Sunday, November 20, 2011

Cotton shorts thoughts

For the last year or so, nearly every weekend when I am putting on shorts (as one usually does in Brisbane, even during winter,) I think about the longevity of cotton clothes.  I'm not sure of the age of the three pairs of shorts between which I alternate, but I would guess 8 years.  They still fit, but two of them have developed holes in the pockets in which I keep my keys, and I have been meaning to shop for some new ones for a long time.  As for style, let's face it:  provided you buy mens' cotton casual shorts that are of roughly knee length and moderately heavy fabric, fashions in this part of one's attire tend not to change rapidly.  And given the ridiculous hardiness of cotton, it tends to be either an expanding waste line, the fading colour of the cotton, or pocket holes, that provide the urge to replace them; not any lack of integrity in the material itself.

Thinking about cotton's durability made me realise I knew nothing of the history of cotton clothes.  Let's Google around and see what we can see.

Starting at Wikipedia's "History of Cotton" entry (perhaps written by someone else with long lasting shorts?):
The history of the domestication of cotton is very complex and is not known exactly.[1] Several isolated civilizations independently domesticated and converted cotton into fabric.

It goes on to mention cotton being spun in the Indus Valley since at least 3500 BC, although it would seem likely it was being done in Mexico and South America even earlier than that.  Getting closer to properly recorded history, it notes:
Herodotus, an ancient Greek historian, mentions Indian cotton in the 5th century BCE as "a wool exceeding in beauty and goodness that of sheep." When Alexander the Great invaded India, his troops started wearing cotton clothes that were more comfortable than their previous woolen ones.[5] Strabo, another Greek historian, mentioned the vividness of Indian fabrics, and Arrian told of Indian–Arab trade of cotton fabrics in 130 CE.[6]

But a more detailed explanation of cotton in pre-history is to be found at some other websites.  One site notes, for example, that the oldest cotton cloth found was from Mexico and dates from 5000 BC.  It also says the Egyptian use goes back to 3000 BC.

Another site which mentions cotton talks about the invention of weaving and clothes in a broader context.  It's been around for a long, long time:
We have no direct evidence for the antiquity of clothing, but a researcher named Mark Stoneking recently identified variation in different species of human hair and body lice that he argues indicate clothing came into use among Homo sapiens around 70 Kya (= thousands of years ago).
The oldest evidence for weaving is around 25 Kya, from a site called Dolni Vestonice, in the Czech Republic.  This evidence takes the form of impressions of woven fabric left on clay artifacts that were later fired and preserved.  It is almost certainly the case that fiber-based clothing is much older than this, but tropical environments do not usually preserve such organic remains.

Oldest evidence of cotton and weaving are both fairly young, from Neolithic contexts in the Near East, after 10 Kya.  Again, it is almost certainly the case that both the use of cotton and weaving are much older than this.
Sadly, this whole topic is one of those archaeological "blind spots" where we can give only very qualified answers.

So, at least 10,000 years of cotton pants (or their equivalent)?   If you want to go further into a time line of clothes generally, you can always look at the Wikipedia  Timeline of clothing and textiles technology.   One unusual thing that caught my eye:
c. 3000 BC – Breeding of domesticated sheep with a wooly fleece rather than hair in the Near East.[2]

What?  Sheep used to just have hair?  Do any of those survive?  I must follow that link another day...

Anyway, we know now that cotton clothes were a hit with the Europeans when they saw it.  But move forward a bit, and there's a good essay on line about the question of how popular cotton was in the medieval and renaissance period.   Apparently, there was some confusion about the exact nature of the fibre:
In Medieval times, cotton was incorrectly identified as a type of wool by Europeans. It had been described by Theophrastus (306 B.C.), the disciple of Aristotle, as a wool-bearing tree with a pod the size of a spring apple, and leaves like those of the black mulberry. To further complicate matters, John Mandeville (pseudonym), in 1350, wrote an account of seeing Scythian Lambs: "There grew there India a wonderful tree which bore tiny lambs on the endes of its branches. These branches were so pliable that they bent down to allow the lambs to feed when they are hungrie". Late Medieval authors located the tree-lamb in the region of Tatary beyond the Volga (Mongolia). This book, originally written in French, was very popular and was translated into most European languages. The blending of these 2 "facts" was largely responsible for the medieval understanding of "cotton".

The essay includes this cute diagram, presumably from the book, showing the tree lambs:

Cute, in a weird medieval way.

The essay then gives a short history of the spread of cotton through much of Europe (not counting Spain, which was an early user due to their Arab invasion):
Cotton was first "officially" introduced to Europe after the First crusade. Italy was the first Christian nation to understand the significance of cotton, and began marketing it from the 12th century onwards. As a luxury fabric, Germany's earliest record of cotton products was in 1282 as overland transportation from Venice. France began to demand cotton after it appeared at the Champagne Fairs, the first record of sale was from 1376. From those fairs, it spread to England, but in such small quantities, that it was not well known until after the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, and English merchant ships reached the Levant. And even then, it was heavily opposed by the wool guilds and traders until cotton overtook wool in popularity in the mid 18th century.

I guess this helps to explain the Italian reputation in fashion - they recognised the benefit of cotton ahead of the rest of Europe.

The European cotton industry also appears to have advanced due to a bit of dirty work undertaken by a Catholic priest:
Indian master craftspeople and dyers had for centuries kept the secret of how to create colourful patterns. But some converted to Christianity and were betrayed by a French Catholic priest, Father Coeurdoux, in an early act of industrial espionage. Although sworn to secrecy, he published a step-by-step guide in France. The European textile industry got a leg up.
Father Coeurdoux gets a brief mention in Wikipedia in the entry on chintz.  I didn't really know what that was, but you can go and check it out yourself if, like me, you are vague on fabric terms.  (Interestingly, it was so popular that its import into England and France was banned for a long time to protect the fabric industry in those countries.  Hence the intense interest in exactly how the Indians were making it.)

There is slightly more detail about Father Coeurdoux to be found in this extract from a book Cotton: The Biography of a Revolutionary Fibre (I had to take a screenshot):

Surprisingly, it seems cotton was even important in improving lighting (this is from the medieval essay which is linked to before):

Lighting took a revolutionary turn with the advent of using cotton wicks with wax and tallow candles. First recorded in the 13th century, Arboreum cotton was spun to a thick thread that would then be used to dip into waxes to create candles with better burning and lighting properties. Before this time, candles would have used a bark, wood sliver, or sinew wick, and would have produced a smoky, weak flame. Still, candles made of wax and cotton wicks were expensive, and at first, were used by the church and wealthy. However, by the 16th century, cotton wicks seem to have become the standard, with edicts issued in most Italian towns for the mandatory use of cotton with wax for candles.
What wasn't cotten good for?

Anyway, the point of this ramble was to find out that cotton has been around for a very long time indeed, but I wonder:  how long did (say) cotton togas last 2,000 years ago.  I suppose you have to take into account washing methods, which leads me to this interesting pamphlet:  "How did we Improve our Washing Methods Since Prehistory".   It notes that the Greeks just washed clothes in water, but the Romans washed in large ancient laundromats (as it were) involving trampling on clothes in vats, and used this technique for keeping whites white:
Detergents were used, such as the creta fullonica (fuller’s earth), that was stored in small bowls. It helped remove the grease and enhanced the colours. Urine, collected in public urinals, was used for bleaching, and so was sulphur, which was burned under wooden frames over which the cloth was suspended.
It's hard to imagine how well urine soaked and sulphur smoked clothes could have ended up smelling, but I guess it depends on how well the rinsing process worked.   A more detailed description of the Roman method of urine washing can be found here.

[Incidentally, the urine was collected from public urinal pots, into which the public could empty their chamber pots.  I suppose that it's a bit better than just throwing it onto the streets from your apartment, which is what I remember being told was the practice in Edinburgh (and no doubt many other European cities) centuries later.] 

In any event, I would assume modern washing methods, particularly using the front loading washing machine and the relatively gentle tumbling way they way, is going to make your average bit of cotton cloth last a lot longer than your average toga.

I think we've all learnt something today, including the key result that my shorts could potentially last another 7,000 years or so.

What should I look into next?  Underwear?

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