Learn all about the History of Cotton

Cotton has influenced world history for millennia and into the 20th century. Great inventions, conquests and the slave trade were directly related to cotton.

The world’s countries were increasingly connected by cotton cultivation, trade and processing. Learn more about the history of the threads of the cotton net.

The History of cotton

The history of cotton goes back a long way. The oldest cotton fibers to date were found in a cave in Mexico. They are estimated to be about 7000 years old.

The fibers found in the Mexican cave probably came from textile remains that could apparently already be made from the cotton plant at that time.

The textile uses of the plant were already widespread at that time. Around the same time, the use of cotton can also be traced to China. There, the Chinese planted and processed it and made their clothing from it.

According to records, however, not only the Chinese cultivated the “white gold” for clothing purposes, but also the Incas and Mayas.

For two millennia, India held the world’s leading position in cotton processing. The Hindus there were particularly masterful in their handling of the natural fiber. Even then, they used simple gins, spinning wheels and looms. They used them to produce cotton fabrics, which were said to feel like “woven wind” on the skin.

In ancient Rome, imported cotton fabrics were considered a luxury good. It was not until around the year 1,000 that the Saracens and Moors brought the cotton plant to southern Europe in the wake of their conquests, where it became native to Spain and Sicily.

Nevertheless, cotton fabrics remained a noble article until the 16th century. Venice, Lisbon, Seville and Antwerp became major centers of cotton processing, and much of the raw natural fiber still came from India.

But a circuitous trade route connected South Asia with Europe. Soon Italy and Portugal were competing to discover the sea route to India. Christopher Columbus was also entrusted with this mission when he embarked on his most significant voyage.

Ship caulking with cotton
Caulkers working in the process of sealing a wooden boat watertight inserting fibers of hemp or cotton soaked in pine tar between planks with a caulking mallet

The discovery of America at this time did not help the cotton supply; it was only later that the “New World” gained great importance in the cotton trade: In the 17th century, the English imported Indian cotton seeds into North American territories, where cotton cultivation boomed within a short time.

One of the darkest chapters in American history soon unfolded around the light fiber: slavery. African slaves toiled on the plantations, managing the laborious harvest and the difficult ginning of the cotton.

Colonies and independence - fight for cotton

Gandhi spinning

The Indians’ resistance struggle against the colonial power of England was waged with and around cotton. India, the country of the origin of cotton, was exploited for this raw material.

Mahatma Gandhi, who wanted to lead the Indian people to independence through non-violent resistance, urged his fellow citizens to spin the wool themselves and weave clothes from it in accordance with pre-colonial traditions. In this way, Gandhi wanted to boycott the colonial powers and demonstrate to them, as well as to his own countrymen, that the Indian people were not dependent on the English.

A very famous picture shows Mahatma Gandhi at his spinning wheel, a home-woven cotton cloth wrapped around his hips. Khadi, the simple hand-woven cloth, became the symbol of the non-violent resistance struggle that India eventually won when the country gained independence in 1947.

For Gandhi, the revival of traditional crafts was not only a symbolic expression but also meant strengthening local economic structures. The return to traditional cotton processing, as Gandhi explained it to Charlie Chaplin in 1931, was to be understood less as a rejection of any modern technology than as resistance to an exploitative political system in which textile production was integrated.

Cotton - From ancient times to the present

The inventors of cotton fabrics and garments lived thousands of years ago in what is now India and Pakistan, Mexico and Peru. In ancient times, the use of indigenous fibers such as linen, hemp and wool was common among Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, as well as in the rest of Europe.

However, expensive silk and cotton fabrics also reached the Mediterranean region in the earliest times via the Silk Road. Through the seafarers on voyages of discovery and the conquests, cotton fabrics became known throughout Europe in the Middle Ages.

Cloth weavers in England processed cotton from the late 17th century. They got the raw cotton from the colonies and from America.

The demand for cotton grew and grew. More and more cotton plantations were planted on which slaves had to work. An age of great inventions began, and the Industrial Revolution changed the world from then on.

Cotton Processing. Date: circa 1880
Cotton Processing. Date: circa 1880

Cotton plantations & slave trade

The history of cotton in America is connected with the misery of many millions of people who came from Africa. In colonial power England, there was an insatiable demand for the raw material cotton. A lot of money could be earned with the white gold, and greed grew.

Cotton plantations were established in the southern states of North America. For cultivation, the farmers wanted many cheap workers. Already in 1619, a ship brought the first Africans to Virginia. The injustice done to these blacks is unimaginable.

Cotton & Slave Trade

For 350 years, the slave trade made a lot of money and caused even more suffering. Europeans traded goods for people on the coasts of Africa.

For the human trade, especially young Africans were hunted down and captured like animals. In chains, they were loaded onto ships like cattle. Many did not survive the crossing to America. Once there, they were sold as enslaved people at slave markets.

Between 1519 and 1867, approximately 10-12 million Africans were taken from their homeland to America.

How slaves lived and worked on the cotton plantations

Most slaves worked on plantations in the southern states of the USA. They did not earn a cent. No human rights were applied to slaves. Slaves could not make their own decisions about their lives.

As blacks were the property of whites. If a slave could not stand this anymore and tried to escape, he was hunted, whipped, beaten or killed. Owners and slave overseers were not even punished for murder.

Children of slaves became slaves themselves, increasing their masters’ property. In the 19th century, about two million slaves worked on cotton plantations: men, women and children.

Cotton Plantation - Date 1860

In 1865, slavery was officially abolished in the United States. But work in the cotton fields hardly changed. – It took more than 100 years before the living conditions of blacks in America slowly improved.

Cotton and the Industrial Revolution

Initially, the yields were still too low to conquer the world market. But cotton processing was revolutionized when James Hargraves invented the mechanical loom “Spinning Jenny” in 1764.

The final breakthrough towards mass production came 29 years later when Ely Whitney developed the “Cotton Gin” gin. Every day, “Cotton Gin” brushed out capsule residues and the sometimes sticky seed kernels from 1,500 kilos of raw cotton.

One “Cotton Gin” created the labor output of 3,000 enslaved people, who could now be sent to the cotton fields to harvest. As a result, land for cotton cultivation greatly expanded.

Between the mid-18th and mid-19th centuries, the North American cotton trade came into its own and “King Cotton” dominated the world market.

In the famous triangular trade, enslaved Africans, American cotton and English cloth were traded. Cotton was still painstakingly picked by hand in the USA for a long time. However, it was not until 1920 that the first harvesting machines rolled over North American plantations.

Mechanization in cultivation, harvesting and processing and the expansion of production made cotton goods a mass product. Within just under a hundred years, the cost of producing cotton cloth had dropped to about one percent of the cost in 1784.

Inventions and technical progress

Cotton gin

Before spinning, cotton must be ginned. Cotton contains seeds. Removing the seeds was done by hand for thousands of years and was very tedious.

The invention of a gin, the “cotton gin,” was a significant technological advance. It was the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

Enslaved people who previously had to gin cotton could now care for growing and harvesting cotton. As a result, the cotton fields were expanded, and much more cotton could be produced.

Elihu Whitney's saw-gin for cleaning cotton
Elihu Whitney's saw-gin for cleaning cotton
Hargreaves Jenny. Date: 1767
Hargreaves Jenny. Date: 1767

Spinning Jenny

The use of spinning machines was also a milestone in industrialization. The “spinning jenny” was invented in England in 1764. It could spin eight yarn spindles at once, providing enough yarn for one weaver.

Soon after, spinning machines became larger and larger. They were no longer driven by hand but by steam engines and could spin 1000 yarn spindles simultaneously. They were called “spinning mules.” From now on, spinning machines filled factory halls. Spinning mills first appeared in England and later also in the USA.


Cashmere Sweater


Cashmere Sweater


Cashmere Sweater

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Industrial Textile Factories & Labor

In 1784 – also in England – the steam-powered loom was invented. The technique of weaving did not change significantly, but the speed did. Fabrics and clothing became cheaper and cheaper because the whole chain from the cotton field to cotton ginning, spinning and weaving were mechanized.

Many independent weavers could no longer compete with their craft and became impoverished. They now had to go to work as dependent wage laborers in textile mills. As a result, the working class, or proletariat, emerged.

Industrialization and child labor

Factory workers received meager wages because other unemployed artisans could easily replace them. However, a former weaver no longer wove cloth in the factory but, for example, dragged rolls of cloth or changed spindles all day.

The division of labor made factory work monotonous. But because of poverty, even children had to go to work. At that time, children as young as six worked in the textile industry. They were good at crawling under the machines and skillfully mending threads with their little hands – all day long.

Child laborer portrayed by Lewis Hine in 1908. Sadie Pfeifer worked in a cotton mill

The factory owners paid the child workers only a fraction of what an adult received. This was another reason why child labor was very popular with them.

The life of a factory worker’s child was miserable: the workday began as early as five or six in the morning and did not end until seven or eight in the evening.

The children were often very sick. They constantly breathed polluted air in the factory halls. They worked on noisy machines with little light. The child laborers suffered from physical weakness, growth disorders and consumption.

They did not receive a school education like today’s children. Instead, after a long and hard day’s work, they went to evening school for an hour or two, where they could not absorb anything more out of sheer exhaustion. They did not come home until ten o’clock in the evening.

Cotton production today

Today, cotton is produced in over 70 countries on all six continents worldwide. The leading producers are China and India, each harvesting over 6 million tons of cotton annually, followed by the USA with around 3 million tons.

But the yields achieved in the fields are extremely varied: they range from 140 kilograms in Somalia to 2487 kilograms in Australia. On the one hand, farmers cultivate huge areas using highly specialized machinery, irrigation techniques, fertilizers and pesticides. On the other hand, small areas are mainly planted and harvested by hand.

A steadily declining world market price exacerbates this unequal competition for cotton. Compared to 1975, a kilogram of cotton today costs only half as much.

In addition to increasing supply coupled with falling demand, the billions in subsidies that countries worldwide spend on cotton farmers are an important reason for the drop in prices.

Industrialization and child labor

Factory workers received meager wages because other unemployed artisans could easily replace them. However, a former weaver no longer wove cloth in the factory but, for example, dragged rolls of cloth or changed spindles all day.

The division of labor made factory work monotonous. But because of poverty, even children had to go to work. At that time, children as young as six worked in the textile industry. They were good at crawling under the machines and skillfully mending threads with their little hands – all day long.

Child laborer portrayed by Lewis Hine in 1908. Sadie Pfeifer worked in a cotton mill

In the 2017/2018 season, the U.S. paid the equivalent of 16 euro cents per kilogram of cotton. China subsidized at 60 cents per kilogram, with Spain and Greece leading the way at up to 88 cents per kilogram.

It is true that many African countries now also subsidize their cotton production. However, the scale of the payments is much smaller and hardly contributes to distorting the world market price. In Mali, for example, the government subsidy for farmers is slightly less than 9 cents per kilogram of cotton.

But it is not only at the global level that subsidy payments make the big players ever stronger and the small ones ever weaker. At the national level, it is mainly the large agricultural companies that benefit from the money, while smallholder structures are disappearing more and more. For example, the ten most subsidized companies in the USA received more than 80 percent of all cotton subsidies between 1995 and 2020.1

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  1. Khan, M.A. et al. (2020). World Cotton Production and Consumption: An Overview. In: Ahmad, S., Hasanuzzaman, M. (eds) Cotton Production and Uses. Springer, Singapore. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-15-1472-2_1

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