This website is the created authorship of Brandy Dickson, also known in the SCA as Lady Desamona Villani. Copyrighted 2004-2008. Any questions or comments about the construction or contents of this website can be directed to her.
Cotton Is Period? Really?

Cotton is Period? Really?

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The controversy surrounding the existence of Cotton in the Mediaeval and Renaissance period for the constructing and wearing of costume is problematic at best. In truth, there is no right or wrong answer. But, in other respects, there is a definite right and wrong answer. The answers lie with the time period and culture in question.

Cotton is a very old fiber found in many parts of the world today and in the past. It has been found in tombs that predate the Incas, was utilized in Egyptian tombs in the Early Period, and was cultivated and processed by East Indians into clothing. Cotton is also a diverse fiber, having 5 commercially viable types today, all derivatives from 2 "old world" varieties that have been cultivated since antiquity.

Gossipum Arboreum The thought-to-be oldest variant is known as Gossypium arboreum. Growing to a height of 6' in the Medieval and Renaissance period, it was known as Tree-Cotton, as it looked like a small tree with woody-like branches. Living 10-20 years, it would produce a short, white fiber on average about 1-2mm in length. It was spun into a coarse thread of about 0.75-1.50" thick. The other variety, Gossypium herbaceum, was a bush-plant, needing replanting every year, but produced a longer, superior cotton fiber. The fibers, on average were 0.5-2.5" in length, and could be spun very fine. The majority of cotton imported into Europe during the Medieval and Renaissance period was of Herbaceum variety, although Arboreum was also in demand for different purposes.

Gossipum Herbaceum Cotton was known to East Indians who had refined the process of spun and woven cotton long before the Romans began writing about tree cotton in 306BC. The finished Indian cloth and later the seeds passed along the Silk Road and spice trade routes, spreading cotton consumption and cultivation to new areas. The Mongols used cotton extensively, from wading, padding, warmth, and decoration, to clothing, both rich and poor.1 They encouraged cotton use in all lands they conquered, and traded cotton along the Silk Road and spice routes.
The Mediterranean Basin was usually the terminus for the cotton trade route from India, and as the demand for cotton products grew, Arabs filled the gab by cultivating the cotton plant themselves. Arabs also encouraged the growth of cotton, spreading the cotton plant to Spain, Sicily, and North Africa well before the turn of the first millennium. With the return of the First Crusaders, cotton (herbaceum) was brought back to Europe as a novelty item, and European demand for cotton began.

The Venetians (1125AD) were the first to send merchants and boats to parts of the Levant to start a trade in finished cotton cloths, with an eye to purchase raw cotton for production and sale in Italy to all parts of Europe. Genoa (1140AD) too, sent merchants and ships shortly after the Venetians, and as cotton became more and more well known, other Italian cities also sent delegations to Arab coastal towns to set up charters and trade agreements. By the mid 12th century, Venetians had trade agreements, considerations, and colonies scattered throughout the Levant, and even inland to Damascus.

Over the next century, cotton consumption, cultivation and production were practiced all over the Mediterranean Basin, from North Africa, Spain, and Sicily, to the "boot" of Italy, the Veneto and all of the Levant. Spain was a cultivator and supplier of cotton for local consumption, and continued to be practiced during the complete reconquest of Spain, although in much smaller quantities. North Africa produced medium to coarse cloth for trade further inland in Africa, and Sicily became a focal point for cultivation and reliable trade of raw cotton to European towns and cities.

The Voyages and Travels of Sir John Mandeville, Knight. 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". In areas where cotton cultivation was well known, the fiber was given names derived from the Sanskrit word, karpasa, and where it was a traded commodity, names deriving from the low Latin word, "bambacium" were used instead.

The Barometz (Tartar word for Lamb) The spread of cotton cloth consumption was rapid. Cotton was a relatively inexpensive fiber, and was incorporated into many weaves with other fibers to reduce the cost of the finished cloth. It was mixed with every conceivable fiber, flax, wool, silk, camel hair, and also with itself. There were several different grades of cotton, based on area of cultivation. The best was East Indian cotton, using only herbaceum cotton with very fine threads in premium weaves; Arab cotton, using both Herbaceum and Arboreum for both local and export trade; and Italian cotton, at first using Arboreum, making heavy cloths with thick weaves, and then with Herbaceum in Late Period.

We know from Chinese records of the 11th century that Mongolians extensively used cotton. It was encouraged for padding, wading, turbans, pants, and caftans. This was reinforced by the travels of Friar William of Rubruck in the 13th century. According to the Friar, cotton was used as garments by lower and upper classes alike in Mongol society. It was also used in tent making, proving to be durable and easily dyed.2

Egyptian Cotton Sock, 11th-13th century, Textile Museum, Washington, D.C.In the Levant, Arab speaking communities favored cotton clothing for all types of uses. It is for certain cotton was known and utilized during the 8th -10th centuries. Sumptuary laws created after the time of Mohammad indicate cotton fabrics as acceptable for male costume. However, the Arabs used cotton for such other things as, basic undergarments, Veils, tunics, shrouds, funeral clothes, bedclothes, linings, towels, tapestries, wall hangings, tablecloths, napkins, awnings, rugs, fabrics, and upholstery.3

The Spinning Wheel, invented for the ease of spinning cotton. Luttrell Psalter, 1450Cotton 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. Spain, as an Arab nation was familiar with cotton from the outset of the Arab invasion in the 8th century. However, Spanish cotton was grown for local consumption, and was thus never really an exported commodity. As the reconquest of the Christian nations pushed back the Arabs, so too was cotton. Spanish-Arabs continued to use cotton, and its uses did spread to the Christian conquestors, but was never produced for exports. Eventually, with the final expulsion, cotton was replaced with more "standard" fabrics of other Christian nations. The sole exception to this was Barcelona, who had a noteworthy business in creating sails for ships. Throughout the Medieval and Renaissance period, cotton was utilized for many things, some based on necessity and some on fashion trends. At all times, cotton was used for bedcovers/spreads, coverlets, quilts, pillow and mattress stuffing, mattress ticking, pillow ticking, canopy coverings, curtains, drapes, cotton tablecloths, napkins, towels, sails, tents, funerary coverings, mourning clothes, clerical vestments, outerwear mantles, gloves, veils, hoods, wimples, ribbons, purses, linings, coifs, and doublets.4 The use of cotton for undergarments, tunics and summer clothing was in use in Italy for the poorer classes from the 13th century onwards, and while utilized by the lower classes right through the 16th century, was discarded by the upperclasses in favour of linen and other "fine" fabrics by the late 14th century.
Birth of St John the Baptist, detail. Ghirlando, 1486

"The Moralist, Da Nono, who wrote in the first half of the 14th Century, recorded the once widespread use of cotton cotes among all classes of society in Padua. He deplored the abandonment of this modest fashion in favor of costly imported fabrics and ludicrous vogues among the wealthy women of his own day. 'Aristocratic women no longer wear simple cotes of cotton cloth (pignolato). They prefer instead expensive cotes of exaggerated fullness, fashioned from fine, crimped linen.'"5
His views were echoed by the chronicler Ricobaldo da Ferrara who also noted that men utilized cotton cloth for headcoverings, while women of all ages wore tunics of pignolatio. According to Mazzaoui, in Italy, the terms for cotton, pignolato and fustagno, were often synonymous with giornea, the overgarment of 15th century, suggesting that it may still have been used for summertime garments. Cotton was also used for quilted jackets, known as giubba, zupa, and zupouns in Italy and jupon in France. Quilted jackets were mass produced for armies to wear under their armour, and a lighter version was used by peasant men in the fields, called a jupe.
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.

The decline of cotton production in Italy in the last half of the 16th century was synonymous with the rise of southern Germany as a major producer of finished cotton cloths. Germany began to acquire ginned cotton from Italians in large enough quantities, that by 1625, Italy was known for its high quality cotton cloths, and Germany for it's fashionable, but cheap cotton cloths. Cotton continued to gain in popularity throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, and was eventually revolutionized by the invention of the cotton GIN in the early 19th century.

Cotton, as has been seen, was used and known in the Medieval and Renaissance period. However, time, place, and grade of cotton are all factors in determining cotton use for your persona. While cotton was regarded as a cheap fiber in medieval and renaissance times, its spread across Europe was slow and did not reach all areas. So, yes. Cotton is period. Is it period for you? I dunno. What do you wanna use it for? *grin*



1Mazzaoui p 13
2Mazzaoui p 13
3Mazzaoui p 19
4Mazzaoui p 33,75,87,98,100,&166
5Mazzaoui p 98


Dressing Renaissance Florence
Carole Collier Frick
John Hopkins Unversity Press, Baltimore (c) 2002
ISBN 0801869390

The Silk Industry of Renaissance Venice
Luca Mola
John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore (c) 2000
ISBN 0801861896

The Italian Cotton Industry in the Later Middle Ages 1100-1600
Maureen Fennell Mazzaoui
Cambridge, Cambridge University Press (c) 1981
ISBN: 0521230950

The Organization of the European Textile Industry from the Thirteenth to the Eighteenth Century.
Irena Turnau (Polish Academy of Sciences, Warsaw)
The Journal of European Economic History, Vol 17, No. 3, 1988, pp583-602
ISSN: 0391-5115

Cotton and Cotton Trade in the Middle Ages
H. Wescher
Ciba Review, No.6, Feb 1948, pp 2321-2360 (Now known as Ciba-Geigy) Basle, Switzerland. CIBA Limited.
ISSN: 0578-2481

The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary; A Curious Fable of the Cotton Plant. to Which is added A Sketch of the History of Cotton and the Cotton Trade.
Lee, Henry
Sampson Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington, London, 1887, p.11

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This website is the created authorship of Brandy Dickson, also known in the SCA as Lady Desamona Villani. Copyrighted 2004-2008. Any questions or comments about the construction or contents of this website can be directed to her.