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Marco Polo 13th century refers to the major products of Persia, including cotton. John Chardin , a French traveler of the 17th century who visited Safavid Persia , spoke approvingly of the vast cotton farms of Persia. Egyptians grew and spun cotton in the first seven centuries of the Christian era. Handheld roller cotton gins had been used in India since the 6th century, and was then introduced to other countries from there.
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The Indian version of the dual-roller gin was prevalent throughout the Mediterranean cotton trade by the 16th century. This mechanical device was, in some areas, driven by water power. The earliest clear illustrations of the spinning wheel come from the Islamic world in the eleventh century.
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During the late medieval period, cotton became known as an imported fiber in northern Europe, without any knowledge of how it was derived, other than that it was a plant. Because Herodotus had written in his Histories , Book III, , that in India trees grew in the wild producing wool, it was assumed that the plant was a tree, rather than a shrub. This aspect is retained in the name for cotton in several Germanic languages, such as German Baumwolle , which translates as "tree wool" Baum means "tree"; Wolle means "wool". Noting its similarities to wool, people in the region could only imagine that cotton must be produced by plant-borne sheep.
John Mandeville , writing in , stated as fact that "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 hungry. Cotton manufacture was introduced to Europe during the Muslim conquest of the Iberian Peninsula and Sicily. The knowledge of cotton weaving was spread to northern Italy in the 12th century, when Sicily was conquered by the Normans , and consequently to the rest of Europe.
The spinning wheel , introduced to Europe circa , improved the speed of cotton spinning.
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Under the Mughal Empire , which ruled in the Indian subcontinent from the early 16th century to the early 18th century, Indian cotton production increased, in terms of both raw cotton and cotton textiles. The Mughals introduced agrarian reforms such as a new revenue system that was biased in favour of higher value cash crops such as cotton and indigo , providing state incentives to grow cash crops, in addition to rising market demand. The largest manufacturing industry in the Mughal Empire was cotton textile manufacturing , which included the production of piece goods , calicos , and muslins , available unbleached and in a variety of colours.
The cotton textile industry was responsible for a large part of the empire's international trade. The worm gear roller cotton gin , which was invented in India during the early Delhi Sultanate era of the 13th—14th centuries, came into use in the Mughal Empire some time around the 16th century,  and is still used in India through to the present day. The diffusion of the spinning wheel, and the incorporation of the worm gear and crank handle into the roller cotton gin, led to greatly expanded Indian cotton textile production during the Mughal era.
It was reported that, with an Indian cotton gin, which is half machine and half tool, one man and one woman could clean 28 pounds of cotton per day. With a modified Forbes version, one man and a boy could produce pounds per day.
If oxen were used to power 16 of these machines, and a few people's labour was used to feed them, they could produce as much work as people did formerly. In the early 19th century, a Frenchman named M. Jumel proposed to the great ruler of Egypt , Mohamed Ali Pasha , that he could earn a substantial income by growing an extra-long staple Maho Gossypium barbadense cotton, in Lower Egypt , for the French market. Mohamed Ali Pasha accepted the proposition and granted himself the monopoly on the sale and export of cotton in Egypt; and later dictated cotton should be grown in preference to other crops.
Egypt under Muhammad Ali in the early 19th century had the fifth most productive cotton industry in the world, in terms of the number of spindles per capita. Exports continued to grow even after the reintroduction of US cotton, produced now by a paid workforce, and Egyptian exports reached 1. Initially imported as a novelty side line, from its spice trading posts in Asia, the cheap colourful cloth proved popular and overtook the EIC's spice trade by value in the late 17th century.
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The EIC embraced the demand, particularly for calico , by expanding its factories in Asia and producing and importing cloth in bulk, creating competition for domestic woollen and linen textile producers. The impacted weavers, spinners, dyers, shepherds and farmers objected and the calico question became one of the major issues of National politics between the s and the s.
Parliament began to see a decline in domestic textile sales, and an increase in imported textiles from places like China and India. Seeing the East India Company and their textile importation as a threat to domestic textile businesses, Parliament passed the Calico Act, blocking the importation of cotton cloth.
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As there was no punishment for continuing to sell cotton cloth, smuggling of the popular material became commonplace. In , dissatisfied with the results of the first act, Parliament passed a stricter addition, this time prohibiting the sale of most cottons, imported and domestic exempting only thread Fustian and raw cotton. The exemption of raw cotton from the prohibition initially saw 2 thousand bales of cotton imported annually, to become the basis of a new indigenous industry, initially producing Fustian for the domestic market, though more importantly triggering the development of a series of mechanised spinning and weaving technologies, to process the material.
This mechanised production was concentrated in new cotton mills , which slowly expanded till by the beginning of the s seven thousand bales of cotton were imported annually, and pressure was put on Parliament, by the new mill owners, to remove the prohibition on the production and sale of pure cotton cloth, as they could easily compete with anything the EIC could import.
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The acts were repealed in , triggering a wave of investment in mill based cotton spinning and production, doubling the demand for raw cotton within a couple of years, and doubling it again every decade, into the s . Indian cotton textiles, particularly those from Bengal , continued to maintain a competitive advantage up until the 19th century. In order to compete with India, Britain invested in labour-saving technical progress, while implementing protectionist policies such as bans and tariffs to restrict Indian imports.
India's cotton-processing sector changed during EIC expansion in India in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. From focusing on supplying the British market to supplying East Asia with raw cotton. As the Artisan produced textiles were no longer competitive with those produced Industrially, and Europe preferring the cheaper slave produced, long staple American, and Egyptian cottons, for its own materials.
The advent of the Industrial Revolution in Britain provided a great boost to cotton manufacture, as textiles emerged as Britain's leading export.
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In , Lewis Paul and John Wyatt , of Birmingham , England, patented the roller spinning machine, as well as the flyer-and-bobbin system for drawing cotton to a more even thickness using two sets of rollers that traveled at different speeds. Later, the invention of the James Hargreaves ' spinning jenny in , Richard Arkwright 's spinning frame in and Samuel Crompton 's spinning mule in enabled British spinners to produce cotton yarn at much higher rates.
From the late 18th century on, the British city of Manchester acquired the nickname " Cottonopolis " due to the cotton industry's omnipresence within the city, and Manchester's role as the heart of the global cotton trade. Production capacity in Britain and the United States was improved by the invention of the modern cotton gin by the American Eli Whitney in Before the development of cotton gins, the cotton fibers had to be pulled from the seeds tediously by hand. By the late s, a number of crude ginning machines had been developed.
However, to produce a bale of cotton required over hours of human labor,  making large-scale production uneconomical in the United States, even with the use of humans as slave labor. The gin that Whitney manufactured the Holmes design reduced the hours down to just a dozen or so per bale. Although Whitney patented his own design for a cotton gin, he manufactured a prior design from Henry Odgen Holmes , for which Holmes filed a patent in By the s, India was no longer capable of supplying the vast quantities of cotton fibers needed by mechanized British factories, while shipping bulky, low-price cotton from India to Britain was time-consuming and expensive.
This, coupled with the emergence of American cotton as a superior type due to the longer, stronger fibers of the two domesticated Native American species, Gossypium hirsutum and Gossypium barbadense , encouraged British traders to purchase cotton from plantations in the United States and plantations in the Caribbean. By the midth century, " King Cotton " had become the backbone of the southern American economy. In the United States, cultivating and harvesting cotton became the leading occupation of slaves.
During the American Civil War , American cotton exports slumped due to a Union blockade on Southern ports , and also because of a strategic decision by the Confederate government to cut exports, hoping to force Britain to recognize the Confederacy or enter the war. This prompted the main purchasers of cotton, Britain and France , to turn to Egyptian cotton. British and French traders invested heavily in cotton plantations. The Egyptian government of Viceroy Isma'il took out substantial loans from European bankers and stock exchanges. After the American Civil War ended in , British and French traders abandoned Egyptian cotton and returned to cheap American exports, [ citation needed ] sending Egypt into a deficit spiral that led to the country declaring bankruptcy in , a key factor behind Egypt's occupation by the British Empire in During this time, cotton cultivation in the British Empire , especially Australia and India, greatly increased to replace the lost production of the American South.
Through tariffs and other restrictions, the British government discouraged the production of cotton cloth in India; rather, the raw fiber was sent to England for processing. The Indian Mahatma Gandhi described the process:.
In the United States, Southern cotton provided capital for the continuing development of the North. The cotton was largely produced through the labor of enslaved African Americans. It enriched both the Southern landowners and the Northern merchants. Much of the Southern cotton was trans-shipped through northern ports. In this era the slogan "Cotton is king" characterized the attitude of the South toward this monocrop.
Cotton remained a key crop in the Southern economy after emancipation and the end of the Civil War in Across the South, sharecropping evolved, in which landless farmers worked land owned by others in return for a share of the profits. Some farmers rented the land and bore the production costs themselves. Until mechanical cotton pickers were developed, cotton farmers needed additional labor to hand-pick cotton. Picking cotton was a source of income for families across the South. Rural and small town school systems had split vacations so children could work in the fields during "cotton-picking.
It was not until the s that reliable harvesting machinery was introduced prior to this, cotton-harvesting machinery had been too clumsy to pick cotton without shredding the fibers. Cotton remains a major export of the southern United States , and a majority of the world's annual cotton crop is of the long-staple American variety.