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White Gold: Mapping Cotton Around the World

Cotton belongs to the genus Gossypium and traces its origins back to at least 7,000 years ago. From unearthing cotton strands in cotton beads in excavation cites in Mehrgarh. The presence of cotton fabric was also discovered in caves in the region of Tehucaun, Mexico. It is estimated that the crop was domesticated in Mexico between 5000 BC and 3000 BC.

The cotton shrub is native to tropical and sub-tropical regions in the Americas, Africa and India. Diversity in the crop can be found in Mexico, Australia and Africa. When mapping the history of cotton, one discovers that the plant was independently domesticated and became one of the major crops in these geographies.

The Indus Valley civilisation that covered parts of northwestern India and Pakistan had a thriving cotton industry and several elements of the spinning and weaving continued to be in practice across the sub-continent up until the period of industrialisation. Cotton became widespread in use around 2000 BC.

Picture of Indus valley civilisation

Interesting stories about cotton from India abound. Cotton strands from India have been uncovered from mummies across Egypt and have enjoyed the patronage of civilisations through the centuries. Cotton was known as baumwolle or wool from the tree in the ancient world and was a prized commodity in Greece and Rome.

Cotton plant

In the initial years of the preceding millennium, cotton from India was worth its weight in gold in Rome. Dacca muslin was described by colonial powers as ‘web of the woven wind’ and came from a native staple of cotton called forma bengalenses. It was believed to be unmatched by any other fabric in the world.

A pile of cotton fabric

In the contemporary world, there are numerous varieties of cotton that are grown across the countries. There are around 80 nations that currently grow varieties of cotton. China, India and Pakistan top the charts with their production quantities. However, owing to climatic conditions, a large portion of the cotton grown in these countries is consumed domestically. USA is the largest exporter of cotton.

Cotton in India

India is the only country to grow all four species of cultivated cotton that is known. Some of the popular varieties include

  • Egyptian Cotton
  • Sea Island Cotton
  • Pima Cotton
  • Asiatic Cotton
  • American Upland Cotton
  • Canton Cotton
  • French Terry Cotton
  • Organic Cotton
  • Bamboo Cotton

Some fun facts about cotton growth in India*

  • India has the largest area devoted to cotton cultivation
  • Around 9.4 million hectares are devoted to cotton cultivation
  • India produces a large number of cotton varieties and hybrids
  • Around 25 varieties of cotton comprise around 98% of the production
  • Gujarat tops the national production statistics with 659 kg / hectare

*Source: Business World, September, 2017

Map of India showing cotton cultivation in different states