why cotton was king

cottonThe problem was that cotton was very hard to spin and weave:

At just the time that Beau Brummell was dominating the sartorial scene in London and beyond, one other fabric was beginning to transform the world, and in particular the manufacturing world. I refer to cotton. Its place in history can hardly be overstated.

Cotton is such a commonplace material now that we forget that it was once extremely precious — more valuable than silk. But in the seventeenth century, the East India Company began importing calicoes from India (from the city of Calicut, from which they take their name), and suddenly cotton became affordable. Calico was then essentially a collective term for chintzes, muslins, percales, and other colorful fabrics, which caused unimaginable delight among Western consumers because they were light and washable and the colors didn’t run. Although some cotton was grown in Egypt, India dominated the cotton trade, as we are reminded by the endless numbers of words that came into English from there: khaki, dungarees, gingham, muslin, pajamas, shawl, seersucker, and so on.

The sudden surge of Indian cotton pleased consumers, but not manufacturers. Unable to compete with this wonder fabric, European textile workers bayed for protection almost everywhere, and almost everywhere they received it. The importation of finished cotton fabrics was banned in much of Europe throughout the eighteenth century. Raw cotton could be imported, which provided a powerful incentive to the British cloth industry to exploit it. The problem was, cotton was very hard to spin and weave. The solution to that problem is called the Industrial Revolution.

Bill Bryson, At Home: A Short History of Private Life


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