Cotton - history
Four species of cotton have been domesticated, but cultivars of the New World species G. hirsutum and G. barbadense dominate todays world markets.
|Image: Asian cotton, with detail of boll, watercolour on paper.|
The two species used in ancient South Asia were G. herbaceum and G. arboreum. They originated in Africa and India and were developed as fibre crops at the same time the New World species were used for the same purposes.
Early historyThe earliest written reference to cotton in South Asia is in the Rig Veda dating from about 1500 BC, but cotton was utilised in this region long before then. Fragments of cotton textiles from the Indus Valley dating from around 3000 BC show that ancient civilisations of the region were skilled in spinning, weaving and dyeing cotton.
Paintings in the Ajanta Caves in Maharastra show that a variety of patterns and colours had been developed in India by 200 BC to 500 AD. These fabrics were in demand outside South Asia and they were probably exported to Greece before Alexander the Great established the trade routes between Asia and Europe.
South Asia became famous for its textiles, and fine cotton muslins were exported to the Greeks and the Romans. Muslins from Dhaka in Bangladesh were particularly prized. The Greek historian, Herodotus, wrote about Indian cotton in the 5th century BC. He described 'trees that bore wool, surpassing in beauty and in quality the wool of sheep; and the Indians wear clothing from these trees.'
India continued to be the world's main producer of cotton textiles. The growing export trade extended to the rest of Europe including Britain. Embroideries of silk on white cotton from Gujarat were the first textiles to reach Britain from India, but the most popular were dyed cotton wall hangings. In Europe textiles became known by their trade names. Calico fabrics were so named because they were exported from Calicut on the Malabar coast. The fabrics were shipped to the Arabian Gulf, taken by camel to the Nile River, and then shipped to the Mediterranean.
Recent historyIn the 1600s, European explorers discovered that cotton plants were also being grown and used in the Americas. These newly discovered species were introduced to Africa in the 18th century and later spread to India and Pakistan, where they replaced traditional cultivars.
Britain began manufacturing its own cotton textiles using raw material from American rather than India sources. India struggled to compete because its production was unmechanised and relied on a large labour force. India, instead of exporting cotton goods, became the largest importer of British cotton textiles. A virtual collapse of the European cotton industries in the second half of the 20th century led to a revival in India of both hand- and machine-woven fabrics. The growth of India's mechanised cotton industry was slow to develop, but political movements and the rise of Mahatma Ghandi empowered the people of India.
Road to independenceGandhi saw the revival of village economies as the key to India's spiritual and economic regeneration. He built his strategy around the revival of traditional arts and skills that would feed local demands with local production. As part of his policies of civil disobedience and non-cooperation he encouraged people to boycott British goods, particularly textiles, and encouraged Indians to use homespun and woven cotton. In India, he adopted the charka or spinning wheel as the symbol of his principle of self-sufficiency.
India's cotton industry was finally stimulated towards mechanisation, and it could compete on the world market once more. There is a still great diversity in the traditions and methods used to produce South Asian fabrics. Weavers often work in close family structures where ancient skills are passed from generation to generation.