Extracted from the cotton plants of the genus Gossypium, cotton is a seed-hair fibre used to make fabric. Most easily grown in temperate climates, it has been domesticated and raised commercially all over the world. Cotton fabric is commonly available, versatile, durable and typically inexpensive. As a result, cotton features prominently in the histories of agriculture, fashion, industrialisation and trade around the world.
Cotton fibres can be long, medium or short depending on the species and variety of the plant. Longer staple lengths are highly prized and used for fine clothing, while the shorter fibres are used in carpets or blankets. Cotton bolls (clumps of fibre that grow around cotton seeds) are harvested from the plant, cleaned, de-seeded and spun into yarn. The yarn is then used for weaving fabric, or bonded to cotton fibres to make disposable items such as cloth bags and face masks. Cotton fabric is also highly absorbent after being partially processed, as a result of which it can accommodate a range of dyes. The processing of cotton was first fully mechanised in the late eighteenth century using machines such as the cotton gin and Jacquard loom, but paintings at the Ajanta caves show that simple manual tools such as single rollers had been in use in India since the fifth century.
Evidence shows that cotton cultivation began independently in different parts of the world at different times. In the Americas, stores of cotton bolls found in present-day Chile, Mexico and Peru have been dated to around 3600, 3500 and 2500 BCE, respectively. Textile remains dating to the first millennium BCE suggest that besides clothing, cotton was also used for making fishing nets and rope across South and Central America. The earliest evidence of cotton cultivation in the world is a fragment of thread found in Mehrgarh (in present-day Balochistan) dating back to approximately 5500 BCE. South Asian cotton fabric was exported to other parts of the from the ancient to the early medieval period. Until the advent of Islam, however, cotton cultivation itself remained largely confined to the natural habitats of wild cotton and thus, despite trade with the Indian subcontinent, it was still a rare fabric in West Asia and Mediterranean Europe. By the tenth century, cotton was being grown in these regions as a cash crop, and the sparse cultivation in Southeast Asia and China was also bolstered. Scholars have referred to this aggregate phenomenon as ‘southernisation,’ through which not only finished goods but also the specialised knowledge needed for the production of raw materials, travelled from south Asia to the rest of the world.
Between the eleventh and nineteenth centuries, cloth from the Indian subcontinent occupied the largest share of the global cotton trade. Domestically, cotton was woven into a variety of garments specific to the subcontinent, such as sarees and dhotis. The appeal of Indian cotton was not only its softness and lightness, but also the variety of patterns and depth of colour. Kalamkari and chintz were dyed fabrics that became exceptionally popular across the world. Indian dyes such as madder and indigo were derived from plants native to the subcontinent and had a vibrancy that resulted from regionally specific and carefully guarded dyeing techniques. Most exports of cotton from India came from ports along the western and eastern coasts, as well as the larger hinterlands present-day Gujarat, Kerala, Odisha and Andhra Pradesh that these ports serviced. Indian merchants traded both finished and unprocessed (or calico) fabric in Eastern Africa, West Asia and Southeast Asia, with the earliest evidence being a fragment of patterned cloth from Gujarat that was found in Egypt and dated to the fourteenth century. There was also a considerable exchange of knowledge and a strong Indian influence on design in the native textile industries of these regions.
Between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, European powers — initially the Portuguese, then the Dutch East India Company — became a regular presence in the trade of Indian commodities, gaining shares due to demand flowing in from new colonies such as Mozambique, Java and Indonesia. By the eighteen century, however, the British East India Company came to control the actual production of cotton fabric in India. In that century and in part of the next, Indian chintz — which could be easily mass-produced — was tailored to European demand, and sold by the Company in Europe and the Americas. In Britain and France, during the early eighteenth century, a blanket ban was imposed on imported cotton to protect the native textile industry from the highly coveted and competitive Indian chintzes and muslins. While this ban did not prevent the British East India Company from selling Indian-made cotton goods elsewhere, it did grant European manufacturers time to devise ways of mechanising the production of cotton fabrics.
By the end of the eighteenth century, machine-made fabrics allowed these manufacturers to start producing large quantities of cotton textiles themselves. The cotton gin, invented in the USA, was used to separate cotton fibre from the seeds at great speed, allowing for an exponential rise in production of US-made cotton and therefore a corresponding reduction in the demand for raw Indian cotton, while the Jacquard loom, spinning mule and decades of careful study of Indian dyeing techniques entirely mechanised the weaving and finishing processes and shrunk the market for Indian chintz. By the mid nineteenth century, India supplied the world with a modest quantity of hand-painted kalamkari goods and raw cotton, while Indian consumers largely bought the relatively cheaper British-made chintz instead of native cotton textiles.
A cornerstone of the Indian independence movement was khadi, or handspun cotton yarn, which was seen as a pro-handicraft, nativist rebuttal to a market that was flooded with British cotton fabrics. In order to keep up with global demand, however, industrialisation was an essential component of cotton production in India for most of its independent history from the mid twentieth century onwards, although Indian-owned cotton mills have been active since the late nineteenth century. More recently, genetic modification has had a major impact on the nature of cotton farming in India. In 2002, Bt Cotton was introduced as a genetically-modified, pest-resistant variety that, due to transgenes from the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis, is resistant to bollworm and boll weevils, typically the biggest threat to cotton plants. This has allowed India to take the lead in cotton production globally, though problems such as pest resistance to Bt Cotton, generational falls in seed quality, and patent-related hurdles to the creation of a native genetically-modified cotton continue to persist.
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