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Cotton: The fiber that covers us

When Adam, the first man and Eve, the first woman, ate the forbidden fruit from the tree of wisdom, they become conscious about their nudity. They became so embarrassed that when the Father God came to see them, they were hiding behind the trees and God understood that they have violated the condition which was laid down for them to live in the Eden Garden without ever to do anything for their needs.

When God commanded them to come out of hiding before Him, they wrapped their sensitive organs with leaves. They were expelled from the Heaven condemned to toil for their food and covering their bodies for modesty and keeping themselves warm in winter.

The cotton plant came to the rescue. Fibers obtained from these plants are used to make cloths. Over 40% of the textiles make use of the cotton. India and Pakistan are two of the top producing countries.

The word Cotton comes from cultivated plants from the genus Gossypium. They have been cultivated since ancient times for their fibers which are used as textiles. Cotton has other, more surprising uses too from medicines and mattresses to seed oil and even sausage skins.

Cotton was cultivated first in South Asia and South America. Four species of cotton have been domesticated, but cultivars of the New World species G. hirsutum and G. barbadense dominate todays world markets.

The two species used in ancient South Asia were G. herbaceum and G. arboreum. They originated in Africa and India and were developed as fiber crops at the same time the New World species were used for the same purposes.

Earliest written references in India to cotton are given in the Rig Veda dating from about 1500 BC. But there is evidence in the form of cotton fragments that people of Indus Valley were familiar with the cotton clothes.  The fragments are 3000 BC old showing that ancient civilisation of the region was skilled in spinning, weaving and dyeing cotton.

Paintings in the Ajanta Caves in Maharastra show that a variety of patterns and colours had been developed in India by 200 BC to 500 AD. These fabrics were in demand outside South Asia and they were probably exported to Greece before Alexander the Great established the trade routes between Asia and Europe.

South Asia became famous for its textiles, and fine cotton muslin cloth was exported to the Greeks and the Romans. Muslins from Dhaka in Bangladesh were particularly prized.

India continued to be the world’s main producer of cotton textiles. The growing export trade extended to the rest of Europe including Britain. Embroideries of silk on white cotton from Gujarat were the first textiles to reach Britain from India, but the most popular were dyed cotton wall hangings. In Europe textiles became known by their trade names.

Calico fabrics were so named because they were exported from Calicut on the Malabar coast. The fabrics were shipped to the Arabian Gulf, taken by camel to the Nile River, and then shipped to the Mediterranean.

Cotton plant has even other uses. The seeds are full of oil. For headaches, a drink is made from powdered cotton seeds and mixed with milk. Dysentery is also treated with an infusion of seeds and leaves. Spots and other skin conditions are treated using cotton seed or extracts from the leaves.

The leaf extract can also be made into a poultice to ease painful joints. For mild burns, the seeds are ground and mixed with ginger and water to form a paste which is smeared onto the affected area. Snake bites and scorpion stings can be treated using infusions or mixtures of the seeds and leaves, sometimes in combination with mustard seeds. Ayurvedic, Siddha and Unani physicians use cotton to treat blood circulation and ear problems, colds, diarrhoea and gout.

Oil from cotton seeds is made into an oil that can be used in salads and processed to make margarine. Cotton oil and cottonseed cake is used as an animal feed, particularly to fatten cattle in some parts of India.

Cotton seed flour made from ground seeds is used in small amounts in South Asia. It is light in color with a nutty flavor and is used in some baked products.The short fibers covering the seed coat are called linters, and are used as a source of cellulose used to manufacture foods such as ice-cream. Cotton seed oil is used as an edible vegetable oil.

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