Cotton is a natural fibre of vegetable origin, like linen, jute or hemp. Mostly composed of cellulose (a carbohydrate plant substance) and formed by twisted, ribbon-like shaped fibres, cotton is the fruit of a shrubby plant commonly referred to as the "cotton plant". The cotton plant, a variety of plants of the genus Gossypium, belongs to the Malvacae family, which comprises approximately 1,500 species, also including the baobab tree, the bombax or the mallow. The plant, growing up to 10 metres high in the wild, has been domesticated to range between 1 to 2 metres under commercial cultivation in order to facilitate picking. Either herbaceous or ligneous, it thrives in dry tropical and subtropical areas. Whereas by nature the plant is a perennial tree (lasting about 10 years), under extensive cultivation it is mostly grown as an annual shrub. The cotton flower has five large petals (showy, white, white-creamy, or even rose in colour), which soon fall off, leaving capsules, or "cotton bolls", having a thick and rigid external layer. The capsule bursts open upon maturity, revealing the seeds and masses of white/creamy and downy fibres. Cotton fibres of the Gossypium hirsutum species range from about 2 to 3 centimetres in length, whereas Gossypium barbadense cotton produces long-staple fibres up to 5 centimetres length. Their surface is finely indented, and they become kinked together and interlocked. The cotton plant is almost exclusively cultivated for its oleaginous seeds and for the seminal fibres growing from them (i.e. cotton, strictly speaking). In ordinary usage, the term "cotton" also makes reference to fibres that are made into fabric wires suitable for use in the textile industry.
Although the cotton plant is native to tropical countries, cotton production is not limited to the tropics. Indeed, the emergence of new varieties, as well as advances in cultivation techniques led to the exapansion of its culture within an area straddling from approximately 47 degrees North latitude (Ukraine) to 32 degrees South (Australia). Although cotton is widely planted in both hemispheres, it remains a sun-loving plant highly vulnerable to freezing temperatures. Cotton is crucially important to several developing countries. Out of the 65 cotton-producing countries in 2007/08, 52 were developing countries, 21 of which were indexed by the United Nations among the least developed countries (LDCs).
Cotton-growing countries by geographical area, 2005
Source: UNCTAD secretariat
Cotton is of utmost importance to developing countries, particularly in West and Central Africa, where around 10 million people depend on the sector for their revenues. Besides being a major natural fibre crop, cotton also provides edible oil and seed by-products for livestock food. Cottonseed oil is a vegetable oil ranking fifth in world use among edible oils (accounting for about 4% of world consumption of vegetable oil). The cottonseed meal is usually used as roughage in the diet of cattle for its high proteinic and energetic value.
On about fifty species of cotton plants within the world only four
are domestically cultivated for their fibres. The most commonly cultivated
species of cotton in the world include Gossypium hirsutum
and Gossypium barbadense (also referred to as "New World"
species). Gossypium hirsutum originated in Mexico. It is the
most important agricultural cotton, accounting for more than 90% of
world fibre production. Gossypium barbadense, of Peruvian origin,
accounts for about 5% of world fibre. It includes cotton fibres of the
highest quality, such as the Jumel variety (from the Barbados), among
the finest cotton in terms of quality and fibre length. Two additional
cultivated species are Gossypium arboreum (which originated in
the Indo-Pakistan subcontinent) and Gossypium herbaceum (from
southern Africa), which are also called "Old World" or "Asiatic
cottons". These two varieties of cotton with short staple-length
fibre have no commercial value per se (only 5% of world production alltogether).
However, several varieties that are grown on a commercial scale botanically
Source: Institut national agronomique (INA)
The cotton plant has always thrived in the wild. By contrast, the historical origin of its commercial exploitation, particularly with regard to textile uses, is fuzzier. Relevant literary references point to two distinct geographical origins of cultivated cotton, namely, Asia and pre-Columbian America. The first cotton fabric would date back to approximately as early as 3,200 BC, as revealed by fragments of cloth found at the Mohenjo-Daro archaeological site on the banks of the River Indus. From India, cotton textiles probably passed to Mesopotamia, where the trade started around 600 years BC. There is evidence to suggest that trade in cotton started around Rome at the time of Alexander the Great, in the 4th century BC. The trade flourished after the discovery of the maritime route passing by the Cape of Good Hope and the establishment of trading posts in India. Portuguese trading prominence in this part of the world had been challenged by other European countries (notably, France and England) since 1698. The Arab conquests introduced the first cotton manufacturing facilities into Spain (Granada), Venice, and Milan. In England, the first cotton-spinning factory opened its doors in Manchester in 1641. This date marked the beginning of the cotton industry in Europe. The industrial revolution of eighteenth century Europe paved the way for the most far-reaching, influential transformation of cotton textile manufacturing. In this connection, the major technological innovations were the following:
Following these technological developments, those European countries that had managed to imitate the finesse of the Indian fabrics ceased their trade with India almost completely. Only English commerce with India, transacted by the East India Company, continued. However, England kept trading in raw cotton, while trade in processed forms was declining, especially after the demise of the East India Company in 1858. The second largest commercial outlet for Indian cotton was China. Cotton textile manufacturing resumed in India under the influence of Mahatma Gandhi.
In America, cotton was introduced with the arrival of European settlers familiar with cotton culture, who paved the way for the expansion of cotton plantations.
Some authorities trace back the origin of cultivated cotton to the pre-Columbian civilisations of Mesoamerica (particularly in Peru and Guatemala). It is argued that cotton spread to Mexico from these regions and civilizations. Cotton varieties grown in the United States were domesticated independently from cotton species originating in Central America. It is nonetheless interesting to note that American upland cotton, the most commonly cultivated type in the US, botanically derives from Gossypium hirsutum, a pre-Columbian species.
Mahatma Gandhi portrayed while spinning cotton with a wheel is still an outstanding symbol in the collective unconscious. The wheel itself, a device deeply embedded with national history, stands at the centre of the Indian flag.