lovely sky bed

Cotton, cause and effect

Lizzie HarperComment

Year round, no matter what weather, a simple top sheet is the first layer on my bed. And when I think about sheets, I think about cotton.

It's by far the most common and versatile type of bedding out there - naturally soft, smooth, lightweight, cool and comfortable. 

Cotton is one of the crops most closely tied to human society. Since it was first domesticated - at least 4000 years ago in South America - we have changed cotton, and cotton has changed us.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, a convergence of global factors - new spinning and weaving technology, new trade routes, new labor forces at every step of the process (many of those people exploited if not outright enslaved) - all of these factors combined to spark England's cotton business and fuel the Industrial Revolution. Before that, textiles were handicrafts, "homespun." Then cotton caught on around the world and became the fabric of our lives

Suddenly we entered the age of mass-production. Even after polyester came along in the 20th century - much cheaper, more durable & easier to produce - cotton has remained the top choice for anything that touches our skin. Clothing, bedding, all of it. And so many other stories come from cotton - like denim! Cotton is amazing. And it keeps evolving, even though most modern changes to cotton have remained invisible. What's this thing called thread count, anyway? Another topic for future discussion.

The thing that doesn't make sense to me right now is actually how little has changed about the way cotton reaches our closets (and beds, and bathrooms, and everywhere else). This is an agricultural product that is grown just like food crops and still covers a significant part of America and the entire world's fields.

But by the time a cotton top sheet has reached your bed, it's almost like it was 3-D printed out of thin air in a Target stockroom right before you put it in your cart. There's no connection back to where your cotton came from. Imagine having stickers on all your cotton products - like the ones on apples in the supermarket - saying what country it was grown in. It seems silly, because most of us forget that cotton has much more in common with what you buy in the supermarket than the rest of Target does.

Of course, many people have not forgotten this, and work is being done every day to tell the story of cotton. Cotton supply chains have lasted for a long time without changing. 300 years after the start of this story, it seems like a good time for transformation.