Field with cotton plants. Field with cotton plants.

Cotton is a vegetable seed fibre consisting of ‘hairs’ attached to the cotton seed in its boll (protective capsule). Cotton comes from several plants of the Gossypium species (family Malvaceae). Cotton fibres are normally soft and fluffy and vary in length from 1.5 to 5 cm. The normal colour of cotton is light to dark cream, although it may be brown or green depending upon the plant variety, the weather and the soil conditions.

Cotton is a shrub, native to tropical and sub-tropical regions, including Africa, the Americas and India. There are four main types of cotton, all of which were domesticated in antiquity:

  • Gossypium arboreum: ‘tree cotton', native to the Indian subcontinent
  • Gossypium barbadense: native to tropical South America
  • Gossypium herbaceum: Levant cotton, native to southern Africa and the Arabian Peninsula
  • Gossypium hirsutum: upland cotton, native to central America, the Caribbean and southern Florida

The oldest evidence for domesticated cotton comes from the Indian subcontinent and dates to about the fifth millennium BC. This date is based on preserved cotton fibres on copper beads from Mehrgarh, an important Neolithic site in the Kacchi Plain, Pakistan. Cotton was cultivated in pre-Columbian Central and Southern America by various ancient groups. The cultivation of cotton in North America began in the seventeenth century. The English word derives from the Arabic word al-quṭn (‘cotton’), and began to be used in about AD 1400. The Spanish word, algodón is also derived from Arabic.


  • MOULHERAT, C., M. TENGBERG, J. F. HAQUET and B. MILLE (2002). 'First evidence of cotton at Neolithic Mehrgarh, Pakistan: Analysis of mineralized fibres from a copper bead,' Journal of Archaeological Science 29 (12), pp. 1393–1401.
  • OWEN-CROCKER, Gale, Elizabeth COATSWORTH and Maria HAYWARD (eds. 2012). Encyclopedia of Medieval Dress and Textiles of the British Isles, c. 450-1450, BRill: Leiden, pp. 151-155.
  • TORTORA, Phyllis G. and Ingrid JOHNSON (2014). The Fairchild Books: Dictionary of Textiles, London: Bloomsbury, p. 148.


Digital source of illustration (retrieved 18 June 2016).


Last modified on Wednesday, 05 October 2016 09:11
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