The North Italian Cotton Industry 1200-1800
By Maureen Fennell Mazzaoui
Paper given at A Global History of Cotton Textiles, 1200-1850, GEHN Conference, University of Padova (2005)
Introduction: The silk and cotton industries of medieval Italy were transplanted industries based on technological transfers and raw materials from the Islamic world. In contrast to silks which found ready purchasers among traditional European elites long accustomed to luxury cloth, cotton goods from the outset were geared toward mass consumption. The success of the cotton industry required the opening of markets and the creation of consumer demand for a new line of affordable fabrics. This in turn required cost-effective solutions to the transport and processing of large quantities of cotton fiber.
While the northward migration of some varieties of the cotton plant (gossypium herbaceum) from the tropical zone can be traced from an early date, a sustained expansion of Old World cotton cultivation occurred between 700 and 1600 when the acreage devoted to this crop reached its maximum historical extension stretching from southern Spain to South-east Asia. An initial impetus to this development came from an expanded knowledge of agronomy and irrigation techniques disseminated across the Islamic world. Artisans in royal tiraz factories and private workshops borrowed tools and techniques from Byzantine and Persian craftsmen, notably the spinning wheel and the raised horizontal treadle loom, in addition to the bow, reel and cotton gin received from India. The application of sophisticated weaving and dyeing techniques allowed the creation of a novel line of plain and patterned fabrics ranging from sheer muslins and lawns to hybrid fabrics in which cotton was mixed with linen, silk and wool. Islamic sumptuary laws favored the use of cotton garments among adherents to the faith. The versatility of cotton and its adaptability to a wide range of climatic conditions ensured a steady demand among urban and rural consumers linked by extensive commercial networks. In the early Islamic empire, cotton was transformed from a luxury commodity into an ordinary article of daily use.