Cotton in Europe in the Middle ages

Cotton – an introduction
While there are now many varieties of cotton, there were, and are, basically two types of cotton plants: Gossypium herbaceum and Gossypium arboreum. The former is the one in use today, and the one with the finest fibres. This cotton species originates in Asia. Gossypium arboreum, tree cotton, was/is found in Africa and have historically been used for coarser fabrics, but generally Gossypium herbaceum replaced it already in the Middle Ages. Compared to both flax and wool, cotton requires less work to turn it into woven textiles.
Cotton fabrics are first known from India; there are fragments found which are dated as early as 3200 BC. The technology for ginning, that is, removing the seeds from the cotton balls, spinning and weaving, was all developed in India. Likewise, was the technology to dye and print cotton. This was the very thing that made Indian cottons world-famous: colourfast dyes. Most known is the blue indigo dyes, but the Indians also dyed colourfast red on cotton, a process not known in Europe until the late 18th century.  Both direct and resist print techniques were used (dyed pattern or dyed background with the pattern made by covering the fabric with clay or wax to stop the dye from soaking through where the pattern is intended to be). Printing and painting on fabric are relatively cheap ways of decorating textiles, which contributed to the Indian cottons’ immense popularity in areas as diverse as Europe, East and Southeast Asia.
The climate in India is not ideal for preserving textiles, so there are few finds from there, instead some of the oldest preserved cotton textiles have been found along the Silk road, and, above all in the southern Mediterranean, where excavations at Fustat, the first Muslim capital of Egypt, has rendered many finds of medieval cotton prints. Image 1 shows one of these Egyptian finds, resist printed and dyed red.
Image 1. Indian printed cotton found in Egypt, 13th-14th century

Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Arts website (
In Public Domain

India is not only the home of cotton growing, weaving and dyeing techniques, but also had an advanced trade organization in the Middle Ages. Sailors from Gujarat travelled westwards with the monsoon winds and ships from the Coromandel coast travelled east to southeast and east Asia. The traders knew their markets well and were quick to respond to changes in fashion and taste, something that European traders of the 17th and 18th century found frustrating. The European traders had fewer contacts with the prospective consumers and there are many complaints preserved about changes in fashion in Africa which rendered the goods bought in India by the Europeans impossible to sell at a profit. Patterns not only changed over time, but were different for the different regions where the Indians traded; in the 16th and 17th centuries we for example see the effect of the fashion for coloured motifs on white backgrounds in Europe in the Indian cotton industry.

Imports to Europe from India
Importation of cotton fabric from India to Europe has a long history, from at least the classical period. In the Roman era, we know from documents that cottons were imported from India. Especially were thin and gauzy cottons high fashion in the Empire. Despite the indigenous European production of cotton fabrics, which I will soon discuss, the import from India continued in the Middle Ages, and in the early modern period. The main reason for this continued import was the much higher quality of Indian cotton textiles, including the vivid prints.
During the Greek and Roman era  and the Middle Ages Indian (and Persian) cottons had reached Europe via the Muslim lands in the eastern Mediterranean, but from the 16th century onwards Europeans also started bringing cotton through Europe by ship. The Portuguese were the first Europeans who established their own trade stations in India(after Vasco da Gama sailed there in 1498 – in Goa and the Bay of Bengal. This is the beginning of a new era in the cotton trade, where west Asia no longer acted as an intermediary.
Mostly the printed Indian cottons appear to have been used for interior decoration. In 16th century England you find both cotton curtains etc. and plain cotton sheets. There are also examples of English made embroideries which are clearly inspired by Indian printed patterns. Prints and painted cloths were important imports to Europe, but there were also other cotton goods exported, such as embroidered cottons. These were for example common as exports to Portugal in the 15th century, in the form of bedspreads and hangings.

Cotton production in the Mediterranean
The cultivation of cotton spread from India to China, Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Africa during late antiquity and the Middle Ages, reaching the Mediterranean around 800 CE. With it the techniques of ginning, sorting and spinning cotton were also spread.
Most well-known is the Islamic production from the Middle East, North Africa and Muslim Spain, but cotton was grown and woven also in the Christian world in the Middle Ages.
In Sicily, the growing of cotton started in the 12th century, and a little later cultivation of cotton begun in southern Italy. These early cotton production centres had a large effect on the Italian cotton industry in the Middle Ages. It was also in the 12th century that cotton weaving started in Italy and Spain. Commercially the Italian cotton was the most important of these two Italian cottons were exported both to the Eastern Mediterranean and over the Alps.
While cotton was grown in the southern parts of what is no Italy it was mostly in the northern parts and to some extent in Tuscany, that cotton was woven. The Veneto and Lombardy were the regions which dominated the weaving of cotton in the peninsula, with towns such as Venice, Verona, Cremona and Milan important centres of production.
The output of the Italian weaving workshops was varied, but low to middle grade goods made up the bulk of the production. Sicilian and Italian raw cotton was used for cheaper cotton fabrics.  For the finer weaves, enormous amounts of raw cotton were shipped from the eastern Mediterranean to Italy (and to some extent to Catalonia). Cotton from Syria, the Levant and Cilicia (Lesser Armenia) was considered the best cotton and used for higher class products.
Most of that which was produced in Italy was like later in Europe north of the Alps, half cottons, with a linen warp and cotton weft, what is usually known as fustian, or barchent. The linen warp increased the durability of the fabric. But there was also finer, all cotton fabrics, made in Italy often woven in various twill patterns; pignolata was the name of a fine, all cotton fabric woven “in a pattern that resembled a pinecone”, probably some kind of broken or herringbone twill.

Image 2. Italian late 13th/early 14th century goewn made from hand spun and hand woven (khadi) cotton dyed in indigo woven in herringbone twill

Photo: Aleydis van Vilvoorde (Eva Andersson ). Link to gown on this blog.

Woven patterns were popular, but there were other types of weaves used too: Many of the heavier cottons or fustians were grosgrains, and cotton fabrics were also woven with a floating thread and brushed with teasels to produce a kind of nap.
Most of the production in Italy, and indeed in all of Christian Europe, was, however, simpler fabrics, made for mass consumption. Cotton weaving is the first textile industry in Europe which was so obviously directed at this market segment. Similarly modern in character was the high degree of specialization and the developed putting-out system of the Italian cotton industry. The trade in raw cotton and in cotton yarn was highly regulated and there was a high degree of standardization of fabric qualities and measurements, in short: the Italian cotton industry was a very modern industrial organization.
The Italian cotton industry flowered in the High Middle Ages, but in the later Middle Ages it lost to the competition from southern Germany, where cheaper fustians and cottons were woven, both on the export market and to some extent on the internal Italian market.

Cotton in Europe north of the Alps
The first centres of cotton production north of the Alps was in southern Germany, where towns such as Ulm and Augsburg became important production centres which gradually not only took over Italian markets in the north but also competed in Italy itself, and in the Eastern Mediterranean. In the 15th century cotton weaving spread in Swabia, and then further on; to the Rhineland, Bavaria, Bohemia, Austria, Silesia, Hungary and Poland. This cotton was also used outside of the German empire: Raw cotton for filling quilts, pillows and garments as well as cotton yarn was imported to France and Flanders already in the 13th century. The cotton yarn was used for knitting bonnets and gloves, but also as candle wicks – the use of cotton yarn as candle wicks for wax candles improved them much, contributing to better lighting, at least in elite homes and in churches. There are some indications of cotton weaving in Flanders as early as the 13th century, but by the 14th century the production of half cotton/half linen cloth is well documented in this area. In England, it is not until the 16th century that we have solid proof of cotton weaving.
While cotton was not woven in Scandinavia in the Middle Ages there are evidence of it being imported: barchent, i.e. half linen/half cotton is mentioned in import documents from 15th century Denmark, and there are quite a few printed cotton fabrics preserved in Sweden in church vestments from the late Middle Ages. Printed fabric is also mentioned in the will of Magnus Eriksson and queen Blanche in 1346, but it is unclear if it was a linen or a half cotton.

The use of cotton fabric in Italy in the Middle Ages
European made cotton fabric was used for a variety of purposes, and different regions could specialize in a certain good; for example, sailcloth was an important cotton product from Genoa, based on the lower quality Italian cotton. Cotton sailcloth replaced flax or hemp sails due to their lower weight and because they dried quicker.
Cotton was used for household textiles, such as bed quilts/bedspreads, which were made from cotton fabric and batted with cotton. A wonderful example of the latter is the so-called Tristan quilt, now at the V&A, which was made in Italy in the late 14th century.

Image 3. Panel of the so-called Tristan Quilt, made in Sicily, 14th century

Source: Wikipedia Commons (

Bed hangings were in medieval southern Europe often made from striped cotton and the famous Perugia towels were also a mix of linen and cotton, with the blue yarn made from cotton, which took dyes better than linen.
Generally white cottons, used for bed linen, underwear etc, was seen as the finest – dyed (half) cottons were cheaper. Black was the most popular colour, but there are several medieval dyeing manuals which has recipes for the dyeing of cotton and these have recipes also for reds and blues. As with wool dyeing, woad, or indigo imported from the east, were important not only in giving a blue colour, but also the basis for any good black.
Among the wealthy classes in Italy, cotton was mostly used as bed linens and towels, and for underwear, veils, coifs and the like – from the 13th century onwards. The lower classes also had sheets and other household furnishing made from cotton or fustian, but also widely adopted cotton for their clothing. Not only the under tunic, but also the gown, usually called giornea, was frequently made from cotton or fustian from the 13th century onwards. In a tone typical for religious commentators of the Middle Ages the moralist Da Nono complains in the beginning of the 14th century that where cotton garments once had been used by the rich and poor alike, the vanity of wealthy women have caused them to give up this indigenous dress for costly imports and ridiculous new fashions. While likely exaggerating his comment still shows the widespread use and acceptance of cotton as a cheap material for clothes.
The cotton production in Italy not only introduced new occupations, as in ginning the cotton, but also was important for the creation and growth of a market in the 13th and 14th century for ready-to-wear clothes batted with cotton and quilted. There exist preserved guild statutes for a guild specialized in the making of quilted vests and jackets in Venice as early as 1219.
Napped cotton fabrics was popular for clothing among the middle and lower classes in medieval Italy, and like quilted garments it was quite warm. In the later Middle ages black became very fashionable all over Europe, and black cotton clothing was both a cheap way to dress for mourning and a way for the poor to imitate the rich.
While this section dealt with the conditions in Italy we do know that the fashion for quilted garments did not end there, and that half cottons were exported all over Europe, and by the later Middle Ages also woven in most European regions. With the mass production character of the cotton industry it is therefore likely that the lower classes also outside Italy used half cotton bed linens and towels, had the occasional shift or smock, and cheap tunics of half linen in the later Middle Ages.

Baur, Kilian: ‘The trade with Fustian from Germany to Denmark in the Late Middle Ages’ in Huang, Angela Ling & Jahnke, Carsten (red.), Textiles and the medieval economy: production, trade, and consumption of textiles, 8th-16th centuries, Oxbow Books, Oxford, 2015
Crill, Rosemary (red.), The fabric of India, V&A Publishing, London, 2015
Mazzaoui, Maureen Fennell, The Italian cotton industry in the later Middle Ages, 1100-1600, Cambridge U.P., Cambridge, 1981
Wild, John-Peter and Felicity Wild, ‘Through Roman eyes: Cotton textiles from early historic India’ in Bergerbrant, Sophie & Fossøy, Sølvi Helene (red.), A stitch in time: essays in honour of Lise Bender Jørgensen, Gothenburg University. Department of Historical Studies, Göteborg, 2014

This article is based on my class on cotton in Medieval Europe, mainly Italy, at Double Wars in Attemark AS 52. It was first published in the Newsletter of the SCA kingdom of Drachenwald: Dragon's Tale.  It is an introduction and the interested reader is recommended to check out the list of literature used. I would also like to express my gratitude to the Metropolitan Museum of Arts for placing so many of their images in Public Domain, and to Justine Arnot for proof reading and editorial suggestions.

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