Cotton & How It Changed the World

The history of cotton is vital to understanding how the modern era came about, for few plants have changed human civilization so quickly and so radically.

Apr 8, 2024By Greg Beyer, BA History & Linguistics, Journalism Diploma

cotton how changed world


When one thinks of plants that have been vital to the progress of civilization, one generally thinks of those that can be consumed as food, drink, or even smoked. There was (and still is) one plant, however, that has had a massive impact on human civilization – an impact so powerful that it revolutionized the world, almost literally.


That plant is cotton. And it was responsible for kickstarting the Industrial Revolution. Moreover, cotton has been in use for many thousands of years, but it was only 300 years ago that it changed the world forever.


The Ancient History of Cotton

kingdom kush Africa
The Kingdom of Kush in Africa was a major center for cotton production in ancient times. Source: Encyclopaedia Britannica


Various species of the cotton plant are native to tropical and subtropical regions across the globe. Where and when cotton was first woven into fabric is debatable, as it was an activity that arose in many parts of the world and was practiced by people and cultures wholly unconnected with one another.


Cotton is also a substance that does not preserve well except in dry, arid regions where there is little of the moisture required to degrade the fabric.

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The oldest cotton fabric found comes from Huaca Prieta in Peru and is estimated to be from around 6000 BCE. Unprocessed cotton has also been found in a cave in Mexico, dating to around 5500 BCE. Although the cotton bolls are in the raw form, their presence in the cave suggests they were intended for further processing.


In Eastern Africa, evidence suggested cotton was being cultivated and processed by around 5000 BCE. In the ancient era, the city of Meroë in the Kingdom of Kush became extremely wealthy for the quality and quantity of the cotton it produced. Reaching its height around 400 BCE and lasting until the 4th century CE, the massive cotton industry was greatly reduced by the conquests by the Aksumite king Ezana, who destroyed the cotton plantations of Meroë.


indian cotton medieval
Medieval Indian cotton fabric excavated in Egypt in 1980. Source: TRC-Leiden


Meanwhile, on the Indian subcontinent, cotton was also being produced around 5000 BCE. The earliest evidence from this time comes from the Neolithic archeological site of Mehrgahr, which represents one of the oldest cities built. By 3000 BCE, cotton was being cultivated and refined en masse, forming a vital industry for the Indus Valley civilizations.


In Europe, cotton seems to have been completely unknown for millennia. The first mention in any European record is by Herodotus, who wrote of cotton being a wool-like fabric from the East. Greeks first started using cotton in the 4th century BCE during the conquests of Alexander the Great. Their contact with the Indian subcontinent introduced them to cotton, which they began wearing instead of heavier and hotter woolen garments.


Cotton in the Middle Ages

cotton bobbins loc
Cotton bobbins. Source: Library of Congress


In India, cotton remained a primary industry, and developments were made in line with expanding cotton production. From the 6th century CE, hand-cranked cotton gins were being used to massively increase the speed at which cotton could be spun. One hundred years later, cotton began being produced in quantity in Egypt, a country that is still famous for the quality of its cotton.


Improvements in the gin roller started appearing over the centuries, and cotton production spread to other parts of Asia from India, with China being a particularly significant producer.


Cotton was introduced to Europe by Muslims during their conquests in the Western Mediterranean. For much of the Middle Ages, cotton was hand-woven on the loom. It was a time-consuming enterprise, but the fabric became a popular alternative to wool and linen, which had existed as industries long before the introduction of cotton.


The small cotton industries were generally located in southern Europe, where the climate was more agreeable to growing cotton. For Northern Europe, wool remained the most popular fabric by far.


cotton boll plant
Cotton. Source: Public domain / Rawpixel


By the late Medieval Era, cotton had become a popular fabric in Europe and was more readily available since the introduction of the spinning wheel in 1350. Improvements in trade routes and production meant the industry could move north. Venice, Antwerp, and Haarlem became notable centers for cotton production.


England was the wool center of Europe, and the product accounted for the vast majority of the English economy. Cotton and linen were seen as dangerous competitors, so it would be an ironic twist of fate that England would be the hub of world cotton production in the coming centuries…


The Renaissance & the Age of Colonialism

mughal cotton panel
A Mughal-style cotton panel from the mid-18th century. Source: Roseberys, London


For the Old World, India remained the biggest center of production during the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period. When the spinning wheel arrived in India during this time, production increased even more. Inventions that made processing the material drove prices down and increased demand, as cotton was now available at more affordable prices.


Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama had been searching for a sea route to the Indian Ocean, and in 1524, he opened a route between India and Portugal. His efforts brought huge quantities of textiles to Europe, as ships could carry far bigger cargo than trade caravans, which traveled along the Silk Road. As Europe entered a golden age and European economies boomed, so too did the demand for finer goods. Cotton became highly sought after.


During the Mughal Period (1526–1858), cotton production surged. Agrarian and economic reforms under unified and capable leadership added incentives for cotton as a cash crop. By the early 18th century, the textile industry in India accounted for a quarter of the world’s trade in fabric. The biggest center of cotton production was the city of Dhaka in present-day Bengal.


lowry spinning jenny
A spinning jenny engraving by W. Lowry, 1811. Source: Wellcome Collection


With the rise of the British Empire and British colonial endeavors in India, the British East India Company became a powerful force in the cotton trade in Europe. By the mid-18th century, the importation of cheap cotton and the introduction of complex machinery began to make Britain the dominant power in cotton manufacture.


Within a century, Britain surpassed India as the world’s biggest cotton manufacturer. Cotton was obtained at a cheap price from India, processed in factories in Britain, and then disseminated to the rest of the world.


In the 1760s, the spinning jenny was invented by James Hargreaves. It was a machine that could spin cotton at a much faster rate than previous methods, and it transformed the societal landscape of Britain. Home industries were pushed out, as factories employed hundreds of workers, many of them children, to work in the urban areas. This transformation is what helped kickstart the Industrial Revolution and turned Britain into a superpower. And it was done on the back of child labor and miserable working conditions.


At the forefront of this transformation was cotton. Its versatility saw it replace wool. Its ease of processing saw it replace linen. And its price saw it replace silk. Cotton became available everywhere and was worn by the wealthiest nobles all the way down to the poorest commoners.


henry louis stevens in the cotton field
In the Cotton Field by Henry Louis Stevens. Source: Library of Congress


In the United States, cotton remained a relatively small industry during the 18th century. The invention of the superior cotton gin in 1793 by American inventor Eli Whitney gave the cotton industry a massive boost. Within less than four decades, the US became the world’s largest cotton supplier, replacing tobacco as the South’s primary cash crop.


This dynamic, of course, required vast numbers of slaves to work on the plantations. The social dynamic of the need for more enslaved people versus the progressive conscience born by a modernizing world created a dangerous precedent for conflict that would erupt as the US Civil War.


The 20th Century Onwards

cotton harvesting china
Cotton harvesting in China. Source: CGTN


With the changes brought about by the Civil War and the appearance and spread of the cotton-eating boll weevil, the US cotton industry was hit with hardships. It was only in the 1950s that pesticides were able to deal with the boll weevil infestation. By this time, however, the United States had made massive changes in crop diversification, and cotton took a backseat to other cash crops such as corn and, more recently, soybeans.


The cotton industry of Britain completely collapsed as a result of war and boycotts. The First World War halted much production and made it difficult to export to many European markets. The interwar years saw a backlash against colonialism, and Britain’s biggest supplier, India, started asserting itself by boycotting the industry. By 1933, Japan, which had slowly been expanding its influence, had taken over as the world’s biggest cotton producer.


During the Second World War, production started to increase in Britain, especially around the cotton hub of Lancashire, where uniforms and parachutes were in great demand. The boom was short-lived, and by the end of the 1950s, the industry could not compete with cheaper, foreign competition.


Today, cotton demand is extremely high and is increasing every year. Currently, the four biggest cotton-producing nations are China, India, the United States, and Brazil.


rawpixel image cotton field
A cotton field. Source: Public domain / Rawpixel


The importance of cotton cannot be denied. From small local industries in the Asian subcontinent to the booming trade worldwide, cotton is found everywhere, from dish towels to high fashion, being used to mop up spills on the floor and cover the bodies of royalty.


The history of cotton is, in many ways, the history of the modern era. It exploded onto the world in the same way that the Industrial Revolution represented a giant leap forward for humankind, bringing the world together and ushering in an era of financial gain that was unprecedented at the time.

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By Greg BeyerBA History & Linguistics, Journalism DiplomaGreg specializes in African History. He holds a BA in History & Linguistics and a Journalism Diploma from the University of Cape Town. A former English teacher, he now excels in academic writing and pursues his passion for art through drawing and painting in his free time.