Have you ever taken a piece of cotton fiber and examined it closely? The fiber of cotton is made out of cellulose. These fibers are outstretched from cells of the seed coat, each one about 5 centimeter in length. With more than 20,000 fibers from each seed and 32 seeds for an average cotton boll, the fiber has a length of thirty-two kilometers if you line them up end to end. These strategies evolved so the seeds of cotton can be carried away by wind or water.
The earliest record of cotton is probably from Herodotus in 450 BC. He mentioned there?s a kind of tree with wool growing on it. Cotton was also dubbed as ?lambs on trees? in North European mythology. ?On the end of the plant stems were fixed Scythian lambs, which bent down to graze the grass within reach. Once this was exhausted the lambs starved to death, making the ?wool? accessible for easy harvest.?(An Empire of Plants.)
Originating from Pakistan, there are currently 39 known species and 4 of them are domesticated; the most common commercially grown being upland cotton (Gossypium hirsutum), which constitutes 90% of world production; extra-long staple cotton (G. barbadense), constituting 8% of world production, has the longest fibers; tree cotton (G. arboreum)and Levant cotton (G. herbaceum), though also commercially grown, have shorter fibers, and are only suited as stuffing.
As its seeds are easily carried far and wide by wind or water, China, India and Inca came in contact with cotton very early on. Cotton was probably introduced to China earlier than 2 century BC. Cotton clothes were found in tombs from East Han and Jin. The species cultivated during that time is probably tree cotton. Levant cotton was probably cultivated around the late Tang Dynasty. Cotton textiles were discovered in Peru dated back 1000 B.C., and royals of Inca were wearing outfits made from cotton.
Cotton was originally a woody perennial shrubs or small trees, annual herbaceous species being the product of human cultivation, which did not appear until much later. However, as silk and hemp had found their ways into China beforehand, and their fibers being longer than cotton, it wasn?t until the Song dynasty that cotton was valued for its ability to keep warm during cold weather and durability.
There are several important events that happened to cotton during the late Tang and early Song dynasty. Mutations changed the cotton plant from perennial woody shrub/small tree to herbaceous annuals. Each boll became bigger and the fiber became longer, making it becoming more desirable to cultivate. In addition, people found cotton is warmer than silk and hemp.
Several technical advances also encouraged people using cotton. The invention of ?Jiaw Che? (??, similar to cotton gin) let workers separate fiber from seeds with ease. After Huang Daopo (???) brought back the technique of cotton weaving from Hainan Island during the Southern Song dynasty, the cotton industry in China started to thrive in the Sonjiang district. Europe, however, came in major contact with cotton clothing way into the 16th century, centuries after the Southern Song dynasty.
Cotton cloth became the most inexpensive textile during the Yuan dynasty. Because cotton is warmer than hemp and warmer and cheaper than silk, the Empire founded new offices to manage the production of cotton in 1289. People can give cotton bolls and cloth as tax instead of money.
The Ming dynasty continued the policy and gave more tax concessions on cotton. Cotton cloth became part of government officials? salaries. During the Qing dynasty the Empire did not encourage people to grow cotton anymore, so farmers shifted their crop of choice from cotton to others.
Not much technical advances for cotton weaving after the Song dynasty. The main reason is probably due to the way people work with cotton. It may be because the cotton fibers are shorter and entangled with each other, when spinning they must be slowly twisted by hand. In China, usually there?s only one woman working with the spinning wheel; so it is not convenient if it can spin many yarns at the same time. For example, spinning wheels that can spin more than 20 yarns at the same time was invented for silk by 1313 recorded in Nong Shu (??, Book of Agriculture) written by Wang Zhen (??), however it was never applied to weave cotton. The Jacquard Loom from France was very popular in China in 1906 because it only required one person to operate.
The first cotton mill in China was Shanghai Machine Weaving Factory (???????) founded in 1890. In 1891, the patent of Shanghai machine weaving factory expired, and private and foreign companies started setting up textile factories.
Chinese businessmen are used to making large sales with small investment, excessive use of capital, and the ?fixed interest rate system? stipulates that shareholders receive a fixed dividend every year regardless of the company?s profit and loss, causing the Chinese company?s debt is very heavy and the rate of bankruptcy is extremely high. In addition, Chinese businessmen refused to provide depreciation rates for equipment and properties, which made the equipment unable to be renewed, resulting in a widening of the technical difference with foreign factories since 1929. Engaging in cotton opportunistic investments, preference of hiring relatives or ethnic groups also affects the management of the factory.
Taiwan?s fabric industries were initially founded on the equipment and personnel of the four cotton spinning mills moved in 1949 with the Nationalist Government. In the initial period, the tariff was reduced in response to the problem of insufficient local supply. After the Japanese dumping, the control measures were established in 1951, and the factories increased to 123 in 1976. Exportation of textiles and garments started in 1954. Taiwan was still the sixth largest textile exporter in the world and the 20th largest garment exporter as of 2004.
Tainan city?s Jiangjyun district was once called ?the hometown of comforters?, growing cotton since the Qing dynasty, its acreage reaching 6,000 hectares during the Japanese occupation. Within the district, the Linghe village was once called ?the comforter burrow?, as nearly all of Taiwan?s comforter factories? masters came from here. The industry?s growth gradually declined in later years with the rise of cheap imported cotton from USAID and artificial fiber, but with the rise of organic cotton in 2016, Tainan has once again started up its cotton business.
On the other side of the earth, cotton cloth imported from Bengal and India took the European market by storm in the 17th century, its sales increasing five times by the end of it, eliciting protests from the Great Britain?s silk and wool manufacturing industry, passing a ban on India?s multicolored cotton cloth (calico) and silk. Ironically, by prohibiting import instead pushed Great Britain to self-manufactured cotton cloth and the Industrial Revolution; from the invention of the water frame in 1738 to the appearance of the spinning jenny in the 1760s, mass manufacturing by machine moved the world forward at an unstoppable pace. Though the spinning jenny had been destroyed by the locals, when Sir James Watt improved the steam engine in 1775, Messrs Robinsons later installed it in cotton mills. Also the invention of cotton gin in 1793 by Eli Whitney made people separate the seeds from fiber efficiently.
With America starting growing cotton (upland cotton) in the 1780s, Great Britain quickly transformed from a country importing cotton fabrics to a country importing cotton boll and exporting cotton fabric, Manchester dubbed as the ?Cottonopolis?. Cotton started the Industrial Revolution. Cotton mills are the first to become listed, causing famers to give up farming in favor of becoming professional ?workers?.
And where did Great Britain export this excessive cotton? India! During the second half of the 18th century, Great Britain not only stopped buying cotton from India, they also used tariff and tax clauses to mass dump cotton into it, causing India?s cotton workshops to close down, leaving the people with no wherewithal to make a living. Finally in the 1930s, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi started the Swadeshi campaign, encouraging Indians to weave their own cloth, and refuse to buy British goods, ultimately resulting in India?s Independence Movements and India finally declaring independence on August 15, 1947.
In the U.S., the reclamation of cotton farms indirectly caused the indigenous peoples of Americas? land to be colonized and people driven away. It also push the southern states lean heavily on slavery. People from the South believed that cotton is the most important crop (?King Cotton?) in the United States and cotton agriculture cannot do without slaves. Seeing as most cotton producing were in the southern states, it brought about disagreements concerning slavery between the north and the south, and when Abraham Lincoln was elected president, many southern states declared state secessions in rebellion against the U.S. constitutional government, which broke out into the American Civil War. However there was a lack of industrial strength and railway transportation in the south, coupled with the growing disapproval of slavery worldwide, when England turned to India and Egypt for cotton importation instead, the economy of the southern states continued to drop, until they had no choice but to surrender in May, 1865, all-around abolishing slavery.
Though slavery was put to an end, the Industrial Revolution has caused another type of slavery to be born: women and children worked in factories for a living, lack of protection and the constant rumbling of machinery resulting in injuries, deformity, and even death were no news to the commoners. In 1881, 22.9% of British boys between 10?14 years old were working, and by 1891 they rose to 26%. Finally their horrible working conditions attracted the attention of the general public and new law was formulated to prohibit children under 12 from working.
Sharecropping became popular in the South after American Civil War. Landlords provided housing and the right of hunting, and most of the harvest will go to the landlords as payment. After the Crop Lien Law was passed, tenants became more like laborers. Their status became lower after Vagrancy Law and Alienation of Labor Law were passed. For example, about 62% of the tenants in Macon County, Alabama barely made their ends meet in 1932.
Because the landlord objected to the children of the tenants receiving education, the illiterate tenant could not obtain the government?s prevention and control information, which caused the outbreak of the weevils in the early 20th century, in 1921, 30% of the cotton fields were damaged. The ravages of weevil also caused a shortage of edible oil in the United States, which made soybeans begin to receive attention.
The 2013 Taiwan food scandal brought the public?s attention to cottonseed oil. Chang Chi Foodstuff Factory Co. (????) was found to have used copper chlorophyllin, an illegal coloring agent for cooking oil, in its olive oil and have adulterated its higher-end cooking oil with cheaper cottonseed oil. Some media claimed that cottonseed oil is dangerous and should not be ingested. They claimed that the main harmful component of cottonseed oil is gossypol, which in EU research shows there is a risk of sperm reduction for a 60 kg of adults eating more than 6 mg of gossypol per day. While this caused a panic in the general public, gossypol can only be found in unrefined cottonseed oil. As early as 1968, the Codex Committee on Fats and Oils held a meeting report on fats and oils standards in Rome, and it was mentioned that refined cotton seed oil would not have gossypol. Of course, fraudulent acts that substituting high price products with that of low price are still subject to legal sanctions. Although copper chlorophyllin cannot withstand high temperature, cottonseed oil is safe to eat. Just because cottonseed oil is not used in Taiwan doesn?t mean it is not edible.
Due to its excellent sweat absorbing abilities and the breathable qualities, many people prefer to wear pure cotton clothing nowadays. But back in the 60s and 70s, artificial fiber was the most-loved material instead. Wrinkle-free without the need of ironing and quick drying, it was a match made in heaven for mothers all around the world who washed their children?s dirty uniforms at night, hoping they would be ready to wear by the next day. Dacron and similar material were especially popular among mothers! But as our society evolved, so has our love for more organic products, and so it?s back to our old friend, cotton.
It?s mind-blowing to think that these small, light, and soft things impacted so many countries around the world!