Cotton has been spun, woven and dyed for millennia, at least since 5000 BC in Mexico and the Indus Valley, joined by the ancient Egyptians around 3000 BC. Ancient Egypt, though, was known more for its flax and linen.
The cotton used is likely to be from the common Gossypium malvaceae plant. It is believed that the higher quality cotton from the Gossypium barbadense plant, now known as Egyptian cotton, was introduced into Europe by Arab merchants around 800 AD, prized for its softness, lustre and breathability.
The Gossypium barbadense plant produces an extra-long staple or fibre, which is the basis for the quality of the fabric it is turned into. It has a chemical, gossypol, which reduces its risk of insect and fungal attack.
Fast forward to Egypt in the early 1800s. The ruler, Mohammed Ali (or Aly), was convinced that the cotton from the Gossypium barbadense plant, most likely sourced from Ethiopia but also claimed to be from India, could be his answer to raising much-needed money, providing a ‘cash crop’ (pun intended), and improving his country’s infrastructure. Ali worked tirelessly for the renaissance of his country, coming to be known as the Founder of modern Egypt.
He was right about cotton. And so sparked a 60 year emergence of Egyptian cotton as the premier cotton of the world.
By utilising his peasants to hand pick the cotton, Ali increased his cotton’s value even more over his nearest cotton-producing rivals, the Americas with its pima cotton. Handpicking leaves the fibres intact and straight, unaffected by gins.
Europe loved his high-quality cotton. They bought up big.
And Ali and his successors spent big, especially his grandson, who had grand visions of creating a ‘Paris of the Nile’ precinct. The Suez canal was a direct product of cotton wealth.
Then came the US Civil War. Britain’s supply of cotton from the Americas dried up and they bought even more cotton from Egypt. British and French traders invested heavily in the Egyptian cotton industry.
But, after the war ended in 1865 and the supply of the cheaper, American pima cotton resumed, Britain and French investors pulled out of Egypt and forced it into an economic decline it could not recover from.
Internal matters contributed to the problems. Crop infestations increased, reducing quality and regrowth potential. A record flood followed by a record river level low decimated crops. Unsuccessful propagation and development of viable varieties added to Egypt’s woes.
Bankruptcy was declared in 1876. The British Empire cheered, annexing Egypt in 1882 after the voluntary abdication of Ali’s grandson.
Economic growth returned under the direction and control of Britain. 1882 also saw the introduction of the Mit-Afifi variety of cotton, saving the cotton industry. By 1900, the Nile River floodplains, a perfect growing environment for the cotton, was again a thriving monoculture.