Ever wondered why embroidery threads are cotton?

In this quarters XStitch Magazine I wrote about the Silk Road, and how an often-ignored part of Asian history had a vital impact on the origins of cross stitch.
In the piece I often talk about silk, hence the Silk Road name, and talk about how it threads migrated along the route, eventually ending in the round city of Baghdad, where cross stitch was invented. Here not only did they invent the stitch itself, but hessian, an early form of aida. You can find out more in our definitive history of cross stitch. However, my XStitch piece ends there, with silk fibers on a hessian back. So how come we now stitch using cotton fibers?

So why did we change from silk to cotton threads?

It should be noted that whilst cotton has always been used as a thread, it was a luxury product. Silk was the cheaper alternative. The reason for this was simple, whilst there was more cotton available, the processing of cotton took a very long time. Unlike silk strands; literally taken from silk worm cocoons in a long strand, cotton had to be cleaned, split, pulled, stained, woven and washed again. This took a long time and meant that cotton production wasn’t a viable alternative to silk production.

But things did start to change. In India, in the 5th century, they invented a rolling cotton gin. This allowed them to clean and split the cotton fibers very quickly. It was reported that one man and one woman, without using a cotton gin could clean half a pound of cotton a day, but with the cotton gin, they could clean 28 pounds, and if an ox was put to work, they could make 750 pounds a day. They soon started producing large scale and cotton became a rewarding, but niche industry. The reason it was so niche was thanks to India’s specific climate. The climate allowed for the growth of long-staple cotton, which, apart from a few other locations, only grew in India.

Therefore, whilst India enjoyed the advances of cotton, much of the world went without. That was, until 1793, and Eli Whitney.

Undyed Silk Threads (Source: beautifulsilks.com)
Undyed Silk Threads (Source: beautifulsilks.com)

Who’s Eli Whitney?

Eli Whitney, to most, is known as one of the many key figures in starting the American Civil War. This is all due to slavery. When America got its independence in 1776, slavery was a trade, but not a booming one. Slaves had their uses, but in most instances, their cost outweighed their use. By the mid-1700s, rice, tobacco, and indigo were all losing value, and slavery started to dwindle. This is where Eli’s new cotton gin comes in. Eli, who was against slave ownership, wanted to invest in the future of the United States and created a tool that could be used with the US short-staple cotton, much in the same way India had used it, with livestock.
Whilst this was a noble pursuit, it turned out that the new cotton grew fantastically well in Georgia state. Slavery not only became profitable but took the US by storm, in part resulting in the start of the American Civil war. Eli actually worked with the North to abolish slavery, however his invention, the cotton gin, was a tool that revolutionized the fabric trade.

Eli Whitney's original cotton gin patent, dated March 14, 1794 (Source: Wikipedia)
Eli Whitney’s original cotton gin patent, dated March 14, 1794 (Source: Wikipedia)

Soon, the cotton gin was exported all over the world, where it became the most cost-effective tool for making a thread.

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  1. Kerry

    Very interesting article – to know more about how different fibers came about and when is always interesting, as well as how advances in technology affect the use of different materials over time! One thing, though – there are numerous reasons the American Civil War occurred, only one of which was slavery of blacks. A big reason was whether individual states had the right to secede from the Union. There are other reasons as well, which my husband knows about more thoroughly than I do! πŸ™‚ Blessings.