“When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes.”

--Desiderius Erasmus

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

King Cotton.

I have very mixed feelings on the subject of cotton. We are told from the beginning by people who are assumed to be more knowledgeable on the subject that "cotton isn't period". Then later, we find out that cotton is ok for Elizabethan and Persian. And most people will look the other way at camping events if you're wearing cotton broadcloth in the July heat. We say "When you see "cotton" in medieval and Renaissance European sources, really they mean linen."


We are wrong.

The word "cotton" is a direct cognate to the Arabic qutun, from which we get the French coton, the Spanish algodon, the Italian cotone, and probably the Dutch katoen. It was never used to mean "linen", which meant "fabric made from flax, hemp, or nettle fibers".

We cannot say that cotton isn't period, because that statement is wildly incorrect. In the archeological record there is a 5th century Merovingian find of cotton thread used to quilt a garment, and Queen Arnegunde's tunic (7th century Frankish) was a blend of silk, cotton, and some other vegetable fiber. Some of Bishop Timotheus's (14th century Nubia) garments and his shroud were cotton. We cannot discount the limited appearance of cotton as evidence of its limited use, as the archeological record for linen is almost as scant and we know it was heavily used throughout SCA period.

Cotton was introduced into Sicily by the Arabs in the early 9th century, and cotton cultivation and production continued to spread through the Mediterranean thereafter. After 1300 there were established cotton production centers north of the Alps (i.e., Germany). In China cotton was in common usage beginning with the Yuan Dynasty (1271).

By what is generally considered "middle SCA period"--starting in about the 12th century--cotton was extremely popular for everyday clothing through most of the Islamic world, and economically it was a big thing in India, the Arabic peninsula, and in Italy. It was easy to grow and cheap to produce labor-wise. Unlike linen, cotton was easy to dye and it retained dyes better. It continued to be a reasonably big thing throughout the rest of SCA period, and there was a huge export market in addition to that manufactured for local consumption. Much of what was exported was heavy and/or coarse cotton fabrics like bed and table linens, sailcloth, and canvas, but there was also plenty of trade in the finer kinds of cotton used for clothing. Cotton blends were also extremely popular--cotton/wool, cotton/silk, cotton/hemp, cotton/flax.

Things made of cotton: Canvas. Cotes (12th, 13th, early 14th c., especially France and Italy). Undergarments. The jupon. Short jackets (late 13th c. Germany).Quilted jackets and vests. Quilted bedcoverings. Candle wicking for wax candles. Accessories such as gloves, purses, caps, coifs, veils, hat linings, hoods, ribbons and handkerchiefs. Stuffing for pillows and mattresses. Mattress ticking, bed linens (sheets, pillowcases, etc.), curtains, upholstery, table linens, and towels. Sailcloth. Sewing and embroidery thread.

So we shouldn't be saying "No, you can't make that Gothic Fitted Dress out of cotton because cotton isn't period." We should be saying something like "No, you shouldn't make that GFD out of cotton because you're portraying a rich noblewoman and she would have worn expensive quality wools and linens, not cotton. Cotton in late 14th century France was not a common fabric for the well-to-do." We do ourselves a disservice when we use unqualified absolutes.

If you want to know more, I recommend

Mazzaoui, Maureen Fennell. The Italian Cotton Industry in the Later Middle Ages, 1100-1600. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2008. ISBN: 0521089603.

It is a reprint of the original 1981 volume rather than a second edition.

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