While I focus on cotton in America, it truly belongs to the world. Forty billion pounds a year grow on about seventy-seven million acres in more than eighty countries. In Ghana, on the West African coast, mourners wrap themselves in vibrant red kobene cotton cloth to express their close bonds to the deceased. In Ahmadabad, India, where Gandhi held his first fast in 1918 in support of textile workers, exquisitely subtle silk-screened cotton saris hang to dry high aboveground from hundreds of bamboo racks arranged like scaffolding; in Guatamala, women gather each morning and socialize in village circles as they weave and embroider magnificently ornate blouses called huipiles using cuyuscate, naturally colored cotton that grows in soft greens, browns, yellows, and chalk grays. An entire industry in Peru is devoted to the organic cultivation of coffee-latte-hued cotton.
Just about everyone on the planet wears at least one article of clothing made from cotton at some point during the day; inevitably, by-products of the plant show up as well in something that person is doing, whether eating ice cream, changing diapers, filtering coffee, chewing gum, handling paper money, polishing fingernails, or reading a book. The source of cotton’s power is its nearly terrifying versatility and the durable creature comforts it provides.
Cotton is family. We sweat in cotton. It breathes with us. We wrap our newborns in it. In fact, we pay cotton the highest compliment of all: we don’t go out of our way to be nice to it. Look in your closet. The rumpled things on the floor are most probably cotton—soiled shirts and khakis, dirty housework clothes and muddied socks that rise up in dank mounds ready to be baptized with detergent and reborn in the washer, fresh and clean as new snow. Linen, silk, wool—uptown fabrics to be sure, on display in the magnificent Bayeux Tapestry woven shortly after the Norman Conquest or in priceless Aubusson rugs, but not happy to be scrubbed with sudsy hot water and churned like butter in a dryer. Those fibrous divas demand attentive coddling while cotton, the sword carrier, needs only three squares a day and a pair of shoulders to drape itself over. Cotton is the fabric wool would be if it were light enough for summer and didn’t shrink to toddler-size in the dryer; it’s what silk would be if it gracefully absorbed sweat, and what linen might aspire to if it didn’t wrinkle on sight.
Contemporary man-made technical polyesters, all created from petroleum by-products, have come along in their second or third generation to trump cotton as the preferred fabric for strenuous outdoor activity and gym wear. Not a problem. Cotton manufacturers responded by wedding one of the world’s oldest fabrics to futuristic nanotechnology. It is there now to protect you and me from the red wine spilled on our stain-resistant nanocotton Dockers, and as the new century unfolds, the merger of textile and technology will soon be producing bulletproof clothing as light and airy as a Hawaiian shirt. Cotton leads the way.
The common thread in all this (wayward puns, by the way, are inevitable) is cotton’s extraordinary range of practical use. The 500,000 fibers in every cotton boll, or pod, that are spun and woven or knit into fabric for home furnishings, linens, industrial coverings, and apparel account for less than half of the plant’s output. The seeds inside each boll, which is about the size of a walnut, make up 65 percent of the yield from a harvest.
We consume pressed cottonseed oil directly in hundreds of supermarket products—Campbell’s soups, Pepperidge Farm cookies, potato chips, crackers, marinades, snacks, and salad dressing, to name but a few. Procter & Gamble created Ivory Soap from cottonseed in the nineteenth century after a man named William Fee invented a way to knock the kernels free from their hard hulls. That discovery led as well to hydrogenated shortening, or crystallized cottonseed oil better known as Crisco. In its normal state, cottonseed is poisonous to humans and all other nonruminant animals; it contains a toxic pigment, gossypol, that helps protect the plant against insects. However, chemical processing produces a protein-rich flour that is sufficiently low in free gossypol to render it suitable for human consumption. In Central America and West Africa it becomes a beverage fed to children to prevent malnutrition. Low doses of gossypol have also been used for centuries in China as a male contraceptive: it destroys the lining of tubules in the testicles where sperm are produced.
Charles Darwin could have learned everything he needed to know about evolutionary adaptation from a cotton plant. Like Proteus, the Greek god who changed his identity at will, this swamp- loving mallow, a shrub called gossypium, can be as tough as braided anchor rope at one moment or as fine as the fabled sheer muslin of ancient Bengal at another. When it is not helping to clothe us, it is likely to be slipping unnoticed into the things that we use to blow each other apart. Short fibers on the cotton seed, called linters, or, less formally, “fabulous fuzz,” supply the cellulose used in dynamite and other explosives, rocket propellants, shoes, handbags and luggage, book bindings, industrial abrasives, and also in plastics and fingernail polish; chemically treated and ground into pulp, linters show up in food casings for bologna, sausages, and hot dogs; they thicken ice cream and smooth makeup and find their way into lacquers, paint, and automotive parts. They are also processed into materials used in photographic and X-ray film, envelope windows, and recording and transparent tapes. The plant’s discarded leaves, fibers, and stalks, which cotton growers call trash, get cleaned and become mattress stuffing for human use and barn bedding for dairy cows, while cottonseed meal feeds livestock and dairy cattle. Recycled remnants from blue-jean factories make up 75 percent of the content of United States paper currency. There are three-fourths of a pound of cotton in each pound of dollar bills. Nothing from stem to stamen goes unused in a cotton plant.
For cotton, that range of accomplishment also extends beyond the pragmatic into realms of human activity where most other plants never get past the gate: music, literature, art, pop culture, and romance. Gone With the Wind is as much homage to the antebellum culture of cotton as to the glory that once was Atlanta. Elsewhere in the South, at another place and time, cotton’s culture also became a major contributor to the blues when slave field-hollers melded with church music and took a secular turn toward human heartbreak. Blacks fleeing the impoverished cotton fields and oppressive racism of the Mississippi Delta added a raw authentic voice to popular culture, bending their guitar strings to cry out their despair. In a lighter moment, cotton’s indomitable insect foe, the boll weevil, gave rise to a host of tunes that turned tragic devastation into street entertainment. “The Boll Weevil say to the Farmer, ‘You can ride in that Ford machine,’” Leadbelly sang, “‘but when I get through with your cotton, you can’t buy no gasoline. You won’t have no home, won’t have no home.’”
By the early years of the twentieth century, cotton had insinuated itself into regional common language as well. Born in the South, if you heard anyone say she was “fair to middlin’,” you knew things for her were better than just okay. While strict middling has long been the whitest, cleanest cotton that commands the best market price, colloquially “fair to middlin’” middle-grade cotton came into common use as an understated way to tell friends and neighbors the speaker was feeling on top of the world. The fiber easily embraced love-talk too. If you “cotton to” a fella, you’re stuck on him. You’re stuck because cotton seeds are sticky, which is why you say you cotton to him, because if you weren’t stuck on him ... well, you get the idea. And when you’re in high cotton, hon, you’ve got the world on a string!
There are unconscious references, too, that enrich our daily conversations, whether we are following the thread of an idea, weaving a plot, spinning outrageous yarns, or even knitting our brow over an unraveling relationship. It may be that we habitually borrow from the textile crafts that transform fluffy cotton hairs into fabric simply because they mimic the way our minds work—one thought linking to another to form a complete image or idea, much the way individual warp and woof yarns intertwine to create whole cloth. One way or another, it sometimes seems, cotton is always with us.
Like T.S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock, “deferential, glad to be of use/Politic, cautious, and meticulous,” the fiber appears to have made its way in the world by combining protean service with humility, abetted by an outsized need to please. As many have learned the hard way, that can be a lethally deceptive disguise. No legal plant on earth has killed more people by virtue of the acrimony and avarice it provoked. No other plant ignited a civil war that sent more American men to their deaths than all other wars combined. Cotton’s manufacture into cloth sentenced hundreds of thousands of young orphaned English children to labor imprisonment in the squalid, filthy cotton textile factories of nineteenth-century Manchester, England. Across the sea in the fields of the American South, it enslaved generations of uprooted Africans who were robbed of their freedom and brutalized as a matter of course.
Later, in the twentieth century, cotton crops became one of the world’s most persistent and heaviest users of toxic pesticides, creating lethal environmental and health hazards that continue to plague many countries. Cotton has been responsible, too, for an ecological disaster of epic proportions in Central Asia, where rivers feeding the Aral Sea, one of the world’s largest inland lakes, were diverted to provide crop irrigation and in the process brought human misery and the massive destruction of flora and fauna to a vast populated area.
At the other extreme, cotton manufacture stimulated innovations and inventions that transformed creaky, rural late-eighteenth-century England into the world’s greatest industrial power before leaping the Atlantic to spur a struggling new democracy into becoming an equal among giants. Until cotton changed our country’s fate, we were a pesky upstart crow with grand notions and empty pockets. After Eli Whitney invented a gin to separate green cotton’s sticky seeds from its valuable hairs, or fibers, oceans of fluff erupted all over the South, and suddenly our fledgling nation owned a crucial piece of the action in international trade. As the South began to supply raw material to England’s booming textile mills as well as to our own, a superpower was born. Although a colonial rebellion and a constitution gave birth to the United States, cotton added the economic muscle that any country or individual needs to achieve true independence. It was a revolutionary act all its own.
The history of cotton is filled with similar tectonic disruptions of the status quo that the fabric and fiber either instigated, accelerated, or at the very least encouraged. More revolutions are imminent as we continue to plant and export cotton seeds that carry gene-altered biotechnology to India, Brazil, and numerous other countries. Cotton is leading the way for changes (and controversies) that will redefine and dominate agriculture in the coming decades.
When we export genetically modified seeds to countries where controls over its use are difficult or impossible to enforce—most of the countries on the planet, that is—we run a serious risk of inviting ecological disaster. Third World nations like Mali and its neighbors are seizing upon American cotton and the lavish subsidies our government awards to its growers as evidence that we are as selfish and callous as our enemies maintain. Rancor over the dumping of subsidized American cotton on the world market at artificially low prices brought the 2003 World Trade Organization summit in Cancun to a screeching halt. As such pressures mount, major changes may be imminent in our trade relations as well. Yet the rewards, financial and human, for many may be worth the gamble.
Cotton always seems to force the issue, whatever the issue may be. That can be bad for nations and individuals caught up in a tangle of opposing motives and goals, but to a writer like myself it’s also the stuff of compelling conflict, and it accounts for much of what drew me to the subject. I was also drawn to the extraordinary feats of imagination and ingenuity required to convert a fluffy mass of nothingness into something of substance. Looking at an opened boll of flimsy lint, the last thing you can envision is the tightly woven gold-encrusted flowing robe presented to Cortez by a Yucatan chief in 1519, or the magnificent pre-Andean textiles of Peru—or for that matter even a pair of sweat socks. Stepping across a stream in Lancashire, you would hardly guess that more than two hundred years ago a man named Richard Arkwright was able to harness its hydraulic power to drive intricate mechanical spinning machines that had never before existed and, by doing so, create the Industrial Revolution.
Whether you find the story of cotton to be a tribute to man’s remarkable ability to achieve or a cautionary tale, you’ll likely come away as I did with a profound respect for the power of the plant. “You dare not make war upon cotton!” South Carolina senator James H. Hammond thundered on the floor of the U.S. Senate in 1858. “No power on earth dares make war upon it. Cotton is king!” I discovered the truth to be a little more insidious. Kings are mere mortals; they die and the world keeps turning. This plant, by contrast, has eternally rewarded and punished with the haughty abandon of a capricious god. It has also stirred up more mischief than any penny-ante royal no matter how venal, and yet it remains so casually seductive in its look and feel that we are willing to forgive its sins even as we continue to pay for them. Some of us have a lot to learn from cotton.
Spun in All Directions
The trees from which the Indians make their clothes have leaves like those of a black mulberry....They bear no fruit, indeed, but the pod containing the wool resembles a spring apple.
—Theophrastus (372–287 b.c.)
They ... brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks’ bells. They willingly traded everything they owned ...,” the sea captain wrote with wonderment in his logbook about the natives he had encountered. Soon after that, the same fiber caught his eye again: “Here we saw cotton cloth, and perceived the people more decent, the women wearing a slight covering of cotton over the nudities.” While Christopher Columbus appreciated modesty and proved to be a keen observer of local customs, his interest in the cotton apparel and yarn he discovered among the Arawak Indians he met in the Bahamas in 1492 went far beyond cultural anthropology. Although he was the son of a skilled Italian weaver, Columbus was also a man in debt. Having persuaded King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella to finance his quest for the spices and gold of the Orient, he felt pressured to return with the bounty he promised in order to justify the crown’s investment. Then, too, Columbus had a personal stake in the venture—10 percent of the profits, governorship over the newfound lands, and the adulation that would go with his new self-promotional Admiral of the Ocean Sea.
The Spaniards of his day knew cotton. Arab and Moorish traders had introduced the cloth to Spain from North Africa in the eighth century. Grenada, Cordova, and Seville were its celebrated weaving centers and it was now being grown in southern areas of the country. Fustian, a blend of cotton and wool or linen, had long been a popular medieval dress fabric; “fustañeros,” the weavers of Spanish fustian, organized themselves into a guild in the thirteenth century. Streets where they carried on their trade still bear their names.
Those first Muslim traders, it was widely known, often caravanned their cotton all the way from India and the West Indies. Over the centuries, travelers had confirmed its cultivation and conversion to fabric in Asia and in the Middle East (known as the Levant) as well, but it was the Asian connection that Columbus seized on to bolster his claim that he had in fact reached his fabled lands of riches: gold and cotton—where there was one, there was sure to be the other. Marco Polo’s journals from the thirteenth century spoke of lavish displays of the precious metal in China and to the south. Blankets and shawls and ornamental jewelry reaching Europe via the Silk Road confirmed the presence of rare, exquisite treasures, but how to obtain them? By the end of the fifteenth century, the Turks had overrun Constantinople and eliminated the possibility of safe overland passage. That motivated Spain and Portugal to attempt to establish alternate sea routes—westward in Spain’s case and southward in Portugal’s, around the Cape of Good Hope. Columbus set sail to reach the opposite side of a planet he estimated to be roughly 5,000 miles in circumference at its widest point.
His extensive logbooks reveal a man willing to realign his geography to dovetail with his aspirations. For example, a few of the Taino Arawaks he and his crew came across in what is now known as the Bahamas wore small golden ornamental earrings and dressed in cotton (if they wore clothing of any sort; only married women wore a cotton-and-palm-fiber apron over their genitals, its length determined by their rank). Columbus interpreted both the apparel and decorations to mean that the Bahamas lay off the coast of fabulously bountiful India. Never mind that these Indians, as Columbus incorrectly named them, often wore vivid white and black facial markings and bore no resemblance to the clear-skinned “easterners” described by Marco Polo two centuries earlier. By the time he launched his fourth and last expedition a decade later, Columbus had ransacked Hispaniola and Cuba in a fruitless search for gold, had enslaved thousands of natives to mine for it, had spread European diseases that would soon kill millions, and had come up empty.
Setting south from Cuba on his final voyage, still looking for “a strait across the mainland that would open a way to the South Sea and the Lands of Spices,” Columbus discovered approximately 12,000 pounds of cotton in a single Cuban house, as well as spindles and looms. Soon after, he came across the Maya off the coast of Honduras. Dressed in dyed shirts and breechclouts, which typically displayed wide, bright aquamarine borders and patterns of olive pigment that looped over fields of russet and mocha brown, they approached his ship in a huge canoe propelled by twenty-five paddlers laden with trade goods. To Columbus, a part-time weaver himself, these garments represented “the costliest and handsomest ... cotton mantles and sleeveless shirts embroidered and painted in different designs and colors.”
There are a dozen or more references to the fiber in Columbus’s journals; cotton plays a secondary but persistent role in supporting his argument that he had reached the perimeter of his chosen destination. Ironically, he might also have used cotton to prove that he’d reached the New World if he knew of its existence, for by the late fifteenth century, cotton had long become a citizen of both the Eastern and Western Hemispheres: for thousands of years it had been cultivated in South and Central America as well as in Asia and regions of Africa as a domesticated plant whose spun fabric was much valued for its lightness and versatility.
Columbus, who looked at exquisite Mayan textiles and saw the beauty of Indian handicrafts, can be excused for losing his bearings. He might have sailed the ocean seas with total authority, but once on land cotton took him for a wicked ride.
Imagine a child with a pen arbitrarily scribbling lines over a rotating global map. That more or less mimics cotton’s transoceanic voyages over the more than seven million years since the first wild plants sprang to life in widespread tropical and subtropical regions of our planet. If those locales sound suspiciously vague, so be it; geneticists remain uncertain about the exact origins of Old World cottons and only a little less fuzzy about the precise location of the first wild New World varieties.
From that unpromising start, things quickly come into sharper focus. Botanists have established that wild cotton seeds, protected by their tough leathery pods, or bolls, traveled the high seas for millennia and took root many thousands of miles from “home.” In an informal sort of botanical exchange program subject to the whims of nature, strains that grew in the New World eventually sailed on ocean currents back to Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, while Old World cotton genes made their way to Peru and Chile; once established, they produced varieties that continued to disperse in all directions. After a few million years four distinct species emerged whose lint—the hairs attached to the seeds—could be spun into fabric. These four, two each in the Eastern and Western Hemispheres, were first domesticated in about 3500 b.c. in Africa, western South America, India, and Mexico. None of the fifty or so remaining varieties of cotton that continue to grow up to twenty feet high in the wild bear anything approaching spinnable lint.
All domesticated species of cotton belong to one family of swamp mallow, Gossypium malavaceae. They grew originally as perennials, but through a process of human selection they developed what botanists refer to as an “annual habit”—flowering and fruiting within a single growing season. That represented a significant evolutionary step both for Gossypium and even a greater advance for homo sapiens, who discovered we could manipulate plant cycles to create cultivars (cultivated varieties) that accommodated our needs. One of the two Old World cottons, G. arboreum, is native to the Indus Valley in present-day Pakistan.
Its cultivars spread to Nubia and Nigeria in Africa. The other, G. herbaceum, comes from sub- Saharan Africa and was probably first domesticated in Ethiopia or southern Arabia before spreading to Persia, Turkey, Afghanistan, Spain, and as far east as China. Contrary to popular belief, Egypt was not cotton’s birthplace.
In the New World, South American cotton, or G. barbadense, originated along the Pacific Coast in Chile and Peru. Botanists believe the fourth domesticated species, G. hirsutum, first grew wild in Central America and Mexico. Within each species there are numerous varieties, all with the same general characteristics.
Whatever their differences in length and appearance, these four contributed to one of mankind’s signal achievements. At approximately the same time in human history, 5,500 years ago, civilizations living as many as 10,000 miles apart and totally isolated from one another domesticated the plant and converted it into fabric. Each invented nearly identical tools—combs, bows, hand spindles, and primitive looms—to clean the fiber, then spin and weave it. That remarkable parallel discovery seems to confirm that inspired insights leap past all geographical boundaries to become the common property of mankind.
Fabricating the New World
Staple length in this mallow is everything. The difference between inch-long medium-length G. hirsutum fibers and those of G. barbadense, which reach two inches, is the difference between perfectly drinkable table wine and a celestial Chateau Lafite-Rothschild. By that standard, the Old World’s short-staple cottons represent jug brands—inferior by any measure. Once their bolls open, spiraling cotton fibers twist back and forth, interlink, and cling to one another, which greatly facilitates the spinning process. But short fibers—under an inch in length—easily break apart; they also hold less moisture and tend to be more brittle, producing coarser fabric.
The Mayans and the Bahamian Arawaks that Columbus encountered were growing and spinning the two New World cotton species. Unlike their weaker Old World cousins, hirsutum and the elegant barbadense are botanical warriors and belong to a special type of hybrid called a tetraploid, meaning simply that all of the genetic structures of both parents are carried within the offspring—an unusual occurrence (most often only some of each genome shows up). As a result of their industrial-strength DNA, these tetraploids prove to be especially tough, successful, vigorous plants. They produce the hundreds of thousands of airy yet sturdy tubular cellulose fibers that lend themselves to textiles strong enough to withstand the abuses of human wear and tear.
Barbadense, which made its way to the West Indies from South America, was initially cultivated in five shades of brown as well as in yellow, russet, and lilac hues. We think of cotton as white, but that was largely a commercial decision that came about after Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin in 1793. White cotton—actually a pale gray in the pod—could more easily be manipulated for consistency during the bleaching process. To pre-Inca Andean civilizations, natural cotton was vibrantly multicolored, as the pigmented cotton fabrics found at an excavation at Huaca Prieta on the northern Peruvian coast reveal. Chocolate-brown cotton fragments at that pre-Columbian archaeological site date back to 3100 b.c. Peruvian fishermen preferred dark colors in order to camouflage their fishing nets and make them less detectable to fish, a practice that continues to this day.
In succeeding Andean cultures textiles were the medium for artistic expression and for relaying symbolic information about social organization, religious practices, even philosophy—much as painting, sculpture, and architecture represent the highest aesthetic achievements of Europeans. Extremely difficult to master, the primitive hand-spinning and weaving processes that created fabric were almost always the exclusive domain of women in ancient cultures, since they could be performed in a domestic setting. That allowed women to breast-feed and raise children while contributing to the community. Their ornately dyed and intricately woven textiles often incorporated geometric designs, human and animal figures, inverted motifs, and mirrored images. Barbadense also followed these ancients into the afterlife. Elaborate cotton and related textiles often more valued than gold accompanied the dead into the grave. Unlike most ancient cotton fabrics, which have disintegrated and been robbed of their color over time in the moist climates where cotton grows, many of the Andean cottons buried with mummies have survived. The graves were dug in extremely dry sandy terrain between the mountain range and the Pacific. They tell us, if we need to be reminded, that although we may have made enormous technological strides over the past few thousand years, mechanical and digital devices have yet to capture the sophisticated, nuanced artistry of these weavers. Burial sites for the wealthiest and most revered members of the community contain long-staple cotton woven into richly embroidered mantles, tunics accented with fine lace, and vibrantly patterned shirts with border bands of bright, deep, lustrous color. Trees, plants, and insects provide the source for the vivid red, yellow, and black dyes. Resist-dyeing applied color only to selected areas, much like the batik process.
Over the centuries that followed, a dozen different societies flourished in the Andes before the arrival of the Incas in 1450. Among them were the Chancay, who blended the wool from the alpaca and llama camelids with cotton to create a heavier, sturdier cloth similar to medieval fustian. Today, Peru’s barbadense, now highly valued as long-staple pima, continues to produce supremely strong, silky apparel and linens. Introduced to the Middle East in the early nineteenth century by the enterprising founder of modern Egypt, barbadense also became the progenitor for a hybrid we now know as highly prized Egyptian cotton. Although the variety is commonly assumed to have originated in that country, it actually came from South America and has far more Peruvian genes in it than any other.
By the time Columbus arrived in the late fifteenth century, there was also a profusion of the second New World species, G. hirsutum, better known as upland cotton, which was proba- bly first domesticated in the coastal region of the Yucatán Peninsula. Fragments of upland dating back at least 5,000 years were found in a cave in the Mexico’s Tehuacan Valley. Spanish explorers in the 1500s discovered hirsutum being grown and manufactured into textiles by the great Maya and Aztec civilizations. Cultivated in the Mexican and Central American lowlands, it became a highly prized commodity in the form of mantas, strips of exquisitely colored and designed cloth direct from the loom. Montezuma, the last and greatest Aztec emperor, demanded cotton mantas as tribute from his subjects. Sticky green-seeded upland would become the one that blanketed the American South and precipitated the Civil War. Today it accounts for about 95 percent of all the cotton grown and used around the world. The Maya grew it along with its longer-staple kin. Then, as now, medium-staple upland was the workhorse fiber for hammocks, clothing, wound dressings—any and all uses; its plants, which could be cultivated with less effort than long-staple varieties, also produced larger yields per acre.
No matter what the species or variety of cotton—and there are as many as forty varieties of hirsutum—the trick was to devise and improve the processes required to make whole cloth out of its wispy hairs. Trying to manipulate cotton fiber by hand was a little like trying to grasp air currents.
The first step involved the use of a spindle and distaff, and it was hard work, start to finish, especially when compared to spinning the much more manageable wool and the thicker, longer flax stalks that produce linen. Tangled lint, once extracted from its bolls, had to be cleaned to remove vegetative debris, then combed, then organized into cords that could be elongated and twisted into strands of fine thread. The spindle, a round stick of wood about a foot long, was tapered at one end, its upper half ringed with stone or clay or even a potato to provide weight, balance, and momentum as it rotated to collect yarn. A notch or slit at the top funneled the strands around the spindle as it turned. The distaff, a thicker stick, supported a loose ball of the rough, cleaned cotton rope to be spun down. The spinner anchored her distaff and drew out the fiber, pulling it continuously with her left hand while winding it taut by quickly rolling the retrieving spindle against her leg with her right hand. She had to precisely coordinate her complex movements to produce an even thread. The raw fiber strands continually snapped, requiring her to stop and twist them end to end. Hours turned into days. In these cultures, spinning and weaving came to embody infinite patience and meditative concentration.
The spindle has no moving parts, the hand loom only a few; yet for all their simplicity, they are both ingenious inventions—so efficient and appropriate to the task that thousands of years later their governing principles still drive the world’s textile machinery.
The first loom was probably a tree limb hanging parallel to the ground, to which vertical warp thread was attached and then anchored to the ground below by a log or similar object. That allowed horizontal weft to be interlaced through the warp and pushed tight against the previous row to form rough cloth. A sturdy frame soon replaced the branch. The next improvement was a back-strap loom that looped over the torso of the weaver, allowing her to control the tension of the spun thread by attaching one end of her loom to a fixed object and pulling away from it as she interlaced horizontal fill. Over time, inventions like the spinning jenny and power loom would minimize repetitive hand labor in industrial societies. Until the processes became fully mechanized in the late eighteenth century, they put a premium on patience and forbearance.
While the two species domesticated in the New World would prove superior to India’s cotton for mass producing textiles, they would not cross the Atlantic to Europe for several centuries to come. The first cotton cloth to make any impact in central and northern European countries arrived from Asia—and primarily from Calicut on India’s Malabar coast, more than a thousand miles from its northwest India origins.
Archaeologists, academic gumshoes by nature, like nothing better than to unearth a tiny fragment of smelly mildewed cloth that the rest of us would not touch with a pole and proceed to deduce the habits and apparel of an entire civilization from it—with any luck, religious and mating rituals included. When excavations in 1920 along the banks of the Indus River at Mohenjo Daro, in what is now Pakistan, revealed a few shreds of dyed woven cotton stuck to a silver vase, theories about the ancient, highly advanced peoples who inhabited that area suddenly expanded to include a new realm of exploration: textiles. Able to identify the fabric and its dye, madder, the archaeologists soon realized they had discovered evidence in the far northwest corner of ancient India that Old World cotton was being harvested, woven, and dyed centuries earlier than previously determined. Experts dated the Indus remnant back at least to 2300 b.c. and probably many centuries earlier, and attributed its survival to the preserving effect of the silver salts in the vase. (Cotton is nothing if not perishable over the eons in hot, humid terrains.) Gold jewelry strewn nearby suggested that the owner had wrapped those valuables in a larger cotton cloth, perhaps hiding them as invaders approached the ancient city of Harappa. The Harappans—a name given to the Indus Valley civilization that flourished for thousands of years before mysteriously disappearing—were the first Old World cultivators of cotton; they domesticated and converted it at about the same time as the Peruvians, give or take a few hundred years.
One bust found at the site depicted a dyed shawl draped around the shoulders of a king or priest. Its pattern of intersecting discs that symbolized the unity of earth, water, and the sun proved to be the same one found on the couch in King Tutankhamen’s tomb thousands of miles to the west in Egypt. Although additional clues were scant, archaeologists also linked the fabric to illustrated Harappan clay seals and cloth fragments found in Mesopotamia—now Iraq. Cotton textiles, they discovered, were a major Indus Valley export, as were ivory, copper, and gold, all carefully measured and weighed using a complex binary and decimal system.
The Harappans were at that same time domesticating sheep and cattle, ingeniously irrigating fields, and building two-story houses with sophisticated indoor plumbing. Sitting on a former floodplain whose alluvial soil was ideal for growing peas, sesame, barley, and cotton, the site was also vulnerable to the raging waters of the Indus River and its tributaries. Six times over the millennia, at least, Harappa and nearby villages were flooded and rebuilt. Although the inhabitants constructed dams, in the end the destructive and powerful forces of nature prevailed. When prosperity and calamity are never more than a heartbeat away, you know you’re in cotton country.
By about 1800 b.c., after three thousand years in the area, the Harappans’ economy withered and their carefully engineered villages fell into disarray. By then the continuous cultivation of cotton and food crops over many centuries may have depleted their soil. Marauding Aryans, sweeping down into northwest India from Iran, burned Mohenjo Daro to the ground and apparently subjugated its citizens. Guesswork is all that remains; there are no firsthand accounts from that period.
The Journey West
By the time Alexander the Great’s armies swept through Pakistan in 325 b.c., domesticated cotton—these “nuts that produce wool,” in one of his soldier’s words—was so well established that the fabric provided the common dhoti or loincloths for men as well as “long shirts worn down to the knee,” which were, in a modified state, also worn by women. Alexander’s troops padded their saddles with this “vegetable wool” (their term for it), and traversed 6,000 miles of scorching desert and frozen tundra to show off their discovery in ancient Macedonia and Greece. By then, Indian weaving guilds had formed; they levied taxes, advanced loans, and fined delinquent members.
The earliest religious reference to weaving occurs in the Rig Veda hymns in 1500 b.c. Textile creation embodies the Hindu belief in a well-ordered universe, imagined as one continuous fabric. Its warp and weft pattern serves as a kind of cosmic backdrop to the dreams, illusions, and hopes we sketch on it like children drawing figures in sand. The Atharva Veda, in one of its passages, characterizes day and night as two sisters weaving, with the warp and the horizontal weft, or fill, symbolizing darkness and light.
Spinning and weaving also represent two essential elements of Hindu meditative practice. Repetitive behavior and single-focus concentration, both required in these handcrafts, have traditionally been valued by Hindus as paths to freeing the mind; they invite an inner tranquility that contrasts with the scattered, cluttered actions of daily life. Making fabric is said to evoke the individual’s spiritual nature, helping to maintain a personal daily connection with the Divine. Because Hinduism also requires regular pilgrimages in quest of spiritual perfection and encourages interaction between isolated peoples, cotton seeds almost certainly went along by design or accident on some of these treks to southern India, where it took root and flourished. By the time of Alexander’s arrival, India was trading cotton cloth for spices and other commodities in China and Indonesia. Later, cotton trade spread to Persia, Egypt, and the Levant on its lengthy journey to Europe.
Greeks and Romans considered the fabric to be a luxury import, “an exotic cloth that had been woven by Indian craftsman for more than 1000 years,” said Herodotus, who paused to admire the cotton uniforms of Xerxes’ soldiers in his history of the Greek War in Persia (490–480 b.c.). Writing about eighty years after that war, the historian also beguiled his readers with tales of “wool-bearing trees with fruits of downy fleece” from the East, and more poetically created an image of a cotton cloth so delicate it resembled “webs of woven wind.”
He was speaking to a people well versed in Greek mythology, in the mythology of fabric, and in its relationship to the cycles of life. Clotho, the youngest of the three Fates but one of the oldest goddesses in Greek mythology, spins the thread of human existence with her distaff; its length in the form of a string determines the life span of an individual. In another myth, Arachne, a poor, simple Greek country girl with a gift for spinning and weaving, challenges the goddess Athena to a tapestry-weaving contest. Big mistake. In this cautionary tale about hubris, her punishment for winning is to hang forever in the air, spinning her own webs—that is, to become the world’s first arachnid, or spider.
Although cotton would appear to be the fabric most suited to a hot Mediterranean climate, linen from flax plants, hemp, and wool were the common raw materials used to create cloth in those cultures, probably because their fibers were much easier to work with than cotton’s fine, short strands. Silk was rare and costly. The ancient Egyptians, including their priests, primarily wore linen, a symbol to them of “divine light and purity.” More than 300 yards of linen cloth have been found wrapped around mummies to help preserve them. Priests wore cotton on special occasions. As for Rome, “there was no year in which India did not drain the Roman Empire of a hundred million sesterces,” historian Pliny the Elder complained. He admired those “trees that bear wool” in North Africa but wasn’t at all pleased with the high cost of imported cotton. Some of that fabric went to supply uniforms for Caesar’s soldiers. The Romans called this prized cloth carbasina, after the Sanskrit karpasi.
Sixth-century Buddhist murals in the ancient caves at Ajanta depict women spinning and weaving by hand, much as they still do today. When the ruling Brahmin class no longer permitted Hindus to travel “across the black waters,” to safeguard against contamination by foreign religions, Arabs saw a commercial opportunity; by the seventh century their caravans controlled the Euro-Asian overland trading routes that delivered small quantities of cotton to Venice, Europe’s primary center for Asian imports.
Muslim Arab traders weren’t comfortable assigning a Hindu name to this cloth. Instead they borrowed a word from their own language, “qutun,” or “kutun,” used to describe fine textiles. Centuries passed; cotton as a cloth was all but ignored in France, Germany, England, and the rest of northern Europe. As the subject of a widely popular fable, on the other hand, it was eagerly devoured and passed down with reverence in these countries from one generation to the next.
Fleecing the Gullible
In the Middle Ages, when a trip across the moor was the equivalent of an expedition to a remote corner of the earth, myths about strange happenings in exotic locales held listeners in thrall. One of the most exciting concerned the cotton plant, so shrouded in mystery that some chroniclers of astonishing tales made their careers embellishing accounts of its curious origins. The English knight Sir John Mandeville was no exception. In 1322 he set out to roam the known world. Returning thirty-four years later, he wrote about his adventures in a famous book, Voyage and Travels, much more popular in its time than Marco Polo’s journal. Mandeville reported on a remarkable animal-plant he had come upon called the Vegetable Lamb.
Its cloth, Mandeville maintained, was harvested from the wool of rare and exotic baby sheep in far-off Scythia, east of Istanbul. There, he revealed, lambs grew on shrubs, each one nestled in its own downy pod. Those tender fluffy lambs could bend their necks and munch the grass below them, but when all their meadow grass was consumed, those poor little lambs gently expired and fell to earth, and the lint they left behind was gathered up and spun into a light comfortable fabric. Mandeville anglicized the Arabic lamb-fluff “kutun” to “cotton.” The existence of such a miraculous, living, breathing plant proved to him that “God is marveyllous in his Werkes.” In time, philosophers, poets, and explorers would all contribute their eyewitness observations of this miraculous being and expand upon Mandeville’s seductive tale to provide detailed illustrations and descriptions of a plant with a palpitating heart, dewy fur, and pursed lips. Mandeville would later be roundly discredited for inventing journeys he never took to places he’d never been, passing them off as factually accurate—but no matter; he’d created an image so powerful it survived for centuries. “The Borametz of Scythia,” from the Russian word for lamb, became an eagerly read chapter in Claude Duret’s Story of Admirable Plants in 1605. “The hunters who were in search of this creature,” Duret informed his rapt reader, “were unable to capture or remove it until they had succeeded in cutting the stem by well-aimed arrows or darts, when the animal immediately fell prostrate to the earth and died.” By the time a Victorian biologist, Henry Lee, added to the general confusion in 1887 in The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary, cotton had long since made its way into the fabric and clothing shops of Europe. Yet even at that late date Lee’s book rekindled interest in the fable, which he wisely set in a remote area near Samarkand, where few were likely to trek to verify his account.
As for the nonanimal plant itself, a curious thing happened about halfway chronologically between Mandeville and Lee: cotton took a star turn as a high-fashion item—Indian chintz—and became a subject of fierce desire among the haute monde of Great Britain before beguiling France (something like a character actress waking up one morning to discover she’s Marilyn Monroe). The journey of cotton from utilitarian cloth to celebrity fabric in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe would change the world, stitch by stitch. Imported cotton would become a major factor in Great Britain’s decision to invade India and claim that country’s natural resources as its own, and lead to a series of events that would forever alter the destiny of the United States.