The History of Cotton

  • Richard Robinson
  • 12th July 2018

Origins

The exact origins of the beginning of cotton cultivation is uncertain, but it is generally understood that numerous unconnected civilisations had their own implementations at the same time. Recent archaeology in Peru shows that cotton was used as far back as 5000bc, with other references in Greek, Indian and Arab texts also showing a history of use spanning millennia.

A Cotton crop ready for picking

Uses

Most cotton is used for garment production, spun in a variety of ways. Weaving, knitting and blending are the most common processes, each producing a different finish making them suitable for all kinds of garments. Other uses include but are not limited to, home furnishings, towels, fishnets, bedsheets and book bindings. 

rolls of fabric

Pre-Mechanisation

Before the introduction of large scale industry, cotton was processed using handheld gins and weaved on spinning wheels. Cotton gins are used to separate the crop from the seeds and stems, which can then be reused to plant more crops. Early spinning wheels were first used in India between 500 and 1000ce and were the dominant method of production up until the 19th century. One of the oldest types of wheel is the Charkha and works by driving a large wheel by hand whilst the yarn is spun off the spindle. Other contraptions include the great wheel, which works similarly to the Charkha and the Treadle Wheel, which is powered by the spinners foot. The introduction of the spinning wheel increased the production rate by a factor of 10 compared to weaving by hand.

an early photo of an irish cotton spinner

The Industrial Revolution - The Rise and Fall of a British Industry

The industrial revolution saw a huge growth in the textile industry, particularly in the United Kingdom. Between 1770 and 1870, the industry’s worth grew from roughly £600,000 to £38.8 million. There are several reasons why the industry saw such a meteoric rise over the course of a century. Cotton was first introduced to the UK in the 16th century and changed the way people dressed over time. This increased the demand for cotton garments. In 1774 a heavy tax on British made cloth was repealed, making it’s manufacture much more cost effective. Factories were established all over the north of England and many towns were built around the industry to house the factory workers.

The industrial revolution coincided with the invention and development of many new ways to machine cotton. The Flying Shuttle, invented by John Kay in 1733 enabled faster weaving and the Spinning Jenny, created by James Hargreaves in 1765 increased the number of threads that could be spun at once.  Workers in the factories were subject to poor working conditions and child labour was used until regulation later put a stop to the practice. Children as young as 7 were pooled from poverty and worked as much as 15 hours a day with extremely low pay. The Health and Morals Act of 1802 limited the working hours to 12, and the number of children per bed to 2. Chest and lung issues were common in factories due to dust particles, and the purposely humid conditions made the air thick. The noise of the early machines caused deafness in nearly all the workers.

glasgow chemical factory

Modern Cotton Farming & Manufacturing

Cotton is grown throughout summer in locations with low humidity and lots of sunshine. The crops are planted between September and November and harvesting is between March and June. Cotton is grown is many countries including India, China, USA, Brazil, Pakistan Uzbekistan and Turkey with the crop quality and yield varying greatly depending on the location and the humidity levels. There are many processes involved turning a raw crop into a material ready for manufacture. First the cotton is ginned, (removing all the seeds) and made into bales ready for transport. Then the cotton is cleaned to remove impurities and the fibres are lined up ready for spinning. The fibres are then straightened and sometimes combed before being spun into a strong fibre that is wound onto a bobbin. Cotton is then weaved using a loom in a cross pattern. Weaves vary greatly depending on the end usage, and further finishing processes may be applied to the weaved cotton is necessary.  

modern knitting machine