COTTON: AN INTERVIEW WITH GIORGIO RIELLO
[by Rebecca Unsworth]
Rebecca Unsworth: What sparked your initial interest in cotton? Why did you decide to focus your research on it?
Giorgio Riello: Research topics often have serendipitous origins. I was looking for a job more than a research topic. Cotton came as part of my “conversion” to global history. The London School of Economics had received support from the Leverhulme to establish a Global Economic History Network (GEHN), what effectively was the first group of scholars working in the field of global history. It was decided that this international network would have also a research component, and that cotton textiles might be a good case study of a global commodity, but also a key topic in the history of industrialisation. I ended up getting a postdoctoral position on the basis that I was among the most “global” candidates. I had done some comparative research and I had an interest in textiles and fashion. I was also trained as an economic historian. Thinking about it now, I was wholly unprepared for the job, and it took more time to master the global element than the subject matter – cotton – of my research. It was decided that this global history of cotton could be a way to test the paradigm of divergence, a concept proposed in 2000 by Kenneth Pomeranz in his The Great Divergence, in which he argued that Eurasia followed a similar path of development until the late eighteenth century when Western Europe “diverged” by industrialising. Cotton textiles fitted the bill perfectly as a possible way to test this suggestive theory. It has taken me the best part of nine years to complete my research. Is my forthcoming book Cotton: The Fabric that Made the Modern World confirming Pomeranz’s story? I will not spoil the surprise, but rather encourage colleagues and students to read (and buy) the book.
RU: You have come from a background in economic history. How important is the materiality of cotton cloth to your research and conclusions? Does viewing and handling objects figure as a part of your research?
GR: Economic historians are often seen as the social scientists of history – number crunching, model and theory-prone scholars, sometimes accused of being rather narrow in their interests and dry in their writing style. All of these accusations seem at the present time to be confirmed by reading articles in
Economic History Review. Yet there is an aspect of economic history that makes it particularly suitable to be adventurous, even multidisciplinary. As it is uninterested in dates and people, it tends to focus on things. For the majority of economic historians such things are commodities to be counted and conveyed through tables. I was lucky enough to have been trained by economic historians with an interest in what is behind the datapoint: one might talk of copper rather than bales of cotton and acquire extensive knowledge of what exactly we are talking about. This can be bookish or acquired “on the ground”, by engaging with material artefacts, such as a piece of cloth, a fragment of a dress, a little ribbon included in a manuscript. So, I personally think that the materiality of artefacts is very important for researchers. I started engaging with material artefacts during my PhD. The topic was eighteenth-century footwear and I realised that all the trade statistics, newspapers adverts, tradecards or parliamentary papers would have not been sufficient to find out about the production, sale and consumption of footwear in eighteenth-century London and Paris. Artefacts revealed a new world for me in two ways. Firstly, I was lucky enough to spend a couple of months at the Royal Ontario Museum as a Gervers Fellow and engage with their shoe collection. Secondly, thanks to artefacts, I started asking new questions, such as “what was the experience of walking in the eighteenth century?”. This is why when I started dealing with cotton textiles, it became natural to integrate artefacts into my research. I also discovered the importance of connecting present and past through artefacts. It is not just a matter of analysing collections in museums, but also observing how shoes or cotton cloth are produced and consumed today. And this entails becoming a bit of an anthropologist.
RU: Have you sought to take a holistic view of cotton in your work, focusing on all aspects of the material, its trade, its use, its meanings, and so on, in all different places and times? Is such an approach possible?
GR: I never thought that my pursuit was “holistic” in any sense. For sure my research on cotton and cotton textiles spans over a millennium and indeed includes different aspects that are economic, cultural and even psychological. However, I do not try to “cover it all”. Perhaps I am more interested in the relationship between these different aspects than in the in-depth analysis of any of them. We tend to produce scholarly work that is characterised by depth rather than breadth. This is not a bad thing per se: we need detailed research in order to avoid appalling generalisations. At the same time however, historians produce rather methodologically-determined analyses. Economic historians are good in their studies of production (for instance of cotton textiles) but often fail when dealing with consumption. Cultural historians produce great analyses of the personal value of cotton garments, but have little insight on whether cotton was omnipresent or a rarity. And so on. I tried to avoid these divisions. This does not mean that I cover everything in the same way. I bring a specific perspective and a limited set of skills (for instance linguistic). A book – and even worse an article – is also a fairly concise exercise. One has to know what to leave out. For instance, my book hardly mentions labour and gives little attention to China.
RU: In the early modern period, “cotton” referred to a type of woollen cloth, whilst John Styles has shown that in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in England, cotton cloth was generally not made purely of cotton, but had a linen warp. Does this terminological inexactitude make cotton a difficult topic to research?
GR: This type of linguistic problem is not uncommon in history, though it is indeed unfortunate that raw cotton was called “cotton wool” and often abbreviated to “wool”. This is because in medieval Europe cotton was still rather rare and was referred to as “wool growing on trees”, a vegetable version of the sheep’s fleece. To complicate things even further, the majority of the so-called European “cottons” were fustians – cloths with a linen warp and a cotton weft. This happened because European spinners were unable to produce a cotton warp resistant enough to withstand the tension of the weaving process. The artefacts themselves in this case are of great value. John Styles is using an electronic microscope to see whether the cloth is a pure cotton (possibly imported from Asia), is a fustian (possibly produced in Lancashire in the case of Britain), or is a pure linen (possibly imported from continental Europe). Together John and I examined the famous Holker Livre d’échantillons now at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris – a kind of report by John Holker on the state of Lancashire cotton manufacturing in 1751 that he produced for the French government through complicated industrial espionage. We discovered that most cloths were fustians; that fustians absorb dyes less evenly than pure cotton; and that the few pure cotton (cotton weft and cotton warp) cloths had a double warp (two yarns): a clever way to remedy the problem of not being able to produce pure cotton cloth, though the final result was a much heavier cloth, because of the double yarn, than anything imported from Asia at the time. This shows what object-based research together with some simple scientific analysis can reveal to the historian.
RU: Eric Hobsbawm has argued that ‘Whoever says Industrial Revolution says cotton’ – do you agree? Is the Industrial Revolution the only period of history which cotton can claim to have had a large impact on?
GR: Hobsbawm was right in the sense that cotton had a prominent role in the history of European industrialisation. Yet the book that I recently completed suggests that Europe was a relatively latecomer to cotton, in the sense that compared to many parts of Asia, cotton has been part of European production and consumption only for a less than three centuries. By contrast, cotton has been a staple production and a cloth worn by a large number of people in many parts of Asia for at least a millennium. Well before Europe, India was at the centre of a vast trade of cotton textiles across and beyond the Indian Ocean, and many regions in the Subcontinent, such as the Coromandel Coast, the Malabar, Gujarat and later on Bengal, were internationally renowned for their products that ranged from colourful chintzes, to beautiful calicoes and incredibly fine muslin cloth. In China too, cotton textile production and consumption developed since at least the late thirteenth century and the cultivation of raw cotton became integral to the Empire’s taxation system. Similar stories can be narrated for Southeast Asia, for the Middle East and West Africa, where cotton textiles were part of the consuming habits of common people well before they became popular in Europe. This however does not diminish the story of technological innovation that is classically associated to the rise of the cotton sector in Europe at the end of the eighteenth century.
RU: Did the desire for cotton cloth drive technological innovation, or did technological innovation produce cotton cloth which then became desirable?
GR: This is a chicken and egg question in the sense that cotton shows that technological innovation is both driving and is driven by what we might call “consumer innovation”. Let me focus just on Europe in this case. When, in the seventeenth century, the European East India companies started to import large quantities of Indian cotton textiles (literally millions of pieces every year), European consumers responded positively, but asked for a series of modifications. The correspondence of the English East India Company, for instance, reveals how the directors in London were asking for cloth with little flowers, rather than the large scale floral designs produced in India, and most importantly they asked for white or light coloured backgrounds, something quite different from the deep red and blue backgrounds as produced in Gujarat and other parts of India. They struggled to get what they wanted, and this was surely an incentive to develop printing in Europe where taste could be more clearly assessed. However, this implied a major technological shift on the part of European textile producers in their ability to use mordants – something not well known in Europe until the end of the seventeenth century – and print with wooden blocks. Eventually they mastered these techniques; not just that, they also changed them to suit a European aesthetic, for instance, by introducing the use of copper plates in the mid eighteenth century.
RU: How important was the ability to decorate cotton to its success as a fabric? Can any other fabrics be decorated in similar ways?
GR: The introduction of cotton as a relatively new fibre to Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries changed not just the “textile mix”, adding a fourth fibre to the existing wool, linen (hemp and flax) and silk, but also transformed the vocabulary of decoration. It is not by chance that the word “chintzy” is used for objects whose decoration is overt the top. This happens because the medium of printing on cloth changed the nature and value of decoration. Before printed textiles, decoration on a cloth was achieved either through the labour-intensive process of embroidery or via the equally expensive and long process of pattern weaving, as in the case of the beautiful medieval velvets and the eighteenth-century damasked silks. Printing brought with it the ability to decorate “on the cheap”. All of a sudden, even a maid, a baker’s wife or a country girl could afford a gown with beautifully colourful flowers, sometimes imitating the expensive silks. Of course, no one was fooled into believing that they were wearing silks, but the “visual effect” was stunning. The consequence, however, is that decoration shifted from being a sign of wealth to being a sign of cheapness. The Victorians were able to overindulge not just in the superfluity of goods but also in a superfluity of decoration. Modernism halted this process and claimed that decoration was bad. The relationship between cotton and the medium of printing is strong even today. Wool is fairly unsuitable to be printed; silk is sometimes printed but we do not wear much of it; linen does not absorb dyes very evenly. Therefore printed textiles are mostly cottons. Recently, I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that some clever fashion designer has started printing winter jumper motifs (stars, Father Christmas etc.) on cotton T-shirts: an ingenious inversion of established decoration conventions.
RU: Did the availability of cotton cause new styles and silhouettes of dress? That is, did the fabric and its properties dictate the clothing which could be made with it, or did the same styles continue to be made just with a new fabric?
GR: The major re-shaping of clothing caused by cotton was what we now call the “Neoclassic” silhouette that emerged in Europe from the 1770s onwards. Clearly the availability of light cotton – and especially muslin – was essential to this type of fashion change. Many of these simple tunic-like dresses were made of Indian muslin and I like to think that this “return to antiquity” was achieved through a material coming from another continent. Later, fine muslins were produced in the English and French mills at a fraction of the price of imported cloth. This enabled the popularisation of this type of dress. However, it would be incorrect to read the history of the rise of cotton in Europe as one of innovation and perhaps fashion. For instance, in the seventeenth century, Asian cotton textiles came to be integrated into the folk dress of several parts of Europe, from Scandinavia to the Dutch Republic. The wonderfully decorated hats worn by Frisian women in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries often made use of Indian chintzes. Going outside the borders of Europe, Indian textiles were used in traditional kimonos, the quintessential unchanging garment of Japanese dress. In Europe, cotton textiles replaced several of the uses that were previously satisfied by linen. Yet at the same time, cotton was also the fabric that brought underwear to millions of people, something to be grateful for.
RU: Can cotton be described as a, or even the, quintessential global material?
GR: My former colleague Luca Molà – an expert on silk – and I often joke about which of the two is the “most global of them all”. For sure one can say that neither wool nor linen were very global in the early modern period. Wool relied on the sheep’s fleece and that was mostly a European specialisation. Linen was present across the early modern world, but was never widely traded at a transcontinental level. Silk is of course key to the so-called “Silk road” trade, was manufactured in Europe well before cotton and became widely sought after by European princes, Chinese Emperors and Indian nawabs. But it remained a fabric for the elite. Cotton’s global reach was not just about the fact that it came to be traded across the world – in Eurasia, in Africa and the New World – already in the late seventeenth century, but also that it entered into the consuming habits of millions and eventually billions of people. That trajectory was momentarily halted in the twentieth century by the rise of synthetics. Yet today cotton is once again the most common fibre across the world. If not the only global material, I would dare to say that it would be at the very top of the charts.
RU: Where does the future of cotton lie?
GR: So far I have talked about cotton and cotton textiles as if they were totally separate from other fibres and fabrics. In reality the picture is made more complex by the fact that the majority of what we wear are mixes of different fibres. Read the label on your jumper and it might say that it is 80% cotton, some elastic fibres and a series of other synthetics. Notwithstanding the fact that cotton is presented as “environmentally friendly”, its properties are not as good as synthetics. This is why pure cotton is used just for T-shirts and linen. We might see some genetic engineering in the future to produce a cotton fibre with better properties in terms of elasticity and capacity to absorb colour. This is not new: the cotton fibre changed substantially over the ten centuries from year 1000 to 2000, well before genetic engineering. Today, cultivators might also wish to develop a fibre that consumes less water, as cotton cultivation is one of the causes of soil depletion in central Asia and Africa. In the foreseeable future, cotton will remain the main fibre used by eight billion people. There does not seem to be a scarcity of raw material with cotton that we now see for certain food staples such as rice. I also think that we will see even more marketing of cotton of “superior” quality: a kind of non-plus-ultra of Egyptian cotton.
RU: Now that your book on cotton is about to be published, are you continuing with your research on cotton, or moving on to other areas of fashion and textile history?
GR: The publication of a book is normally the beginning rather than the end of the engagement with a topic. This happens because one becomes known through the publication of a book as “the expert on”. I am often asked to contribute scholarly articles and talk about shoes in my capacity of “shoe man” (as a journalist told me recently), though my books on shoes were published several years ago. I will probably become a “cotton man” now! More seriously, I hope to work more on two topics. The first is the understanding of how cotton integrated the Indian and the Atlantic oceans. About three quarters of everything that was traded from Europe to West Africa in the eighteenth century was cotton textiles, the majority of which was Indian cloth. Second is silk: I would like to better understand the relationship between the history of silk and that of cotton. As I said, both were quite global, yet their different histories are striking. I should state that I do not believe in specialism fibre by fibre. In my role as Director of the Pasold Research Fund I encourage and support research across topics, materials and periods, thus refraining me from considering cotton as either the most important or the most interesting of topics.
 John Styles, ‘What Was Cotton Cloth in Early Modern Europe?’, Economic and Social History of the Premodern World 1500-1800 Seminar Series, IHR, 5 October 2012
 Eric Hobsbawm, Industry and Empire (London: Penguin, 1999), p. 34
Professor Giorgio Riello – Giorgio is Professor of Global History and Culture at the University of Warwick. He is the author of A Foot in the Past (2006) and has edited several books on the history of textiles, dress, fashion and design in early modern Europe and Asia, among which are Shoes (with P. McNeil) (2006), The Spinning World (2009), and How India Clothed the World (2009). His most recent book, entitled Cotton: The Fabric that Made the Modern World, will be published in March 2013.
Rebecca Unsworth – Rebecca did her BA in History at the University of Warwick, specialising in early modern history. Her main interests are in dress, textiles and global connections in the early modern world. She is currently writing her dissertation on why and how clothing became so structured in the late sixteenth century.
© Rebecca Unsworth, 2013. All Rights Reserved.