A Brief History of Cotton

Kameleon Kids Learning: A Brief History of Cotton

Our babygrows, bibs, scratch mits and hats are all 100% cotton. Our rompers are additionally organic. Here we look at the rich and long history of cotton: the good, the bad and the ugly.

This is the first in a series of blogs exploring the materials we use and the dyeing process.

“A wool exceeding in beauty and goodness that of sheep.” Herodotus, 5th century BC

Cotton Field History of Cotton

Photo Author Kimberly Vardeman

A Brief History of Cotton

Pre 3000BC

The history of the domestication of cotton is hazy and there is little known of its exact beginnings. We do know that it dates back to at least 4500BC. Some of the oldest specimens of cotton bolls are from approximately 3600BC. They are interestingly much the same as the cotton we grow today.
Cotton is believed to have originated in Peru, with genetic evidence pointing to this.
Cotton was spun as early as 3000BC in Asia whilst being grown and processed in Mexico and Arizona.

The Greeks and Romans

When Alexander The Great invaded India he first saw cotton. The common woollen uniforms and clothes of the greeks were soon replaced with that of cotton. They were much more comfortable for his troops than the previous woollen ones. Cotton is breathable, while also keeping you cool on hot days and warm on cold days. This made it ideal for soldiers. Camel Caravans then began exporting cotton to other parts of the world from India.

The Muslim conquer of Spain in the 8th Century created new shipping ports. This opened up the European Cotton trade.

In 1492 Columbus discovered America. He also saw cotton plants growing and natives wearing cotton clothes. He was in awe of these clothes and more cotton was hence planted in the USA.


The Middle Ages

Amusingly during the middle ages, rumours spread of a plant animal hybrid producing cotton,. The ‘lamb plant’ was termed, despite the previous knowledge of the origins of cotton.

riginally from The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary... by Lee, H. 1887 History of Cotton

Originally from The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary… by Lee, H. 1887

The British Empire

The East India Company was a British company set up to trade commodities from the East Indies to Britain. Cotton was one of their predominant products. By 1664 they were importing a quarter of a million pieces of cotton into Britain. Cotton is one of the most hygienic fabrics as it can be cleansed with ease and little effort. Thus, cotton took off with the British as they became more and more aware of personal hygiene and cleanliness. Brits were also now keeping an eye on fashion. Cotton can also be dyed many different colours making it malleable with fashion changes. This cemented cotton as the fabric a la mode.

East India Company Docks History of Cotton

East India Company Docks

The Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution meant the cotton industry expanded quickly. Over 40% of British exports were Cotton between 1784–1786. 200,000 children worked in Manchester’s new cotton mills creating garments and cotton products. Conditions were unfortunately poor. The British used their power in India to force cotton manufacture to Britain. They created high taxes for garment workshops and harsh restrictions on imports to Britain. India ended up simply cultivating the crop and acting as a source of the raw cotton.

Old Cotton Mill Lancashire History of Cotton

Old Cotton Mill Lancashire

Cotton Shipping from USA History of Cotton

Bremen, shipping Cotton from USA
Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R96987 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Shift to African Cotton and Slavery

Cotton imports had shifted previously from India to the USA. Southern USA then used this against Britain. They tried to withhold their cotton to force Britain’s involvement in the Civil War, to no avail. Britain began importing Egyptian Cotton. In 1882 the USA cotton industry fell as a plague of weevils infested their crops. This created problems for over one hundred years. So Britain began looking elsewhere for not only reliable but cheaper cotton.

from the New Pictorial Atlas of the World" by George Wharton James and Alan H. Burgoyne, 1921 John Thomas History of Cotton

from the New Pictorial Atlas of the World” by George Wharton James and Alan H. Burgoyne, 1921 John Thomas

Britain looked to their African Colonies. To those who had a cheap supply of cotton, such as West Africa and Mozambique. Tariffs for cotton production here were high, so cotton still was manufactured elsewhere. The actual cotton found here was cheap and the labour, such as picking, was even cheaper. Africans became exploited and shipped to other countries. Predominantly the USA to pick cotton there as slaves.

Cotton as a modern commodity

Cotton production was booming in Britain in 1912. Then The First World War began. This meant that cotton products could no longer be exported from Britain. So other countries set up their own manufacturing plants. Demand for British Cotton products continued to decline. Japan decided to be innovative and in 1933 began 24-hour production of cotton. This made it cheaper and more plentiful. India at began boycotting British cotton, exacerbating the slump even more.

World War Two then created a new need for cotton: parachutes, uniforms and such were vital. Employment rose in the industry including for those from the Indian sub-continent. However as the war ended, demand for British cotton products began to decline. Britain began importing cotton products as a cheaper means.d. New workers were employed including those from the Indian sub-continent. However demand for British cotton products after the war again began to decline so Britain began importing cotton products as a cheaper means.


Cotton products are now produced mainly in China, the USA and India. The USA is the largest exporter of cotton. Since the 1980s the demand for cotton has almost doubled. There is an even greater demand for synthetic materials such as acrylic and polyesters. Even more than the demand for organic cottons. This is due to its cheap creation from poor materials and our ‘fast fashion’ culture. You only wear an outfit a few times, so it doesn’t need to be good quality.

Lancashire in England, over the last few years, has been reviving the British textile industry. This includes manufacturing cotton clothes. All our babygrows, hats, bibs etc. which are not organic are made in Britain. We believe in supporting local businesses and not supporting cheap, ‘slave’ labour. We also believe our clothes should not be ‘fast’. They should last until after your child has outgrown them. and then they can even then be passed down to your other kids.

The National Cotton Council of America
New Internationalist Magazine: Issue 399
Huckell, Lisa W. (1993). “Plant Remains from the Pinaleño Cotton Cache, Arizona”. Kiva, the Journal of Southwest Anthropology and History 59 (2): 148–149.
Volti, Rudi (1999). “cotton”. The Facts On File Encyclopedia of Science, Technology, and Society.
Yafa, Stephen (2005). Cotton: The Biography of a Revolutionary Fiber. Penguin Group.
Schoen, Brian (2009). The Fragile Fabric of Union: Cotton, Federal Politics, and the Global Origins of the Civil War. Johns Hopkins University Press. pp. 26–31.
“Cotton – a history”. New Internationalist 399. 1 April 2007.
“The Civil War Era (1850–1877)”. Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. History: Government and Politics. 2008.
“We Don’t Cotton to Boll Weevil ‘Round Here Anymore”. Agricultural Research Service. United States Department of Agriculture. Retrieved 14 June 2011.
“Boom to Bust – The Decline of the Cotton Industry”. Nation on Film. BBC. Retrieved 28 June 2011.