PLANT FIBERS IN HISTORY
Today, people more frequently think of diet when they think of fiber. Yet, historically, their manifold functions in daily human activity made agriculturally produced plant fibers the foundation of economies from field to factory and gave them a central role in international relations. European powers rose and fell with the vagaries of the fabric trade. The looms of Antwerp and Bruges ran on Flemish flax and English wool. In the 1700's, an upstart East Indian fiber made from seed hair threatened the British wool industry. Laws were passed banning its importation. Protectionism would not prevail, however, since the British East India Company stood to gain so much from the new fiber. Bertha Dodge in her historical monograph, Cotton: The Plant That Would Be King, explains that "By 1719, this industry had grown to such proportions that the woolen interests, through Parliament, again tried to have the importation of raw cotton interdicted, this time meeting with no success whatever."8 Cotton became a world power,9 and is credited as the single greatest force in the early economic development of the US:
Before cotton entered the arena, linen from flax had been the highest valued fabric, its usage tracing into prehistory. Flax lost its preeminence when a series of mechanical inventions shifted the economics of cotton fabric production, and commenced the industrial revolution. The fly-shuttle, invented by John Kay in 1733, speeded up the looms, increasing the demand for thread, a demand met by the invention of the spinning jenny by John Wyatt in 1738. These tools could be concatenated and driven by water or steam in the new, centralized work environment, the factory. Whitney's cotton gin appeared in the 1790's after which the raw cotton to supply the needs of English factories came increasingly from the American South. "The ten bales reaching England in 1784 from the new United States...had become about one-third of a million bales by 1820, over two and a half million by 1860."11 Whitney's machine, by mechanizing the delinting of Upland cotton, the American variety, engendered the slave-based plantation system needed for labor-intensive cotton agriculture.
The changes in cotton manufacture transformed fiber economics. Cotton quickly took over markets previously dominated by flax, and to a lesser degree by hemp, in the US and Europe. By 1850, flax culture had nearly disappeared in the US. It had long endured as a cottage industry, each rural household having its own small plot for domestic use.