Cotton - Cotton yarn

Dictionary of Traded Goods and Commodities 1550-1820. Originally published by University of Wolverhampton, Wolverhampton, 2007.

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Nancy Cox. Karin Dannehl, 'Cotton - Cotton yarn', Dictionary of Traded Goods and Commodities 1550-1820, (Wolverhampton, 2007), British History Online [accessed 22 June 2024].

Nancy Cox. Karin Dannehl. "Cotton - Cotton yarn", in Dictionary of Traded Goods and Commodities 1550-1820, (Wolverhampton, 2007) . British History Online, accessed June 22, 2024,

Cox, Nancy. Dannehl, Karin. "Cotton - Cotton yarn", Dictionary of Traded Goods and Commodities 1550-1820, (Wolverhampton, 2007). . British History Online. Web. 22 June 2024,

In this section


[cottn'; cottin; cotten; cott]

A term confusingly applied to two very different TEXTILEs, whose only common characteristic was cheapness. To avoid confusion in this article the first meaning below is always given to the plural form 'cottons', while the second is always referred to in the singular. We stress that this distinction was only sometimes followed in the Dictionary Archive.

The first, usually but not invariably found in the plural as 'cottons', was a cheap WOOLLEN CLOTH not dissimilar from FRIEZE or FLANNEL, and not be confused with the textile made from the vegetable fibres known as cotton. The suggestion by Wilhelmsen that cottons must be so named because it had an appearance suggestive of cotton seems to be unlikely; more probably cottons took their name from the process of cottoning or raising a nap, which appeared earlier. The OED's earliest date of use for cottoned is 1488 although [Kerridge (1985)] suggests the process was much older. Cottons were made from the low-grade wools such as WELSH WOOL that was unfit for the better grades of woollen cloth. After weaving, the cottons were fulled and then frizzed or cottoned with so-called rowing CARDs to raise a nap followed by shearing to produce an even surface. INVMID MY1660ASHJ lists the tools required for this process. Many cottons were produced in the Welsh borders, hence WELSH COTTONS. Such fabrics were marketed in OSWESTRY, where they were bought by the SHREWSBURY drapers, who usually undertook the cottoning and shearing and then sold them on to London for export. Cottons were also manufactured in Lancashire and Westmoreland, hence MANCHESTER COTTONS and KENDAL cottons, and in the West country using the so-called 'Cornish hair', that is the very coarse wools of that area. Despite a large export trade, all these cottons did find their way into the shops as well where they were sold to be used for LININGs and for poor people's APPAREL. Here they were sometimes stocked in quite a range. Although they were usually described as either BLACK or WHITE, assuming that there was any descriptor at all, [Inventories (1601)] stocked a variety of coloured cottons ranging from a black at 7d the yard to reds at 13d and 18d, and ASH COLOUR at 15d and 16d.

Cottons appear to have followed the trend of rising prices found in other textiles during the early sixteenth century; for example the London Drapers estimated in 1551 that Cheshire cottons had formerly been 'solde by the clothmen' for £7 the PACK, but the price had risen to £14 to £14 10s. It would appear from probate valuations that the trend continued. Although most cottons remained very cheap, being valued at well under 1s a yard, those of better quality became both more common and more costly. Whereas the highest valuation in [Inventories (1601)] was 18d per yard, twenty five years later [Inventories (1626)] had in stock a 'fine white at 22d the yard and a red at 2s. Whether it was due to this trend of rising prices, or to the increasing range of alternatives on offer is not clear, but cottons, having been quite common in the sixteenth century and early seventeenth, largely disappear from the shops after 1660, although they are occasionally found even after 1700.

Like most other woollen textiles, the manufacture of cottons were heavily regulated. For example, the weight and dimensions of cottons were set out in [Acts (1565)]. However, Welsh cottons were freed from the regulations a few years later, presumably because they were impossible to enforce.

OED earliest date of use in this sense: 1523

The term was also applied to a white fibrous substance covering the seed of the cotton plant This is soft and downy like WOOL, hence its name COTTON WOOL, though this was often confusingly abbreviated to cotton; hence the nine SACKs of CYPRUS cotton listed in [Inventories (1709)]. Cotton wool was spun into YARN, principally to make TEXTILEs, THREAD, TAPE, CANDLE WICK, CORD and (though rarely in this country) ROPE. Less frequently cotton fibres were left un-spun and used for WADDING or QUILTING; in the bottom of INK POTs to absorb the INK and prevent spillage; and they were placed into RECTIFIED SPIRITS, then set alight to check the alcoholic proof.

Cotton fibres were removed from the seed by a process called ginning, that was performed either by hand or by using a primitive tool comprising of stick studded with nails. The separated COTTON SEED could then be used for animal feed, or crushed to extract oil, see [Patents (1799)]. The lint or cotton fibres after ginning were cleaned and carded to remove dirt and smooth the fibres for spinning [Hobhouse (1985)]. While there are a number of different varieties of cotton plant, adapted to grow in various climatic conditions and soil types, the cotton fibres from all share the same characteristics in that they are flat and hollow, with a natural twist. The length of the fibres (staple), spun to make the cotton thread, can vary between 1/3 inch and 3 inches; the longer the fibres the silkier the thread [Hobhouse (1985)].

Believed to have originated in Egypt, cotton reached Spain by 900 AD, and China, Japan and Korea by 1300 AD. By the early modern period, Europeans had introduced the cotton plant to the Azores, Madeira and the Canaries; and much cotton cloth was made in India, Persia and the southern Arabia [Hobhouse (1985)]. It was not until the establishment and subsequent work of the East India Company that large quantities of cotton fabrics such as CALICO and MUSLIN arrived on British shores. These were popular among people of all social strata, cotton being relatively cheap compared with textiles made of other natural fibres such as WOOL, SILK and LINEN.

When cotton was introduced, the only alternatives for the consumer was WOOLLENs, WORSTEDs and in particular linens, especially those made of HEMP. The attraction of certain cotton cloths over woollens was that they were lighter, easier to wash and were available in a range of coloured prints. Another feature of imported cotton fabrics was the amount of choice offered to consumers, reflected in a number of texts published from the late seventeenth century advising consumers and retailers on the characteristics of the different cloths on offer. With this competition the wool trade feared terrible losses and vigorously petitioned Parliament for help, culminating in the legislation of 1721 that banned the importation, use and sale of 'painted, printed, flowered, checked' cotton and of 'the other vibrant Indian textiles' for clothing and furnishings [Lemire (1991)].

However, the interests of British tradesmen and manufacturers other than those working in the woollen trade ensured that cotton became an important commodity in the British markets despite this legislation. From the closing decades of the seventeenth century, the drive to rival Indian imported goods by colouring and printing cotton cloth at home led to the expansion of the dying industries, with Essex becoming a centre for printing fabrics [Lemire (1991)]. In addition, cotton was imported from Brazil, East India and, most commonly, the West Indies to be spun and woven by British workers. Houghton noted in the 1690s that cotton from British plantations in the West Indies usually cost 5d-6d per POUND, though it could sometimes be as expensive as 10-12d. The cost of picking, ginning and cleaning cotton from the American colonies made this too expensive at that time compared with Eastern imports, but the situation changed markedly over the next century [Hobhouse (1985)]. [Patents (1691)] for making CALICO, MUSLIN and other cotton cloths from WEST INDIAN cotton wool was probably a non-starter at that time for this reason.

The development of cotton cloth manufacture in Britain began properly in the 1720s, with the so-called 'putting out system' whereby men, women and children (numbering approximately 150,000) were employed to card, spin and/or weave cotton in their own homes on a part-time basis [Hobhouse (1985)]. With an increasing demand a more efficient method was required, which came through the mechanization of the various processes. The main challenge was to speed-up the spinning of cotton. Weaving was fairly efficiently carried out on weaving frames, which were later improved and managed more productively in workshops and 'factories', instead of being worked by weavers in their own homes. Lewis Paul patented a machine for spinning cotton in 1737 [Patents (1737)], but this was never applied nor marketed on a large scale due to his personal financial problems. A fortunate advertisement of a bankrupt's assets show that some manufacturers tried it out. [Newspapers (1743)] offered for sale the licence to erect 50 spindles 'according to the new invention of Mr Lewis Paul'. It was not until the 1770s that outputs increased radically following Richard Arkwright's invention of a spinning frame in 1769 This was used on a large scale first in his mill at Nottingham, powered by horses; and then in another mill at Cromford (Derbyshire), which was powered by water [Hobhouse (1985)]. Hobhouse notes the impact of this innovation: 'The weight of cotton spun in England rose from less than 500,000 lb, all spun by hand in 1765 to 2 million in 1775, mostly spun by machine, and to 16 million in 1784, all spun by machine'. In 1788 centres of manufacture were still well scattered; there were 41 mills in Lancashire, 22 in Derbyshire, 17 in Nottinghamshire, 11 in Yorkshire, 8 in Cheshire, 7 in Staffordshire, 5 in Westmoreland and 2 in Berkshire [Hobhouse (1985)]. Steam power was also applied to some spinning machines by the close of the eighteenth century.

The possibilities of making cotton fabrics to rival those imported from the East made cotton a subject of much interest to manufacturers and therefore to inventors and innovators. This is reflected in the PATENTs, many of which are concerned with improvements in manufacture from the cleansing of cotton wool to finishing processes that DYED, GLAZED, PRINTED, or STAMPED the cloth.

Cloth made entirely of cotton was difficult until the improvements in spinning technology in the second half of the eighteenth century. Usually a linen warp had to be used to give the fabric sufficient strength. However, the appraisers of [Inventories (1720)] apparently thought it worthy of comment that the deceased had in his shop nine pieces of all cotton rib. The marketing and distribution of the increasing quantities of cotton cloth was centred principally in Manchester, hence the term MANCHESTER GOODS. From here fabrics and other cotton goods were sent by water, internally and along the coast, and by road. Second to Manchester, and serving the South West, was Truro, which was ideally placed on its river and with access to the road networks.

Found described as Blackburn, BLACK, BLUE, blush, BRITISH, made in CHESHIRE, COLOURED, made in Cornwall, CORDED, CYPRUS, dark, FASHIONABLE, FLOWERED, FRENCH, FURNITURE, GREY, GREEN, INDIA, IRISH, KNITting, LAMP, made in Lancashire, low priced, , MURREY, NAP, NEW, newest, NORTHERN, of diverse colours, of the newest pattern, OLD FASHIONED, PATENT.PINK, PLAIN, PRINTED, PURPLE, QUILTING, RED, SHREWSBURY, SILK, SPUN, STAMPED, STRIPED, TAUNTON, TAWNY, made in Wales, WHITE, working, YELLOW
Found sold in the shops by GROSS, PIECE, YARD Found rated by the GOAD, POUND, YARD

Sources: Acts, Diaries, Houghton, Inventories (early), Inventories (mid-period), Inventories (late), Newspapers, Patents, Rates, Tradecards.
References: Hobhouse, (1985), Holme (1688), Kerridge (1985), 18-9, and many more references, Lemire, (1991), Tawney and Power (1924), II/192, Wilhelmsen (1943), 22, 45.

Cotton candle

A CANDLE with a COTTON WICK. Since this appears in the sixteenth century, presumably made because it gave a better product than any of the alternatives, the eighteenth-century occurrence of the term 'cotton candle' in the Dictionary Archive is surprisingly late.

OED earliest date of use: 1587

Sources: Inventories (late).

Cotton cloth

Generally CLOTH made of COTTON. However, the OED reference taken from Haklyut's Voyages (1598) 'The poorer sort do line their clothes with cotton-cloth which is made of the finest wool they can pick out', suggests that the term 'cotton cloth' did sometimes have the first meaning given in this Dictionary under 'cotton' and did not always refer to cotton as we would understand it today. The term has only once been noted in the Dictionary Archive where CALICO and MUSLIN seem to have been the preferred terms before 1700 and thereafter simply 'cotton' or 'cottons'. Cotton cloth was, however, a commodity noted in the Gloucester Coastal Port Books between 1682 and 1726.

OED earliest date of use: 1552

Sources: Patents.

Cotton drapery

A term constructed on similar lines to LINEN DRAPERY and WOOLLEN DRAPERY, but never in common use. Where linen drapers and woollen drapers abounded, the term 'cotton draper' has not even found its way into the OED. Instead, once the manufacture of COTTON GOODS in this country was established retailers described their stock in terms like 'Haberdashery and Manchester goods' [Tradecards (18c.)] or 'Woollen & Linen Drapery Hosiery and Manchester Goods' [Tradecards (1791)] or they claimed their place of sale as a Manchester Warehouse [Tradecards (1796)].

Not found in the OED or the Dictionary Archive, and only once (1728) in the Gloucester Coastal Port Books

References: Gloucester Coastal Port Books (1998).

Cotton goods

A collective term that was probably synonymous with other similar terms such as COTTON DRAPERY, COTTON STUFF and COTTON WARE. All these were used by the compilers of the Gloucester Coastal Port Books, but most have not been noted either in the Dictionary Archive or by the OED. The OED's quotation mentioning COTTON GOODS is taken from Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, where they were referred to as distinct from MUSLIN, but in other circumstances the term might well have included muslin and other INDIAN - TEXTILES as well as FUSTIAN, COTTON HOSE and HABERDASHERY made of cotton. The context may help to identify the contents but often does not.

OED earliest date of use: 1776

Found including COTTON - VELVERET

Sources: Acts, Newspapers, Patents.
References: Smith (1776), II/140.

Cotton hose

[cottn' hose]

At a time when the only alternative to expensive SILK STOCKINGs were WOOLLEN HOSE, the arrival of cotton hosiery must have been highly welcome, being relatively cheap and easy to maintain, and much cooler for summer wear. Cotton hose was a collective term that included COTTON STOCKINGs and probably cotton GLOVEs.

Not noted in the OED

Found described as INDIAN, KNIT

Sources: Inventories (mid-period), Inventories (late), Newspapers, Tradecards.

Cotton inkle

INKLE made from COTTON, or possibly, particularly in the earlier part of the period, made with a LINEN warp and a cotton weft. Cotton inkle, like COTTON TAPE, seems first to have appeared in the shops during the 1620s and 1630s, along with other small items of cotton HABERDASHERY. Such articles, woven in very narrow widths, were ideally suited to cotton at a time when the challenges of working this new material had not been fully mastered by English weavers. By the eighteenth century, if not before, probably all inkle was made of cotton unless otherwise described and hence the rarity of the term in the Dictionary Archive. The term 'cotton inkle', like unspecified 'inkle', may also have been used to refer to what is otherwise labelled UNWROUGHT INKLE.

Sources: Inventories (early).

Cotton lace

By the mid-nineteenth century, when E.E. Perkins published his treatise on HABERDASHERY, cotton lace was commonplace and he described at some length the processes of manufacture. By then it was a mechanized business and it is not certain how much or any of what he wrote applied to cotton lace when it was still entirely hand made. The introduction of the STOCKING FRAME, and the range of improvements that were applied to it during the eighteenth century, saw cotton used alongside the traditional materials for making lace, like SILK and FLAX; for example [Patents (1778)]. However as early as 1629, cotton lace was already being listed alongside SILK LACE in retailer's shop in COVENTRY [Inventories (1629)].

Sources: Inventories (early), Inventories (late).
References: Perkins (1853), 104-8.

Cotton manufacture

Products manufactured from COTTON such as COTTON CLOTH, COTTON INKLE, COTTON LACE, etc. The term has been noted only in the Book of Rates of 1784 where it was applied to goods 'not otherwise enumerated' imported by the East India Company. This entry shows the degree to which the tables had been turned. A century earlier the Company was bringing in large quantities of COTTON GOODS from India, which were seen seriously to threaten the British manufacture of TEXTILEs, mainly made from wool. But by the 1780s the East India Company was taking outwards to India large quantities of cotton manufactures, mainly made in MANCHESTER and the surrounding district.

OED earliest date of use: 1825

Sources: Rates.

Cotton pack

The term is probably synonymous with MANCHESTER PACK, which was more common. Whereas the term 'cotton pack' appeared in the Gloucester Coastal Port Books only between 1666 and 1686, entries listing 'Manchester pack' spanned the period from 1612 to 1733. The term was also probably synonymous with CHAPMANS WARE, which consisted mostly of small LINEN WARE and COTTON WARE.

Not found in the OED

References: Spufford (1984), 85-106 and Documentary Appendix.

Cotton rib

A kind of FUSTIAN or CORDUROY. Although the term could possibly have been applied to HOSIERY, knitted either by hand or on the improved STOCKING FRAME of Jeddediah Strutt, see [Patents (1758)] and [Patents (1759)], this is not so in the Dictionary Archive where cotton ribs are found either among or near to the fustians.

OED earliest date of use: 1824

Found measured for sale by PIECE, YARD

Sources: Inventories (late), Tradecards.

Cotton ribbon

[cottin ribon; cotten ribbond]

Like other small items of HABERDASHERY made of COTTON, cotton ribbon started to appear in the shops during the 1620s and 1630s. Ribbon, traditionally made from SILK, was woven in narrow widths and was thus ideally suited to cotton. Possibly initially cotton ribbons were woven on a LINEN or a silk warp.

Not found in the OED

Found for sale measured by DOZEN, GROSS, PIECE, YARD

Sources: Diaries, Inventories (early), Inventories (mid-period).

Cotton roll

The term 'roll' with a descriptor, as in HEMPEN ROLL and LINEN ROLL, indicated a TEXTILE, usually found unbleached and marketed in a roll rather than folded. The term 'cotton roll' is found only once in INVMID and does not fit in this group, for it was measured by the gross. The unit of measurement suggests COTTON THREAD or COTTON YARN but neither was usually measured in this way. However, [Inventories (1734)] had large stocks of thread, mostly unspecified, but including cotton thread, among which were listed '21 Roules No Thread' (that is, rolls of NUMBER THREAD) valued all together at 4s. Each roll was thus valued at about 2½d, roughly equivalent to the valuation of his cotton thread. In [Inventories (1689)] 72 rolls were also valued at 4s, suggesting either that the roll was distinctly variable or that in these cases the valuations were unreliable.

The OED has a number of possible meanings that might fit but all are problematic

Found measured for sale by GROSS

Sources: Inventories (mid-period).

Cotton seed

The seed of the COTTON plant. It was occasionally used medicinally, sometimes in the form BOMBAST seed. Cotton seed also furnished an OIL with similar characteristics to OLIVE OIL, and the solid residue left after its extraction a fodder for cattle. [Patents (1799)] protected a method of extracting the oil.

OED earliest date of use: 1795

Sources: Inventories (mid-period), Patents, Recipes.

Cotton stockings

Cotton stockings were one of the main components of COTTON HOSE. Although they started to appear in the shops in the seventeenth century, it was in the eighteenth century that they became widely popular. The account book of George Thomson, which Barbara Johnson used as the basis of her album, shows that in the 1740s cotton stockings had not yet become really fashionable. Thomson only made a single purchase, on 15 June 1742, apparently preferring SILK or WORSTED. Indications of the change in fashion come with the spate of advertisements in NEWSPAPERS during the last decade or two of the eighteenth century advertising the repair of cotton stockings.

Found described as WHITE

Sources: Acts, Inventories (mid-period), Inventories (late), Newspapers, Tradecards.
References: Johnson (1987), 179.

Cotton stuff

An uncommon term, found only once in the Dictionary Archive in [Acts (1784)] where it was defined for the purposes of imposing additional duties. It was said to consist of 'all Stuffs made of Cotton and Linen mixed [i.e. FUSTIANs and similar fabrics such as COTTON VELVET] and Stuffs wholly made of Cotton Wool woven in Great Britain'. However, this definition should not be taken as the only one. While most users of the term would probably have included the above, they might well have added such items as COTTON HOSIERY, COTTON LACE, etc.

OED earliest date of use, but without a definition: 1810; it was noted once (1716) in the Gloucester Coastal Port Books

Sources: Acts.

Cotton tape

Cotton tape, that is TAPE made of COTTON instead of LINEN as was formerly the case, first appeared in the shops during the 1630s, along with other small items of cotton HABERDASHERY. Tapes and similar articles woven in very narrow widths were ideally suited to cotton. Possibly initially they were woven on a LINEN warp.

Not found in the OED

Found described as BEST
Found in units of DOZEN, GROSS, PIECE, YARD

Sources: Acts, Diaries, Inventories (early), Inventories (mid-period), Inventories (late).

Cotton thread

A THREAD made by twisting together two or more COTTON YARNs of equal quality used as a STITCHING THREAD or to make THREAD LACE, THREAD STOCKINGS, etc.

OED earliest date of use: 1874, though a ball of cotton is noted in 1848

Found measured for trade by OZ

Sources: Inventories (late), Tradecards.

Cotton velvet

A COTTON - TEXTILE made with a pile like VELVET; a kind of FUSTIAN

OED earliest date of use: 1777

Found described as 'manufactured in Great Britain' Found included among Fustians in ACTS 1774/C072 and FIGURED - STUFFs made of COTTON WOOL in ACTS 1785/C072

Sources: Acts, Patents.

Cotton ware

Cotton ware probably consisted mainly of SMALL WARE like COTTON INKLE, COTTON RIBBON, and COTTON TAPE, but could have included TEXTILEs made of cotton like FUSTIAN and, particularly before 1700, PIECE GOODS from INDIA. In the eighteenth century in most cases the term was probably synonymous with MANCHESTER GOODS but they have both been noted listed together in the Gloucester Coastal Port Books. In the Gloucester Coastal Port Books this was the most common way of recording cotton goods and appeared from 1666 to 1758.

Not found in the OED

References: Gloucester Coastal Port Books 1998.

Cotton wick

[cotton weeke; cotton weake]

WICK YARN made of COTTON. The use of cotton in this way appears in the Dictionary Archive during the sixteenth century, although the COTTON CANDLE was not noted until much later. Presumably a cotton wick was seen to have advantages over alternative materials. LAMP COTTON was advertised, presumably a specialized wick suitable for lamps as opposed to candles.

OED earliest date of use: 1678

Sources: Diaries, Inventories (early), Inventories (mid-period), Inventories (late).

Cotton wool

[cotton-wool; cotten-wool; cotten wooll; cotten wool]

COTTON in its raw state. It is the white fibrous substance, soft and downy like WOOL which clothes the seeds of the cotton plant Gossypium. It was known throughout the period, being imported initially from Egypt or further east, but from the eighteenth century increasingly from the New World; hence such terms as East India Cotton Wool, and ENGLISH PLANTATION Cotton Wool. Little was known about its growth until surprisingly late. For example in a dispute between the East India Company and the Customs office, it was claimed by the Company that cotton wool grew on trees and not like hemp and flax [Diaries (Pepys)]. Its importance as a raw material increased in this country from the second half of the seventeenth century for the manufacture of COTTON DRAPERY, COTTON WARE, COTTON YARN. It was also used for padding; an early example is in the JERKIN worn under mail, and later as UPHOLSTERY stuffing.

Cotton wool began to appear in the shops during the last few decades of the sixteenth century, replacing the term BOMBAST, when it was valued at between 8d and 12d the LB, but valuations after the Restoration in 1660 dropped to 7d-8d. After 1700 it seems to have almost disappeared from the shops, but it is more probable that it was still available in retail but that it was labelled merely as 'cotton'.

OED earliest date of use: 1600

Found measured in the shops by LB, PACK, SACK Found imported by the BAG, SACK

See also BOMBAST.
Sources: Acts, Diaries, Houghton, Inventories (early), Inventories (mid-period), Inventories (late), Newspapers, Patents, Rates.

Cotton work

A term found sporadically in the Gloucester Coastal Port Books between 1710 and 1759 and, but only once, in the Dictionary Archive. The probate inventory of a so-called 'Leather Seller' in London [Inventories (1675)] listed a large stock including many articles of APPAREL such as HOSE, SOCKS and GLOVES, READY MADE of COTTON and THREAD. Among the debts he owed was one for 'cotton work'. In the context of his stock it may be deduced that this was for outworkers who were KNITting for him. However, there is no reason to suppose that in a different context and in the eighteenth century when cotton goods had become more commonplace, cotton work might have meant something like cotton EMBROIDERY.

Working COTTON has been noted, presumably referring to a COTTON THREAD suitable for doing cotton work.

Not found in the OED

Sources: Inventories (mid-period).

Cotton yarn


It was a YARN for weaving into fabrics like FUSTIAN, MUSLIN, etc., but also for knitting small goods like GLOVES and STOCKINGS and valued at between 1s 3d - 2s the LB.

OED earliest date of use: 1704

Found described as BRITISH, from IRELAND, of TURKEY Found measured in the shops by LB Found imported and rated by the BALE, FANGOT

Sources: Acts, Houghton, Inventories (early), Inventories (mid-period), Inventories (late), Rates.