We sat through long History classes in our youth listening to the teacher drone on about Eli Whitney and the cotton gin. Fast-forward to our adult years and we find ourselves tucked neatly into our warm beds with the smooth touch of fresh cotton sheets without a second thought about Eli and his marvelous invention that revolutionized the southern United States economy in the 1800s. But have you ever wondered where this ubiquitous fabric came from and how it evolved to be the world's most widely used natural fiber and the undisputed "king" of the global textiles industry?
Cotton’s history is long. Scientists found cotton remnants in Mexico dating back 7,000 years! Cotton’s cultivation has also been traced back to the Indus Valley to 3,000 BC, simultaneously with the Egyptians. Arab traders brought cotton to Europe during the early Middle Ages, around 800 AD. During the Age of Discovery, when Columbus discovered the Bahamas in 1492, cotton was found growing in the Caribbean, and it gradually made its way to the North American shores of what is now Florida. Cotton cultivation quickly grew in the climate-rich southern states, while a textile industry was also underway in Europe. Cotton was first spun by machine in England in 1730.
Eli Whitney invented his cotton gin as a way to increase the efficiency of cotton production in 1793. The American South was not only shipping cotton north to other states, but it was also popular with markets across the Atlantic. In fact, American cotton was world-renowned in the 18th and 19th centuries. When the Civil War began in 1861, the Northern military blockaded the South’s ports, and the Confederate states’ most valuable export was left to languish in warehouses. Europeans had to find another way to sate their demand for fine cotton.
Here’s where Egyptian cotton enters the scene on a global scale. Although Egyptians had been growing flax for centuries to make linen, the cotton industry in Egypt was still in its infancy in the 1800s. When the American South’s ports were under blockade, the fertile Nile valley was ripe for cotton production, and the Egyptians began to supply the precious cloth to the European market. Quickly the reputation of this fine fabric spread worldwide, and soon thereafter the opening of the Suez Canal permitted Egyptian cotton to be easily traded worldwide. Eventually, the American cotton industry found its footing once again during Reconstruction, and now both nations’ products are available for our comfort.
Advancements in agriculture, manufacturing, and the search for sustainable products have made cotton one of a number of alternative bedding types. Other emerging options include bamboo, hemp, silk, and TENCEL, which is a new temperature-regulating fabric. With a brief history of why Egyptian cotton is valued around the world, you may reconsider where you purchase your bedding, and consider buying American made instead.