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The Incredible Tale of Cotton

Posted on December 02, 2012 by Jesse Schiller | 0 comments

 
Genetically modified cotton in India

This was meant to be the story of organic cotton. Then last night, by sheer coincidence, I read an excerpt from Bill Bryson’s latest book, At Home, detailing the incredible story of cotton. I really had no idea just how influential it has been on our lives. Much of the info below is drawn from the excerpt I read last night.

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It wasn’t that long ago that cotton was a rare and precious material in the western world – more sought after than silk. Then the East India Company changed everything – much as they’d done for tea and its proliferation to the western world not long before. 

The company began importing bulk calicos (a metric for cotton, derived from its origin, Calcutta) of raw cotton to Britain, allowing the common people access to it for the first time. The effect was sensational, as people flocked to cotton because it was “light, washable and the colors didn’t run”, explained Bryson.  

At the time, cotton was arriving to England in its raw form. British manufacturers – namely spinners and weavers - were charged with converting the raw product into its sought-after commercial state. To do so, a two-fold process was required. First, the short, raw cotton fibers would be twisted together to create long thread. This was called spinning. Next weavers working on hand looms would bring the thread to life. Both processes were decidedly labor intensive and supply struggled to keep up with demand from the outset.

Then along came a young man from Lancashire named John Kay. John patented the flying shuttle in 1733m, dramatically increasing the yield for weavers. It was the first in a series of steps towards full mechanization for the production of cotton and arguably marks the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. In other words, John’s invention help change the western world forever.

The flying shuttle was soon followed by the spinning jenny, the breakthrough that allowed spinning to catch up to weaving, and eventually the game-changing power loom. Though John’s contribution to the world as we know it now was great, he didn’t fare so well financially. Bill Bryson sums up John’s plight well: “He proposed to manufacture the machines himself and rent them out to mill owners, but he set the rental so high that no one would pay it. Instead, his device was widely pirated, and he spent all his funds unsuccessfully fighting for compensation in the courts”.

Despite Kay’s inability to profit from his invention, he had singularly put into motion the chain of events that would ultimately lead to generations of imperial dominance from Britain, the advent (in a modern sense) of child labour and the creation of a true middle class. The world had indeed been forever changed.

As technology raced ahead in Britain – along with an insatiable appetite for cotton – focus shifted to how more cotton could be grown. For this, Britain turned to the deep south of America. Too hot and dry for most variants of cotton, the South focused on growing short-staple cotton, an alternative that when picked involved a tremendous amount of labor to remove sticky seeds from the cotton fibers. In stepped a northerner from Massachusetts named Eli Whitney who came up with an ingenious system of hooks and brushes called a cotton gin that would easily separate the sticky seeds from the valuable cotton.

Soon thereafter, explains Bryson, cotton became the “most traded commodity in the world, and two-thirds of all cotton came from [the American South]. American cotton exports went from almost nothing before the invention of the cotton gin to a staggering two billion pounds by the outbreak of the Civil War. At its peak, Britain took 84 percent of all of it”.

Cotton gin

An interesting aside is that much like John Kay before him, Whitney asked for too much (1/3 of crop value) of growers in exchange for the use of his technology and before long, pirated versions were in use throughout the South. He spent much of his life in courts seeking compensation though his northern status in southern courts (shortly before the Civil War, it should be noted) did little in helping his claim.

The cotton gin – as the flying shuttle before it – changed the world. Before the invention of the gin, notes Bryson, “slavery was in decline in the United States, but now there was a great need for labor because picking cotton remained extremely labor-intensive”.  Due to demand for cotton, the slave trade expanded exponentially and, as a consequence of supply, child labor became commonplace in factories across Britain seeking to keep up with demand. “Perhaps at no other time in history has someone with a simple, well-meaning invention generated more general prosperity, personal disappointment and inadvertent suffering than Eli Whitney with his gin” concludes Bryson.

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Today conventional cotton continues to court controversy. Currently 2.5% of the world’s arable land is planted with cotton, yet 25% of the world’s insecticides – those most harmful to humans and animals – are applied to keep the crop alive. This is a staggering amount of chemicals, particularly when recalling that it occupies a mere 2.5% of cultivated land! In all, conventional cotton receives 10% of all agricultural chemicals. It’s been estimated that up to 1/3 of a pound of chemicals is required to grow enough cotton for just one t-shirt.

Though the American South continues to produce cotton today, it is dwarfed in production by nations like China and India, and followed closely by developing nations Pakistan, Brazil and Uzbekistan. In other words, much as in the imperial height of Britain, cotton continues to be grown by the developing world for the benefit of the developed world.

So what is the result of this dependence on chemical fertilization and pest control? The World Health Organization estimates that 20,000 people die annually from pesticide poisoning. This number does not take into account the long term effects of chemicals on community water tables or infrastructure, or the long term risks of mono-culture harvesting. Equally, working conditions in the developing world – those converting the cotton to garments – have much to account for. Working conditions is a topic deserving of much attention and we’ll come back to it in a post to come. In the interim, check out our friends at Social Alterations to get you started on the topic.

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So cotton has been hugely influential in the industrial revolution, the slave trade, child labor and the proliferation of agricultural chemicals throughout the world! With a resume like this it’s a wonder we’re still as infatuated as we once were. However, despite the dark history, there is a very bright side. Cotton today is every bit the wonder fabric it was when it first enticed the Brits so many years ago. It holds color beautifully. It wicks moisture and breathes better than almost any other natural textile. It’s hypoallergenic and when grown properly, as we’re about to see, is incredibly soft.

organic cotton, grown without chemicals

Organic cotton is a complete contrast to conventional cotton. It is grown without insecticides, pesticides or chemical fertilizers. Its health comes down to a balance of crop rotation, compost and cover crop strategies. The strategies encourage biodiversity and result in benefits at every level of the supply chain – from those handling the cotton in villages around the world to the softness and quality of the garment you purchase.

To be very honest, we did not know all of this when we began designing products for KOOSHOO. Our decision to work with organic cotton and other natural textiles amounted to a combination of gut instinct and personal experience with the incredible properties of organic cotton. If you’ve ever had the chance to wear an organic cotton garment you likely know what we’re speaking of. There is an unmistakable and oft-documented softness to organic cotton that is simply not the same in conventional cotton.

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So, where to from here? We as a society have the ability to eliminate the cycle of suffering that has persisted with cotton since its popularization four centuries ago. The solution is a balance between educating ourselves about the implications of our buying decisions – whether cotton or synthetic – and realizing that an incredible alternative in organic cotton already exists. Plantations of organic cotton are being increased 50% year on year and companies big and small are increasingly turning to organic cotton.

For us at KOOSHOO, using organic cotton for our headbands, hairties and shawls is something we do with great pride. You may not get this full story every time you purchase a product, but your decision to choose organic cotton, rest assured, is being greatly appreciated by stakeholders throughout the world. 

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