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South American red and yellow cloth

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

First place where people grew cotton

South America  was the first place in the world where people grew cotton to make clothing.

More South America articles

Norte Chico people in northern Peru spun cotton into thread and wove it into cloth around 4000-3000 BC.

Cotton spreads to North America

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 Caribbean islands too.

Norte Chico people
Native American clothing
What is spinning?

When the Apache and the Navajo people moved into the Southwest about 1400 AD, they started to wear cotton clothes too.

Who were the Apache?

How did they get the seeds out?

In South America and North America, unlike in India at the same time, people did not use a machine to get the seeds out of the cotton after they harvested it. People in the Americas just pulled out the cotton seeds with their hands.

Cotton in India, Africa, and Asia

Long staple and short staple cotton

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 was much more expensive in northern areas than it was in Mexico and Central and South America, and people wore less of it. Further north than Texas or the Carolinas, even short-staple cotton didn’t grow, so people there didn’t wear cotton clothing at all (They made their clothes out of other things).

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).

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