Where does cotton come from?
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History of Cotton

Paracas textile
A cotton and alpaca wool cloth
from Peru, about 200 AD
(in the Brooklyn Museum)

May 2016 - People first grew cotton to make clothing in South America, where Norte Chico people in northern Peru spun cotton into thread and wove it into cloth around 4000-3000 BC. By 1000 BC cotton cloth, and mixed cotton/alpaca cloth was common all along the Pacific coast of South America, in Central America and Mexico, among the Pueblo people in North America, and in the nearby West Indies islands as well.

When the Apache and the Navajo people moved into the Southwest about 1400 AD, they began to wear cotton clothes too. In South America and North America, unlike in India at the same time, people did not use a machine to get the seeds out, but just pulled out the seeds with their hands.

People grew two different kinds of cotton in North and South America. South American people mainly grew long-staple cotton, with long fibers and few seeds, but long-staple cotton needs very hot, tropical conditions to grow well. Further north, North Americans grew short-staple or upland cotton, which would grow better there. But short-staple cotton had more seeds, and you had to spend a lot of time digging out the seeds by hand. So cotton cloth never became as popular in northern areas as it was in Mexico and Central and South America. Further north than Texas or the Carolinas, even short-staple cotton didn't grow, so people there didn't use cotton at all.

Cotton in India
Cotton after 1500 AD

Bibliography and further reading about cotton:

Cotton and Silk, by Jacqueline Dineen (1988). Easy reading.

Cotton, by Guinevere Healy-Johnson and Nancy Shaw (1999). Also for kids.

Cotton Now & Then, by Karen B. Willing (1996).

Silk
Wool
Linen
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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