies surrounding cotton throughout history and across continents and cultures to this day draw many connections to fashion and our industry today. Whether the example is the American Civil War, the Industrial Revolution, or even the Indian Revolution, it is not a reach to surmise that cotton production has always held deep roots with regard to ethics: it could create enormous fortunes, but in tandem with this, great suffering was also experienced.

I am including an interview with Dr. James Vreeland, who rediscovered color-grown cotton growing in Peru in the 1970s. He continues to educate the world as to the many aspects of this noble fiber, and some of his knowledge can be found below:

John Patrick: How old is cotton exactly?

James Vreeland: At least 5,000 years old, and getting older with new finds.

JP: Where was cotton first discovered?

JV: Peru.

JP: What is the rarest cotton in the world?

JV: Mauve-colored cotton.

JP: How many varieties of cotton exist?

JV: Four species, hundreds of varieties.

JP: When you "discovered" color-grown cotton, what did you think?

JV: Tremendous future for the past.

JP: In your opinion, who "owns" the cotton seed and plants?

JV: Those that grow them.

JP: Have you ever met a cotton seed thief?

JV: No, but they exist. The USDA stole Egyptian cotton seeds a hundred years or so ago.

JP: Will genetically-modified cotton take over the world?

JV: No.

JP: What is the future of cotton?

JV: Brilliant.