Cotton has been spun, woven, and dyed since prehistoric times. It clothed the people of ancient India, Egypt, and China. Hundreds of years before the Christian era cotton textiles were woven in India with matchless skill, and their use spread to the Mediterranean countries. In the 1st cent. Arab traders brought fine muslin and calico to Italy and Spain. The Moors introduced the cultivation of cotton into Spain in the 9th cent. Fustians and dimities were woven there and in the 14th cent. in Venice and Milan, at first with a linen warp. Little cotton cloth was imported to England before the 15th cent., although small amounts were obtained chiefly for candlewicks. By the 17th cent. the East India Company was bringing rare fabrics from India. Native Americans skillfully spun and wove cotton into fine garments and dyed tapestries. Cotton fabrics found in Peruvian tombs are said to belong to a pre-Inca culture. In color and texture the ancient Peruvian and Mexican textiles resemble those found in Egyptian tombs.
The invention (1793) of the cotton gin, a machine for separating seeds from fiber, and the mechanization of textile production in the Industrial Revolution enabled cotton to supersede flax and wool textiles. Cotton has played a significant role in history. Britain's need for imported cotton fiber encouraged its accession to the Monroe Doctrine; Britain's need for vast African and Indian markets for its cotton manufactures influenced its role as an imperial sea power. Beginning in North America in the Jamestown colony (1607), cotton cultivation became the basis of the one-crop, slave-labor economy of the Deep South and a principal economic cause of the Civil War. The end of slavery and the exhaustion of the soil pushed the Cotton Belt to the west.
Today the leading cotton states are Texas, Georgia, Mississippi, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Louisiana. From the early days of the republic until recent years the United States was the world's leading cotton producer and second only to Great Britain in the manufacture of cotton goods. China now is the leading cotton-producing country, followed by the United States and India. Other important cotton producers are Pakistan, Brazil, Uzbekistan, and Turkey. China and India are the leading cotton manufacturers, followed by the United States, where cotton mills have relocated from New England to the Southern cotton-producing states. Historically, all cotton-producing nations have depended on cheap labor; although mechanical cultivating and picking devices have long been known, they have been widely used (especially in the United States) only since World War II.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.