You thought cotton was just a cool, comfortable fabric. You thought all this stuff about sweatshops and TNCs (Transnational corporations) was new. You thought history was sooo boring....so did we...until we started our research on FROM SEED TO SHOP. This hidden cotton story starts millennia ago, but is still shaping and colouring our lives today. We unpick cotton’s past...and show how the clothes we wear today are full of secrets, lies and the dust of empires, and how, by examining these threads steeped in history, we can gain the freedom, clarity, and peace of mind to empower our lives today.
Someone said that those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it, and, like some kind of geopolitical karma, the threads of the cotton story twist and turn, like the shrouding fabric in the dance of the seven veils, alternately revealing and hiding the complexities of a millennia of the relationship between gossypium and homo sapiens.
Investigating the history of cotton and how its use has become ubiquitous today, gives fascinating insights into a surprising number of very current issues. TNCs tick. Colonialism tick. The re writing of history to create a western-centric supremacist narrative tick. The karma of these threads is a testament to history being re-written by the victors.
Prior to its makeover as populous, poor and poverty-ridden, India, where samples of cotton dating from around 3000 BC have been discovered, was for centuries a key player, noted as an exceptionally rich and prosperous country, largely due to its highly successful and diverse cotton industry. According to [source] ‘the cotton textiles of the Harappan civilisation (2300-1700 BC) were produced by sophisticated textile craftsmanship’.
Bangladesh, (coincidentally?) now synonymous with sweatshop labour and abject poverty, was known as a place which produced exquisite cotton fabrics. One traveller eulogised ‘...cotton fabric made in the Kingdom of Rahmi (now Bangladesh) is so fine and delicate that a dress made of it may pass through a signet ring.’
Although Agra and Gujarat in India were also know for producing fine cotton, ‘The best, however, were the Dacca (now Dhaka) muslins which were given names like ‘running water’ (because if placed in a stream it could scarcely be seen), or ‘woven air’ (because if thrown in the air it would float like a cloud) and ‘evening dew’ (because if spread on the grass it would be mistaken for dew)’.
A far cry from the tragic images of the Bangladeshi capital now associated with textile sweatshop tragedies like Rana Plaza. So what happened?
Untangling the knots
In the seventeenth century, Dacca was noted as the most famous textile centre in the world (eclipsing Ahmedabad, Benares (now Varanasi) and Bengal). The English started exporting Dacca muslins around 1666 AD. Less than a decade later, ‘the fashion of wearing these fabrics became pretty general in England’.
Cotton was woven, fabric was shipped, profits were made...for centuries, until vested socio-political interests in Britain lobbied for protectionist laws banning the import of foreign cotton to encourage the exploitation of the poor and vulnerable at home, rather than pay skilled workers overseas.
Centuries later, the GAP, the Primarks the H&Ms, the Wallmart/Asdas and others, discovered the rich vein of exploitable labour forces in former new colonial hinterlands of predominantly low-paid female child labour. The Bangladeshi capital has been making more cotton-related news...for the Rana Plaza building collapse, and a series of fires which have killed workers in textile sweatshops. Consumers are encouraged to think more about their duties as responsible global citizens with a duty of care to the poor and vulnerable. They are not encouraged to have a think about how their prosperous and perhaps paternalisitic gaze may be predicated on the waves of systematic exploitation and protectionism.
Threads of destruction
Exploring the Cotton Story, as it weaves and twists, soft, white, fluffy, stained in sweat and blood, is a surreal experience into the realms of colonialism, protectionism and exploitation of the poor and often desperate. What is striking is that these social motifs, memes of destruction, have remained so persistent. Four hundred years collapsing like a row of dominos into now.
The first TNC?
Leading the charge as a forerunner of neoliberal imperialism, was the British East India Company, a joint venture in 1615 between a British aristocrat and a Mughal emperor. The first textile factory was established in Surat (thrust briefly into the headlines in 1994 for an outbreak of bubonic plague). The second was in Madras (now Chennai). Trading between the Indian cotton and Britain began in 1640, from the port of Calicut...from which the term calico (a type of cotton) derived.
The early days
In India, the cotton industry was diversified. Extensive knowledge of growing the different varieties of gossypium plant, combined with a suitable climate for cultivation and the knowledge to do so successfully, meant that cotton of many different qualities could be produced. Artisans working from home created huge varieties of cottons, which were distributed by an extensive network of merchants and traders.
Reinventing the wheel
Hand spinning cotton was the norm for centuries, although there is evidence that the spinning wheel was known in the Middle East around 1260. The word charkha, meaning spinning wheel, is of Persian origin. With the spread of a technical, cultural and design influence of the Islamic world on Hindu India, from the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries, came the use of the spinning wheel.
While the spinning wheel was used in China in the fourteenth century, in South India, the more labour intensive hand spinning was the norm for centuries.
According to Cotton, the Fabric Which made the Modern World, ‘...the technologies of bowing, reeling, ginning and spinning of cotton suggest the existence of a mutual influence between different areas of Eurasia. There was a slow technological convergence, especially in the [beginning]. However, there was no overall ‘global’ technological
paradigm, no best practice or technological leadership, as each area developed its dedicated technologies, often as a result of specific product specialism.’ (itals added).
Retelling the Cotton Story
And this is mysterious. Because memories of the Cotton Story a la UK schooldays sang a different song. In this version, various kind of handlooms were produced in faraway places with strange-sounding names until the doughty inventions of the spinning jenny, some kind of mule and various other cotton-related technologies, by various very English sounding gents. You know the kind of thing...that notion of history (adapted and embellished, often just plain wrong) + technology (inspirational bolt of lightning concept from some chap) = progress/utopia/land of milk and honey where the just dwell.
This narrative of societal experience, a makeover with scant regard for facts and nuances, is as dangerous as it it simplistic, seductive and obviously ‘true’. And so flattering.
If history is all ‘progress’ (aka development) and we are living now, the cheering implication is that well, hey, we’re at the top of the historical heap. We are progress. We are the best, living in the best of all possible worlds.
This construction/reconstruction of history/human experience/reality becomes visible as the veil of the cotton story is examined, dissected and ripped apart. By teasing out the threads of truth and deconstructing the fabric of lies we call history, we can start to understand ourselves and our place in the world...and find ourselves standing side by side with other people, other nations, other realities...our own stories wrapped around in cotton.