India and the History of Cotton


A Luxurious and Political Fiber

Cotton it truly a miracle fiber: it has been spun, woven, and dyed since ancient times, and it is still the most widely used fiber for cloth today. It is soft and fluffy and grows in a boll around the seeds of the cotton plant. There is almost nothing that cotton can’t be turned into: clothes, bedding, tabletop, furniture, even art.

The first people in Eurasia to grow cotton for clothing, sheets, and towels were the Harappan people, an early civilization, who migrated from Africa to what is now modern Pakistan, but then the subcontinent of India. We owe our earliest information about cotton to a series of famous Indian poems written in 600 BC called the Rigveda—one of the most sacred texts of Hinduism. These poems were sung and recited publicly for hundreds of years until they were transcribed into Sanskrit circa 1000 AD.

The Rigveda tells the story of Prajapati, the first god who created the world. Prajapati, “Lord of Creatures” was sacrificed to himself by the younger gods Indra, Agni, and Varuna. From his body the whole universe was made. The Rigveda says that each of Prajapati’s other parts turned into a different group of people, which is why the Indian people thought of themselves as belonging to one of four castes or groups. Throughout the entire tale of gods and animals, cotton has a role within the story. In India today, as it was for thousands of years, no matter what caste you occupy or what job you hold you will be wearing a cotton garment, either elaborately adorned or a plain.

The Herodotus, wrote in 400 BC that in India there were “trees growing wild, which produce a kind of wool better than sheep’s wool in beauty and quality, which the Indians use for making their clothes.” During this period, the famous Ajanta Cave carvings show innovative cotton growers in India had invented an early roller machine to get the seeds out of the cotton.
By the Guptan period, circa 200 AD, the Indians were selling cotton as a luxury good to their neighbors in the east and west—the Chinese and the Parthians. Further west, the Roman considered cotton as luxurious and as expensive as silk, which they bought from Arabic or Parthian traders. Like Herodotus, the Roman author and philosopher Pliny wrote that in India there were, “trees that bear wool” and “balls of down from which an expensive linen material for clothes is made”

The English word for cotton comes from the Arabic “al-qutun.” The establishment of the Islamic Empire in the late 600’s AD spread cotton production westward across the Middle East to North Africa and Spain. By the 700s the Eastern Roman Empire also started growing cotton. In West Asia and North Africa, poor people began wearing cotton clothing, but in Europe cotton was still a very unusual luxury item, imported from the Islamic Empire. By 1000AD, Italian traders brought more cotton to Europe, but as a finished luxury good it was not well recognized in Europe.

Remarkably, very little cotton cloth was imported to England before the 15th century and the small amounts that had been imported were used chiefly for candlewicks. In the 1600s, European explorers found cotton plants grown and used in the Americas. These newly discovered species were introduced to Africa in the 18th century and later spread to India. The British desire for cotton would change by the 17th century when the East India Company began importing rare fabrics from India, and coincides with the 1793 invention of the cotton gin—a machine that separated the seeds from the fiber and allowed cotton to displace flax and wool during the Industrial Revolution.

American cotton yield doubled each decade after 1800 after the invention of the cotton gin. Demand for cotton increased by other innovations of the Industrial Revolution, including machines to spin and weave it and the steamboat to transport it. Between 1815 and 1859, Britain imported nearly 77 percent of American cotton and turned it into cloth. However, the American cotton market began to wane with the start of the Civil War; Britain looked to other countries like India, Brazil, Turkey and Egypt as an alternative source for the raw material, which it would buy and sell back as a finished product. India whose own production was not mechanized and relied on a disparate, often changing labor force struggled to compete, and instead of exporting huge amounts of finished cotton goods, it became the largest importer of British cotton textiles.

The rise of Mahatma Ghandi empowered the people of India. Gandhi and his followers were angered by the laws that sent local Indian cotton back to Britain to be milled into cloth, and then sent back to India in which the people were forced to purchase British loomed cotton rather than hand woven khadi. Gandhi saw the revival of local village economies as the key to India’s spiritual and economic regeneration and he envisioned homespun khadi as the catalyst for economic independence. He built his strategy around the revival of traditional craftsmanship and skills that would feed local demand with local production. As part of Gandhi’s policies of civil disobedience and non-cooperation, he encouraged people to boycott British goods, specifically cotton textiles, and encouraged Indians to use homespun and woven khadi. In India, he adopted the charka or spinning wheel as the symbol of his principle of self-sufficiency.

In 1921, Gandhi launched the movement for all Indians to spin their own cloth or purchase only hand-spun Indian cloth. In protest against the colonial practice of milling Indian-grown cotton in Britain before selling it back to India, Gandhi took to his handloom and wove his own clothes, urging others to follow suit. Soon villagers across India were making their own cloth as a political statement. This ‘cottage’ industry became a staple of the country’s rural economy. Khadi became the fabric of the freedom struggle. The khadi people made in home workshops and small-scale factories supplemented the small incomes they earned toiling in the fields. Gandhi used khadi as the uniform for the first Non Cooperation movement and the Gandhi cap symbolized the Indo-British battle over the looms of Manchester and a bid for a modern Indian identity

In modern, independent India, the cotton industry could, once again, compete on the world market. There is a still great diversity in the traditions and methods used to produce Indian cotton. Weavers often work in close family structures where ancient skills are passed from generation to generation and there is a great pride in the work, the fiber and the rich history surrounding even the most simple cotton fabric.