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I have been following with interest a recent discussion on the Historic
Costume list about the uses of various fabrics through the ages, and
thought the following posting might be of interest to others. This
particular discussion began when a lady made an impassioned argument for
cotton being a documentable medieval clothing fabric...
---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Fri, 31 Mar 95 12:25:16 EDT
I am not sure if this is of interest to anyone, but recent discussions about
the use of cotton by reenactors led me and others into an off the list
discussion of just what the word "cotton" meant to earlier centuries and just
what forms it may have been used in (i.e. batting, textiles) and how commonly
it was used.
My first indication that this was getting complicated was when Kathleen let
us know that Cromwell ordered shirts of linen and of cotton for soldiers
bound for the Bahamas. I discovered from the respected early textiles
expert, Nathalie Rothstein, that cotton in the 17th century was a word, much
like "flannel," which describes a weave or surface of cloth, and not its
fiber. In fact, in earlier times, "cotton" most often meant a _woolen_
I spent last night reading through Florence Montgomery's _Textiles in
America, 1650 - 1870_ and picking Nathalie's brain, and this is roughly what
I came up with. First, Florence defines "cotton":
<A term used to designate certain woolen cloths from at least the fifteenth
<century, so one must be cautious in reading the term...the explanation of
<the use of the word cotton may lie in the fact that it had also the sense of
<nap or down, and the process of raising the nap of woollen cloths was called
<"cottoning" or "frizzing"...At the end of the sixteenth century, Manchester
<was "eminent for its woollen cloth or Manchester cottons"..."
An 1822 source quoted by this same author notes that in America and the West
Indies, cottons made of wool were chiefly used as clothing for
slaves...though some were worn in Great Britain by "the poor or labouring
husbandmen." This source speculates that the word could have been a
corruption of "coating" i.e. fabric meant for coats.
The point of this is not to say that what we call "cotton" didn't exist in
the 14th century, but that when we look for evidence of its use in the
written record, we need to know that, until well into the 19th century, the
word probably means wool, not cotton.
So, when did _cotton_ such as we use come in? I don't know, yet. Florence's
book is laid out not as a history, but as a dictionary of early textile
terms. I can, however, report that under "Fustian" she tells us that it was a
cotton/linen fabric, originally a linen/ wool (by the way, from here on in
this letter, when I write cotton, I intend the modern meaning of the word).
Fustians were made in Norwich, England as early as 1336, but these were a
wool/linen mixture. In 1554, Dutch and Walloon immigrants to England brought
with them the making of "fustians of Naples" which probably were
cotton/linen, because a 1601 description of fustians says that they were made
"of Bombast or Downe, being a fruit of the earth growing upon little shrubs
or bushes...commonly called Cotton Wooll; and also of Lynnen yarn most part
brought out of Scotland..."
Not mentioned by Florence, but told to me by Nathalie, is the fact that the
reason fustians, as well as any other European textile was not entirely
cotton was because cotton, as a fiber, is quite short, and so does not make a
very strong warp. The warp, of course, is the part of the textile that is
strung on the loom, and the weft is what is woven into it. Linen, on the
other hand, is a very long, and therefore strong, fiber, and makes a very
good warp. Thus, fustian has a linen warp and a cotton weft. Not until 1779
did the English (and thus the rest of Europe) learn how to make a strong
cotton warp, using something called a "mule-jenny."
Meanwhile, in 1600, the East Inda Company was chartered, and began the
regular, and rather high-volume, import of Indian cotton goods (as well as
silks) into England and the rest of Europe. These were not, however,
clothing goods until 1670, but rather coarse cottons, used for sacking,
sailcloth and so on. Under "Indian Goods" Florence Montgomery quotes one
source which says that, prior to 1670, no one apparently _wore_ cotton, but
rather "our more natural and usual wear was cambrics, Silesia lawns, and such
kind of fine flaxen linens, from Flanders and Germany" which the British
received in trade in exchange for their famous woolen goods.
After 1670, "flimsy muslins from India" began seeing use as substitutes for
these just-mentioned fine linens. They were popular because they were cheap,
but they were also shoddy. Cotton used to line a man's coat, for example,
was twelve pence cheaper than linen shalloon, but the cotton wore out
quickly, where shalloon would outlast the coat itself and could be used to
Cottons were so cheap that, by the end of the 17th century, there were strong
moves by the weavers and linen merchants of England to outlaw their import,
which was partly successful. Of particular threat were the printed cottons
from India, and these were outlawed altogether. People were arrested for
owning them. Meanwhile, by the mid-18th century, Britain had developed its
own textile industry, weaving cotton and printing it in imitation of Indian
One last point, since "cotton" referred to a weave, similar to a worsted, one
needs to look for names of particular weaves of cotton fabric from India when
seeking evidence of its use in Europe and America. Such names were legion,
and not at all standardized, but look for the obvious ones such as muslin,
calico, and gingham. The less obvious ones can generally be deciphered with
references to Florence's invaluable book.
This, I hope, will not be the end of this discussion. Without a doubt there
are others on this list who know more than I do about this subject. Someone
else told us that there was a cotton industry in Italy in the Middle Ages,
and it would be interesting to know what sorts of textiles they wove, and
whether any of it was used for clothing, other than batting for a poupoint, I
think it was. How did this southern industry affect northern Europe? There
are many facets of this subject I would like to know about, and I'll continue
my search as well.
Oh, and if this really is too boring for the general list, let me know.