Cotton, the Social Fabric

The world’s first global commodity spawned a network of traders, producers and consumers, whose interactions shaped the modern world, as Giorgio Riello explains.

Block-printed ceremonial hanging with hunting scene, made in Gujarat for the Indonesian market, c.1700. British MuseumJeans are the quintessential global commodity, an item of apparel made from a type of cloth, denim, that is one of the most widely traded goods in the world. As the most common cotton product, denim jeans embody the interconnected world economy of the late 20th and early 21st century. Raw cotton, spun yarn and cotton textiles are among the most treasured commodities worldwide. Cotton is the material of clothing and furnishing and – notwithstanding the success of synthetic fibres in the 20th century – is still the most popular fabric for garments of everyday use.

Yet the story of cotton textiles is not a recent one. In fact, far from being a product of today’s markets and a response to global consumer desires, cotton textiles have been over the past millennium among a small group of internationally distributed goods, which include cotton’s rival, silk, as well as spices and silver. But while the histories of silk, silver and spices are relatively well known, the same cannot be said of cotton, which is often seen as a product of the English Industrial Revolution, a commodity strongly intertwined with the history of European economic growth since the 18th century.

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