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The Roots of Cotton as a Favored Textile

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Cotton is known to be one of the first global commodities. In India, fragments of cotton cloth have been unearthed by archaeologists dating back to 3200 BC. The cotton plant is said to have migrated from India to China, the Middle East and Africa between AD 800 and 1000. The commercial value of the plant and the material that was derived from it caused the demand to grow to such an extent that entire regions were devoted to its agricultural development.

Along with the widespread cultivation of the plant came technologies to transform the raw plant into cloth such as the spinning wheel and the loom between 1184 and the thirteenth century. Commercialization of the cloth would take on different forms ranging from Indian villages that devoted their cultural identity to production to exclusive guilds in Europe.

Cotton cloth was interchangeable with coin and was used to trade for other goods such as spices and stand as payment for financial obligations. Trading or gifting of cloth was used in many cultures across the world and had significant and sometimes spiritual or ceremonial meanings.

The superiority of Indian cotton textiles gave them a competitive edge in the global market. The success was due to their deep understanding of dyes and decorative techniques such as stenciling and printing. Other textiles such as linen and silk required a skilled loom artist to integrate complex decorative elements into the weave but cotton proved to be much more versatile and could be decorated after the cloth was made. The affordability of cotton cloth versus silk had an enormous impact on the scope of demand across the globe.

As the popularity of the cloth flourished, different markets developed varying tastes in design and color. Checked, striped and indigo cloth was popular in West Africa while merchant importers to European countries demanded plain white cloth as they began to develop their own lower cost methods of applying design.


Although cotton did not become a critical part of the economies of Europe and North America until after the 19th century, the development of the automated printing technique known as roller printing vastly changed the demand for hand-block printing. These machines replaced the work of 20 humans and could produce sophisticated, multi-colored patterns for far less cost.

In 1856, the discovery of aniline dyes, derived from the noxious industrial waste known as coal tar changed everything for European manufacturers. Prior to synthetic dyes, color could only be derived from the natural world. The process was exceedingly labor intensive and required dyes be imported from exotic locales across the world. Tyrian purple was one of these legendary hues derived from the secretions of sea snails and whelks and so rare that it disappeared with the Roman Empire.

The tenacity of one chemistry student known as William Henry Perkin revolutionized the manufacture of dye with his experiments with coal tar producing the fabled purple hue. Continuing experimentation resulted in cheaply produced dyes of reds, magentas, pinks, and indigoes bringing the production of cotton textiles fully into the hands of the Europeans. Today, cotton is still one of most favored materials for clothing in the world, especially t-shirts.

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