Cotton: The Fabric that Made the Modern World. That’s a bold statement. I might doubt the validity of the claim if anyone other than Giorgio Riello had made it. Professor Riello teaches global history at the University of Warwick. He has many publications under his belt, including one of my favorite essays on material culture analysis, “Things that Shape History: Material Culture and Historical Narratives,” chapter 1 in a collection of essays, History and Material Culture: A Student’s Guide to Approaching Alternative Sources, edited by Karen Harvey (Routledge, 2009). Riello describes the book as “a history of cotton textiles” that covers the past 1,000 years. To do so much he analyzes cultivation and processing practices that bound farmers to consumers in countries all over the world. He believes the mutual dependency of farmers, processors, marketing firms and consumers transformed the world, and did so much sooner than we might expect. By 1500, the cultivation, production and trade of cotton textiles functioned on the global scale with India at the core (Introduction, pg. 5). Europe overtook India in the by the late 18th century, and the industrial revolution that followed resulted in increased centralization of profit with the processors, and relative impoverishment of the producers. Rest assured, Riello’s ideas convey the complex process by which this occurs, and he augments his essay with black and white as well as color illustrations and extensive evidence (nearly 300 pages of narrative with an additional 100 pages of footnotes). His ultimate goal, to understand the ways cotton, cotton fibers, and cotton textiles (yarn and cloth) “changed the way in which people lived, their tastes, their desires and physical conditions” (Introduction, pg. 13). I look forward to carrying this book around for a while as I ingest his information and consider the ways that material evidence informs this global history. If enough of us read it then we can talk about it at a future conference.

3 thoughts on “Cotton”

  1. This may prove interesting, but it’s already been done, at least in part, by the book “Cotton: The Biography of a Revolutionary Fiber,” by Stephen Yafa (2006). The author traces the birth of cotton to its dominance in European society. It was clear to me, after reading just a small section, that cotton was FAR more prevalent than most people believe. Or maybe that should be want to believe.
    Carolina Capehart
    Brooklyn, NY

  2. Wonderful – a conversation about cotton. Riello argues that his history is not a “commodity history” as others have done, including Yafa. We readers can debate which history of cotton “says it all.” With more than one of these big books about a big fiber we can compare and contrast author styles and agendas as well as different perspectives on cotton. Let the reading begin.

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