Year of Natural Fibers Series – February: Cotton

Presenting: Awbury’s 2019 article series on natural fibersClick here to learn more about this year’s theme.

Articles written by La Salle student and Awbury intern Dan Sardaro.

February 2019 –  COTTON: 

As the month of January came and went, we first learned about flax, a plant used by so many of us in our homes in the form of linen. Now, as the new month of February graces us with its presence, a month that pays homage to the rich and continuous African American history of our nation, we look at another natural fiber – cotton. Cotton dates back millennia to the earliest of peoples, and it obviously is still extensively used today. It is widely known that the industry surrounding cotton has a tainted past. Here in the United States, the relationship between the cash crop and the enslaved Africans who worked tirelessly for centuries to grow it is a painful topic. However, we feel that learning about the historically significant lineage of the plant can lead to a better understanding of its cultural and social impacts on those who were a part of the cotton story.

Cotton plant

We’ll start with cotton’s beginnings. No one quite knows exactly how old cotton is, but scientists date the original use of the plant back to roughly 6,000 B.C. in India and Pakistan. Later came the full cultivation of the plant in the Indus Delta, an area where the Indus River dumps its headwaters into the Arabian Sea. From the delta, cotton spread to Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Nubia, but it wasn’t until the 1st century when cotton was introduced to Europe – Italy and Spain were the first to see this new fiber brought to them by Arab traders. Slowly, cotton spread throughout the other countries in Europe, reaching the northern regions by the late medieval ages. With its spread came technological advances such as the spinning machine in 1738 and the cotton gin in 1793, each helping to create an enormous cash crop industry that would form the backbone of many economies across the globe.

As the demand for cotton – then one of the world’s first luxury products – grew in America and overseas, the need for labor grew with it. It became clear to Southern plantation owners that slave labor was the easiest way to make large amounts of money. Thus, the commoditization of enslaved Africans in America increased exponentially, and millions of people were stripped of their dignity and freedom for generations. Reverend Abel C. Thomas, an abolitionist, wrote of cotton’s inextricable ties to the world’s economy and how it robbed the rights of those who grew it in The Gospel of Slavery, a children’s pro-abolitionist book:

“C stands for Cotton, its beautiful bolls,
And bales of rich value, the Master controls.
Of “mud-sills” he prates, and would haughtily bring
The world to acknowledge that “Cotton is King.”
–The Gospel of Slavery, by “Iron Gray,” [Abel C. Thomas] 1864.

Sharon Tindall will present “The Underground Railroad Quilt Code – Fact or Fiction?” on Feb 23rd

There is little denying that the monetization of a small fibrous plant led to one of the cruelest periods in American history. However, one item that cotton helped produce may have acted as a welcomed sight to escaped slaves traversing north on the Underground Railroad. Quilts, stitched together in multicolored patterns and hung outside the homes of those along the railroad’s path, may have helped guide ex-slaves on their long journey. The idea that these colorful quilts directed slaves is still up for debate by historians today, but the patterns displayed could have served as a covert language that foretold of various things ahead, such as an important landmark or a dangerous town.

Still curious about the history surrounding these centuries-old quilts? On Saturday, February 23rd, Awbury is hosting Sharon Tindall, an advocate and educator of African history. Tindall has spent years researching the origins of the quilts that may have had a large impact in the lives of so many African Americans, and she is sharing her knowledge and passion with the public. We encourage you to come learn more! Click here for more information.


Sources Used:

Gates, Henry Louis. “The Role Cotton Played in the 1800s Economy.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, 19 Sept. 2013, www.pbs.org/wnet/african-americans-many-rivers-to-cross/history/why-was-cotton-king/.

“The History of Cotton Production.” Organic Cotton – Requirements of the Cotton Plant, www.organiccotton.org/oc/Cotton-general/World-market/History-of-cotton.php.