Cotton in the Middle Ages

Date: Fri, 31 Mar 95 12:25:16 EDT
Subject: cotton

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 fabric.

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 line another.

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 goods.

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. Thanks.


Webbed by Gregory Blount of Isenfir