Seed Selection and Ground Preparation from History of Sustainable Cotton

Sustainable Cotton: As I turn through the pages of the book ‘A Frayed History. The Journey of Cotton in India‘. I find nuggets of great information, which I plan to compile and share succinctly in a series of articles starting with this one. 

Cotton, the wonder fiber, was at the start of history, found in two parts of the world—India, and Peru, as has been inferred from the study of old inscriptions and arts. Sir George Watt, a Scottish Botanist who worked in India as a reporter on botany, has shared very early research that says cotton was considered sacred in India. In those times, the word used for cotton was ‘karpasi.’ The sacred threads of a Brahman were made of ‘karpasi’ to put on over his head in three strings.

Sustainable Cotton
Image Source:

Sustainable CottonTo the western world, it was the early Greek and Roman travelers who narrated the accounts of Indian cotton. 

There are accounts from Greek manuscripts of the first century CE that specifically mention the export of Indian cotton cloth from the East to the West. There is evidence of Greek statements like ‘Indians wear wool exceeding in beauty and goodness that of sheep.’ When the Indian cotton reached the Roman Empire at the turn of the 10th century, it was exchanged for Roman Gold. Import duties levied by Romans on the import of cotton from India made an essential part of Rome’s revenue. Romans marveled at Indian cotton, calling them nebula ( mist) and venti (wind).

Additionally, the dyed and painted Indian cotton was unbelievably beautiful and unique to them. The oldest physical remnant of Indian cotton is a piece of resist-dyed cotton from the 5th century found in a rubbish dump in an ancient seaport in Egypt named Berenike. 

India made and exported the finest varieties of cotton for the rich and coarse-textured and roughly block-printed cotton for the commoners.

It is believed that Muziris, which mysteriously disappeared at some point in history, was an ancient port city in south-western India that was the major center of the cotton trade or collection point since early history. 





Sustainable Cotton
Image Source: The Guardian. A painting of Muziris by the artist Ajit Kumar. In 2004, excavations in Kerala sparked new interest in this lost port. Illustration: KCHR


India’s global trade in spices, gems, and cotton from the 1st to the nineteenth century made it rich in gold and silver. Perhaps the wealthiest country in the world. The East India company’s records for cotton payments to India show that in just five years, between 1681 and 1685, the Company alone brought 240 tonnes of silver and 7 tonnes of gold into India. The European companies tried to barter their manufactured goods with India in exchange for the cotton. However, there was nothing that Europe produced that India wanted; therefore, they had to pay with gold and silver. Thus cotton began to be known as ‘White Gold.’  

From India, the knowledge related to the growing and manufacturing of cotton cloth spread to the neighboring countries and eventually to Europe. Spain was the first European country that started growing and manufacturing cotton. In the nineteenth century, the race for the ownership of cotton fabrics began and changed the history of India and the world. 

I will discuss the sad Eclipse of the Indian Cotton in a follow-up article. In this article, I want to continue to talk about the beautiful weaves and processes that were respectively produced and used by the Indian farmers, spinners, and weavers before the decline started. 

Dacca Muslin

It was the excellence of Indian cotton fabric, made from a local short-staple variety of cotton that grew by the banks of the river Meghna, woven from yarns as fine as 600 and upward counts. This fabric was the epitome of sensuality and craftsmanship, as narrated by a traveler to India in his writings from 1660. When a man puts it on, his skin appears plainly through it as if he is entirely naked. It was primarily used to make nobleman’s wives shifts as the lords took great pleasure in beholding them in these shifts. 


Sustainable Cotton
Mughal men and women in muslin|Wikimedia Commons

Genuinely Organic and Regenerative Farming practices of cotton in India paired with great spinning and weaving skills produced the gorgeous and distinctive varieties of cotton. 

Seed Selection and Preservation For Sustainable Cotton

The secret of the beauty of Indian cotton laid in the seed selection process by the farmers. Growing cotton was a love affair for the farmers, and their future generations equally revered it. They would save seeds from the sturdiest plants that gave the best lint. These particular seeds were dried in the sun and protected in an earthen pot filled with oil or ghee. The mouth of the earthen pot was closed to avoid any external air. The earthen pot was hung on the top of the roof just below the fire point. These seed selection and preservation processes were practiced year after year and generation after generation, leading to great varieties of cotton produced in India. There were hundreds of varieties of such indigenous cotton seeds that thrived in India. These seeds were acclimatized to the local weather, water, and soil of different regions of the country. Each region produced a different texture, staple, and color of cotton. Though most kinds of cotton were creamy white, some were naturally colored, dark brown in Bengal, yellow-green in the Garo hills, and light pink in other parts of India. 

Even today, the famous yerra pathi, red cotton of a region of Andhra Pradesh has a light pink color. 

Preparation of the Ground for Sustainable cotton farming

The cotton crop grew in the Highlands. The land was plowed several times before the seeds were sown in a moistened manure-rich soil. 

The seeds were planted in parallel rows. The cotton crop demands a lot of water and nutrients from the soil and is also prone to pests. Therefore, every four years, the land was left fallow to allow for soil’s natural regeneration. The local herds of sheep and cows were well fed and tied to the soil to provide fresh, natural manure in bulk. And other crops like legumes were intercropped with cotton to maintain the fertility of the soil. Unfortunately, these practices have been skipped for a long time now. 

It is unfortunate that with the advent of scientific farming practices and cotton seeds and under the lash of greed, these purely organic and soil healthy processes were replaced with unsustainable practices. Therefore the cotton that we wear and use now is different from what India or Peru gave to the world. However, there are many small-scale initiatives around the world geared towards organic cotton farming, including the revival of indigenous cotton, which makes me feel hopeful about the future of sustainable cotton.


Nidhi Garg Allen is an alumnus of Parsons School of Design and Adjunct Professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology. She is a technologist turned artisan entrepreneur and the founder and CEO of Marasim. Marasim based in NYC is committed to preserving artisanal textiles that make use of regional techniques without uprooting craftspeople from their native communities

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