This blog entry is by no means a comprehensive research paper on the use of cotton in any time period. It is a compilation of my recent thoughts on the use of cotton in period and a possible explanation for the common misconception that cotton fabric was not in use in the Middle Ages. I was also recently met with surpise when I discussed cotton as a yarn which was available to some weavers in the Middle Ages. Cotton was not commonly available to European weavers, but even Europeans had access to cotton fabric. It was a luxury cloth in Europe, but it was available to nobles who could afford it. For those who have the time to read this lengthy post I will explain why! :)
I have been savoring the January/February issue of Handwoven magazine. Handwoven was a favorite of mine when I first started weaving, there were projects which I could weave following succint directions and achieve lovely results. This was great when I was a beginner, in the intervening years since I stopped relying on other's drafts, yarn choices (admittedly I often used the draft, but did my own calcultions to use yarns of my own choice), etc., Handwoven had lost much of it's appeal. I have conintued to subscribe more to support the magazine for new budding weavers than my own use. The Jan./February issue is a bit different, it focuses on cotton as a yarn and fibre. There are many articles about cottongyarn it's use and tips for finishing and an article about organic cotton yarn as well!
In reading the article on Cotton and it's place in the Industrial Revolution it occured to me, we, especially Americans, associate cotton with the Industrial Revolution. Yes it was during this time that cotton became main stream. Cotton was not commonly in use in many areas, because the process of taking the cotton plant, seperating out the wool from the seeds and I think, because we have always been taught to associate cotton with the Industrial Revoltion, people assume it was not viable as a yarn or fabric prior to this time. I admit I was amoung those who assumed after I had read about cotton fabric from the Sassanian finds (6th C. Persia), that it was only Egyptian Cotton that was period. Yes, I was one of those people who had several long discussions with Sir Clancy about cotton "not being period", well our conversations always revolved around normal cottong being the wrong cottong, but at the end of the day I was still wrong.
Please note, I never told him he should not wear it, I think people should be allowed to make thier own choices about how authentic their garb should be and should not be pressured into meeting other people's standards. We are all individuals and should be allowed to meet the level of authenticity we choose, or which meets our abilities at a given time. Eventually these conversations lead Sir Clancy to do in depth research into cotton cloth during the Middle Ages and it was Clancy who informed me Egyptian Cotton does not actually refer to cotton grown in Egypt, but rather a way of processing yarn that was started in Egypt in the early 19th C, I believe.There are many methods of processing cotton mercerized cotton is very common these days. Mercerization refers to quickly drawing cotton thread through a flame, which gives it more the shine of silk. This is mainly what I have in my stash, but I look forward to aquiring some organic cotton making more samples with organic cotton so I can see the difference this process makes. Another common cotton thread is pearl cotton, I am not sure what is done to pearl cotton in the preperation process. Yes the common processes used to make cotton yarn today were not in use in the Middle Ages, but this does not mean spinners and weavers who lived in areas where cotton natively grows did not have access to it or use it. It means they used a different process from what industry uses today. Yes the tasks to prepare cotton manually are labour intensive, difficult, and require great skill, the same can be said for manually preparing and spinning wool or flax. Not having taken flax from plan to spun thread, I can not say how this compares. However since cotton wool has to be seperated from the seeds, stems and seed husks, it is likely that this is but part of the explanation as to why cotton was less common amoung European textiles. I also think we should keep in mind the practices or early archeologists, for whom cotton had become common place. Perhaps we do not find cotton textiles as often as silk, linin, or wool textiles, because early arhceologists did not find them fascinating and therefore did not take the same care with cotton textiles as they did with these more interesting fabrics.
We know spinners and weavers work with thread and fibre that are found locally, therefore in climates where cotton grows quite readily (I just read cotton is as easy to grow as tomotatoes, btw) spinners and weavers would have made and used cotton thread. Therefore cotton fabric would have been traded by these people to those who could not grow cotton. I am happy to provide a few references for those who would like to know more about cotton fabric in the Middle Ages. Again this was not the topic of this post, but merely my musings as to how this myth has permeated our society(ies).