After "Cotton" Was Wool

Though cotton has been woven into textiles in some parts of the world since ancient times, it was just coming into its own in Regency England. By that time, new inventions had made it possible to mechanize many of the processes required to produce cotton thread and cloth. Therefore, fine cotton fabrics could be produced at a significantly lower cost. Though it had become fashionable for both clothing and furnishing fabrics by our favorite decade, there were still a few physicians who believed cotton could be harmful to the health of anyone who came into contact with it. Regency authors may wish to include one or more of these curious aspects of cotton history in an upcoming story.

Cotton through the Regency . . .

The cotton plant is a shrub which is native to tropical and sub-tropical regions in multiple areas around the world. The long, soft fibers which surround the seeds inside the boll can be spun into thread and woven into cloth. Several ancient cultures independently domesticated the plant and put in under cultivation for use in the production of cloth. Evidence of cotton fiber and cotton bolls, much like that grown today, were found in caves in Mexico and were estimated to date from about 3600 BC. One of the earliest known pieces of woven cotton cloth was found in the Indus Valley and was dated to about 4000 BC. In addition to the countries of the Indian sub-continent, cotton was grown and woven into cloth in Egypt and other countries of the Middle East for several centuries. However, the production of cloth from cotton was so labor-intensive that only people of wealth and high status could afford garments made of cotton.

Alexander the Great was one of the first Europeans to encounter, and appreciate, cotton cloth. When he invaded India in 325 BC, he took notice of the cotton fabric from which most garments in the region were made. He quickly appreciated that it was lighter and more comfortable in the warm and humid climate than was the wool clothing he and his men traditionally wore. Even after the death of Alexander the Great, trade among the countries he had conquered continued, particularly between India and Arabia. And that trade included cotton cloth. It is believed that Arab traders brought cotton cloth to the shores of Italy in the eighth century. During that same period, the Muslim conquest of Spain brought cotton, both cloth and the raw fiber, to the Iberian Peninsula. By the Middle Ages, cotton cloth was known and used by affluent members of society across Europe. With the introduction of the spinning wheel to Europe, about 1350, the speed of spinning cotton fiber into thread was singificantly improved. This new technology was one of the first to slightly reduce the cost of producing both cotton thread and cloth. However, it remained fairly expensive since the cloth still had to be hand-woven.

As early as the Middle Ages, Europeans were aware that fine cottons were made in what was then known as the East Indies. Therefore, in 1492, when Christopher Columbus explored the islands of Cuba and the Bahamas and came upon natives wearing cotton garments, he was further convinced he had found the East Indies. By the turn of the sixteenth century, cotton cloth was known and valued in most countries around the world, though it still remained a costly cloth. With the establishment of the Dutch, English and later the French, East India Companies at about that time, raw cotton and fine printed cotton cloth was imported into Europe. Since the brightly colored printed cottons were primarily shipped from the port of Calcutta, they came to be known as calicos.

In England, from the Middle Ages through the sixteenth century, the term "cotton" was used to refer to a cheap type of woven woolen cloth which had a slight nap or fuzziness, due to the poor quality of the wool used to make it. In the sixteenth century, the term which had once been used for woolens gradually came to be applied to the cotton cloth which was being woven in Britain. The invention of the hand-operated cotton gin and the spinning wheel in India made it possible to produce cotton cloth for export at reasonable prices. But the influx of this cloth into Britain concerned many of the textile manufacturers there. By 1699, the importation of cotton textiles from India was prohibited by Parliament. Instead, only raw cotton was imported from India into Britain, where it was then made into cloth on English looms. However, until the mid-eighteenth century, those looms were spread across the country, as all cloth manufacture was done by hand, by individual spinners and weavers, in their homes. The finished goods were then shipped by pack-horse trains or on canal-boats to central warehouses from which they could be distributed to the merchants who sold them.

In the seventeenth century, linen, wool and silk were the fabrics most commonly woven in Britain. But before the end of the century, cotton had eclipsed them all to become the most important textile made in the country. The numerous innovations in both the types of machines and the use of water and steam power during the Industrial Revolution had several significant ramifications for the production of cotton thread and cloth. Carding and spinning advances ensured the faster production of stronger and finer threads, which made it possible to quickly weave very fine, strong cloth. In 1812, the first reliable powered weaving machine was introduced. With this innovation, it became possible to accomplish all of the stages of cotton cloth production in one factory. Therefore, it became necessary to bring the production of textiles to centralized locations that could be readily supplied with power. That need led to the construction of large textile mills filled with sophisticated power carding and spinning machines along with the powered looms. This spelled the collapse of the cottage industries of spinning and weaving, as textile workers were then required to come to the mills to produce thread and cloth on machines they did not own.

Though the cotton plant could not be successfully grown in Britain, vast amounts of raw cotton was imported, first from India, and then from the southern United States, for use in making cotton cloth. The invention of the power-driven cotton gin, by Eli Whitney, in 1793, made it possible for the United States to produce very clean raw cotton quite inexpensively. That raw cotton soon became the preferred raw cotton for British textile manufacturers. Bristol, Liverpool and Glasgow, along the western coast of Britain, had become the major ports of entry for raw cotton imported from India and then, from the United States. Liverpool, in particular, was an important port from which finished cotton goods were exported to foreign markets. By the Regency, cotton production in Britain was primarily centered in the Midlands, where water power was plentiful.

Powered textile mills were usually located near rivers or canals in order to take advantage of low-cost and reliable water power. These same locations also enabled mill owners to take advantage of low-cost shipping rates on those same rivers and canals. Improved and mechanized textile production, coupled with cheap shipping rates, significantly reduced the production and delivery costs of cotton textiles. Therefore, by the latter decades of the eighteenth century, cotton was no longer a luxury fabric, affordable only by the affluent. By the turn of the nineteenth century, even many in the lower middle classes could afford to buy cotton cloth and/or garments made from it. But what was perhaps the most compelling change in lifestyle which made cotton garments so appealing to people as the nineteenth century dawned? The rise in personal hygiene.

From the Middle Ages until the last decades of the eighteenth century, physicians, medical manuals and even public etiquette held that people should only wash those parts of their body which were visible to others, and only when they would be in the company of other people. It was believed that contact with water would allow "bad air" to penetrate the body through the pores of the skin. The majority of people, from all social classes, avoided bathing, particularly full immersion baths. Most were content to simply change their undergarments from time to time in order to present what they considered to be a well-groomed appearance. Therefore, prior to the turn of the nineteenth century, there were few bathtubs in even the best homes, and most personal hygiene fell to the laundresses who washed linen under-garments when they became soiled.

In the second half of the eighteenth century, public attitudes toward bathing slowly began to change. In fact, there were a couple English medical books published during that time which specifically asserted that regular bathing was a good way to maintain better long-term health. In addition to sea bathing, more and more people were bathing regularly in their homes. This change in attitude was accompanied by a gradual increase in the production of full bathtubs and hip baths, both of which became more affordable over time. The volume of production of soap also increased, again, helping to reduce the price. Thus, the items needed for regular bathing were becoming affordable to nearly everyone and more and more people incorporated bathing and/or regular washing of their body into their personal toilet.

The last decade of the eighteenth century also saw the rise of the dandy, a man who took great pride in his appearance, including a high regard for personal cleanliness. Such men not only bathed regularly, they also preferred to wear only clean, freshly laundered garments. Among these men can be counted both Beau Brummell and the Prince of Wales. These leaders of fashion were followed by more and more people, so that the prejudice against bathing steadily declined as the nineteenth century approached. Even before the Regency began, most members of the upper and middle classes, both men and women, bathed daily and typically changed their clothes more than once a day. Which meant that they wanted garments which could be easily washed and dried and were not prohibitively expensive.

Wool cloth was relatively inexpensive, but it certainly did not meet the requirement of being able to stand up to regular washing, without shrinkage or distortion. Silk was expensive, and too delicate to endure the rigorous type of washing which was practiced by most laundries in the early nineteenth century. However, both linen and cotton cloth were reasonably priced. More importantly, they could be repeatedly washed, were easily and quickly dried and, with care, could be pressed with hot flat irons to eliminate wrinkles, without damage or significant shrinkage. But of the two, cotton cloth was preferred, particularly for most outer garments, since it could be readily dyed or printed in a wide array of colors and designs. Cotton could also be woven into very fine, light cloth, which draped beautifully, and, unlike linen, was soft from the time it came off the loom.

By the Regency, most ladies favored cotton not only for many of their outer garments, they also preferred it for their undergarments and night clothes. The majority of Regency gentlemen preferred shirts made of linen, perhaps because starched linen collar points tended to remain more fully erect better than did cotton shirt collar points. However, a number of gentlemen did prefer cotton nightshirts and night caps. From the late eighteenth century, cotton was also popular for gentlemen’s lightweight summer waistcoats. Many Regency ladies and gentlemen preferred cotton to linen handkerchiefs, including the very large colored snuff handkerchiefs carried by those who regularly used tobacco in powdered form.

Though finely woven cotton cloth was particularly popular for ladies’ garments, cotton was a very versatile fiber which could be made into a wide array of fabrics. By the early nineteenth century, cotton cloth from fine white muslins to heavy corduroy and even velvets were available. Because they were almost completely machine-made, they were much less costly than traditional silk and woolen cloth. From the last years of the eighteenth century, powered textile mills had become so sophisticated that they were able to produce a number of fabrics which were made up of blends of fibers. One of the most popular of those was blends was a combination of cotton with linen that was used to make corduroy and velvets. These napped fabric blends, of what had once been luxury fabrics, were very sturdy and, due to mechanization, could be produced at a much lower cost. In fact, cotton/linen blend velvet was so sturdy and so reasonably-priced that it also became a popular furnishing fabric, being used for upholstery, cushion covers and even counterpanes.

Almost as soon as cotton cloth began to be produced in Britain, many in the medical community came out against it. It was a long-held belief by a number of physicians that one of the most important features of clothing was to retain body heat. Wool, the traditional British cloth, was thought to be the most healthy to wear, since wool garments were considered to be the most effective at keeping the body warm. Never mind that wool was much more difficult to clean. Even as the nineteenth century began, there were still a few doctors who believed that cotton was a sub-standard cloth. They were of the opinion that cotton could not keep the body warm enough to maintain good health for the wearer. It was also believed by some that cotton cloth, especially muslin, was not thick enough to protect the skin from contact with "bad air," which was thought to trigger a host of ailments. Though many Regency women were perfectly pleased with light, comfortable garments made of cotton muslin, at least a few of them would have had physicians who would have disapproved of those garments. There were quite a few people outside the medical profession who were also distrustful of cotton. These people generally believed that cotton was an inferior fiber which was fit only to be used in the making of towelling.

Dear Regency Authors, now that you know a bit more about cotton and the attitudes toward it during the Regency, might you use some of that information in an upcoming story of romance? Might a romance be set in the British Midlands, the primary center of cotton manufacturing, where great fortunes could be made, but child labor was rampant? [Author’s Note:   Child labor laws were first enacted in Parliament in 1833. There were no such laws during the Regency. In fact, birth certificates were not introduced in Britain until 1836, so many of the children working in Regency-era mills were not sure of their own ages. Therefore, factory owners could not have been charged with employing underage children, had there been any laws to that effect. ] Then again, the story could be set in Liverpool, one of the most important ports for both the import of raw cotton and the export of finished British goods. It was an important and bustling city during the Regency. Mayhap the heroine is about to make her debut in London and is excited to have some new cotton dresses, but her very traditional grandmother believes such clothing will make her granddaughter ill. How might that be resolved? Or, might the hero be working for the Crown, to put a stop to the illegal importation of inexpensive Indian calico cloth into England? Are there other aspects of cotton in the Regency which might serve the plot of a romance set during our favorite period?


About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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5 Responses to After "Cotton" Was Wool

  1. And yet a linen shift had been a staple clothing item since the middle ages. There is scope here for an eccentric old woman character who, like the wee man of the folk song wears ‘wool unto the skin’.
    The concept of cotton bolls was presented by one ‘John de Mandeville’ a pseudonym of a medieval purveyor of nonsense about other countries as little lambs growing on bushes, which grew heavy enough to weigh down the bush so they could crop the grass. However, cotton was well known in Medieval Spain where it was used instead of Linen to make sails, because cotton grew better than flax, and the concept had been brought by the Moors. Cotton blend materials were well known in Florence which produced a lot of luxury cloth. This is probably utterly useless, but as you know I am a medievalist and hoped you might find it interesting.
    The plot bunny I am seeing is an initial ‘war’ between the heroine, struggling to hold her family lands dependent on wool – perhaps she is in Lincolnshire with the long staple Lincolnshire sheep [6-8″ staple] and trying to sell the wool, and finding that the new young owner of a cotton mill is trying to take her market. After initial conflicts they decide to combine … in more ways than one.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Thank you for the information from the Medieval period. I ran across most of it while doing my research, but did not put it in the article. However, I imagine at least a few readers here may find it of interest. But I did not know about the use of cotton to make sails. That is a surprise to me, since I had always thought that linen was the fiber of choice since it was stronger and better able to withstand the beating to which sails were subject.

      I love the plot bunny! Long staple wool and cotton should make a very happy marriage! 😉



      • I was also surprised about the sails, which I came across in research into shipping. I suspect large ships may have purchased a linen suit of sails, but I was primarily looking into shipping in the Med

        • gordon759 says:

          Sail cloth was made in different weights for use under different conditions. A light, cotton based, cloth would have been used in very calm tropical conditions in order to catch whatever wind there was. A ship sailing, to India, for example would carry several sets of sails to use in different climate conditions.
          I first came across the light tropical canvas in researching the work of the aviation pioneer Sir George Caley who used it to make the wings of his early nineteenth century gliders.

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