The Human and Climate Costs of Our Perpetually New Clothes- Part 1 (of 4)

PART 1—The Long Road to Fast Fashion: Prehistory to 1920

Regularly on the move when I was a kid, we lived in many different regions of the United States—the Midwest, the West Coast, New England, the Southeast, and Texas. We lived in large, small and mid-sized cities, but always in the suburbs. It wasn’t until I lived on my own that I began living in more urban, inner-city neighborhoods. So, it wasn’t until then that I became more consciously aware of industry in these cities.

One of the places we lived was Charlotte, North Carolina and I lived there again as an adult. As I drove around town going through the routines of daily life, I noticed things I never saw as a child. Back then I knew Charlotte to be a town of big oak trees, stands of pines, rows of azaleas, and lush green lawns. Now I noticed that behind a strip mall I frequented for groceries or movies and not far from some very expensive neighborhoods, there was a little neighborhood of “mill houses” on the street I used as a cut-through. I saw these same mill house neighborhoods (called “mill villages” when first built) near downtown in an area that would later become gentrified with the mill houses “repurposed” as art galleries and boutique restaurants.

Mill houses in Charlotte, 1920 (source: Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room – Charlotte Mecklenburg Library)

Near one of the downtown mill house neighborhoods and also along a main artery heading away from downtown, I noticed some very large old mill buildings, and I heard people talk about “textile plants” in smaller nearby towns like Gastonia, Shelby, Belmont, Pineville, Monroe, Concord, and Kannapolis. (The list of mill towns in North Carolina goes on and on.) At the time, I was dating a young man from Rock Hill, South Carolina, a small town twenty minutes south of Charlotte. Both of his parents worked at “the Bleachery” there. I came to know the importance of the Bleachery to this family and to the town of Rock Hill. Built in 1925, the historic textile processing plant sprawled across 6 buildings and employed 20% of the town’s population—nearly 5,000 people at its peak.

The Bleachery – Rock Hilll Printing and Finishing Company (source:

My first job as a graphic artist was at the Charlotte regional headquarters for Minnesota Fabrics and my husband worked for a bearings company that supplied several industries but a bulk of their business was done with textile mills. A little later in my twenties, I worked for a marketing and advertising firm and my boss and I made a call on a company that made parts for textile machinery. The owner explained to us the need to rethink their business since the mills were shutting down.

Wait . . . what? I stood there stunned though I had the sense to keep my ignorance to myself at the moment. Admittedly it had taken me awhile to become cognizant of the crucial history of this textile center of the country, including the depth of its connection to cotton fields and slavery, but now I didn’t understand how it could be disappearing. We still needed textiles. How and where were they going to be made?

The cotton mills in North Carolina were not the first in the United States. The first American cotton mill opened on December 20, 1790. It was built in Pawtucket, Rhode Island by Samuel Slater. Slater’s mill followed the designs of the English inventor Richards Arkwright. Slater, a former British textile worker, built several cotton mills in New England. Power for the mills’ carding and spinning machines came from a nearby water source. The first power loom for weaving the cotton threads was built in 1913. Before these carding, spinning, and weaving machines, all of the work for each step of the process was done by hand. This was the case going all the way back to the Paleolithic era.

While the first garments worn by humans were made from animal skins and hides, the earliest examples of weavings were made from flax. They were found in Egypt and date back to approximately 7,500 years ago. Wool replaced flax in many cultures by about 4,000 years ago. The oldest woven garment found to date is about 3,000 years old. This pair of riding pants was found in the dry Tarim Basin in western China. 

Woven around 3,000 years ago, this pair of pants is the oldest ever found.

Cotton was first used as a textile material in India and Peru around 3000 BCE. Then, as in most of the world for the next 5000 years, the plant was grown in small plots beside vegetables and grains. This combinatorial planting embodied the true meaning of subsistence farming—it met the households needs for living, including but not limited to food. Cotton and linen from flax was spun and woven at home or by local artisans. The exception to this was in cotton textiles from India.

Of Indian clothing, Herodotus wrote in 445 BCE, “They possess a kind of plant which instead of fruit, produces wool of a finer and better quality than that of sheep; of this the Indians make their clothes.” This was Indian cotton. Prior to Alexander the Great’s invasion of India, Greek merchants are thought to have imported Indian cotton to Europe. In the first century BCE, Roman General Mark Antony provided his soldiers with the softer Indian cotton for clothing. And Marco Polo told of extensive cotton industries in India in the thirteenth century. The most luxurious cottons came from Dacca (now Dhaka) in Bangladesh where the muslins were so fine they were described as “woven air” or “evening dew.” The English began importing these Dacca muslins in the 1600s and their popularity was soon widespread.

Direct trading of Indian cotton goods to England through the East India Company began in the 1640s. The goods went through the port of Calicut and were thus referred to as “calico.”  Over time the calicos along with Dacca muslins came to be seen as a threat to the British wool industry and a 1721 Act of Parliament forbade the wearing of printed calico.

As the Lancashire textile industry became more mechanized, the demand for cotton grew. By the beginning of the 19th century, India was to become the primary supplier of raw cotton to Britain. By the middle of the century, India became the chief consumer of British textile goods. Thus, India was to go from a supplier of quality manufactured cotton textiles to a supplier of raw cotton. The move would devastate the local craft networks and the land integrating cotton with vegetable and grains. The situation was nothing like that of the American South where labor was provided by enslaved people and land was readily cleared of its only inhabitants—the Indigenous people.

In the seventeenth century in the British colonies in America, many early settlers had brought with them the necessary skills and knowledge for making cloth from their previous lives in Europe. Not a viable competitor against European linen, the more rustic New England farmers were content with their homespun made from the flax they interspersed with whatever else was grown on their farms and homesteads. In England in the early 1600s, the production of textiles was a developed industry with skilled male weavers doing the work of their trade. In New England, carding, spinning, and weaving again became the work of women, as it had been for much of human history.

Colonial cloth-making required carding, spinning, and weaving (source:

By the middle of the next century, the colonies were on the brink of war with England. Resisting increased taxes, colonists boycotted goods from England. Suddenly homespun and the weavers of homemade fabric became important symbols of the colony’s desire for freedom from the British crown. But as more women and children were put to work in the burgeoning textile industry, health hazards rose to a new level. In her excellent new book Worn: A People’s History of Clothing, Sofi Thanhauser explains that “Cheap women’s labor and expendable land have been the foundation of the garment industry ever since.”  

By the end of the 18th century, Slater’s cotton mill and Eli Whitney’s cotton gin moved cotton into linen’s place and replaced most handmade fabrics with mill-produced textiles. Redirecting water as a power source, the mills were models of industrial efficiency, cranking out as much as 50 miles of cloth per hour. As Thanhauser so succinctly put it, “The Industrial Revolution was a fabric revolution.” Cloth financed the building of the railroads. And technological innovations mechanizing the long-standing manual fabric-producing processes were emblematic of things to come in other industries.

As the U.S. entered the nineteenth century as a large-scale cotton producer, Britain’s reliance on American cotton made it nearly as dependent on the enslaved labor of the American South as was the U.S. itself. When civil war broke out in the U.S. and the export of American cotton was shut down, Britain turned again to India for its raw cotton. Thus began the deforestation and overall destruction of lands that were once communal and productive. The people too became as impoverished as the land as spinners and weavers were penalized for not growing cotton, and quality Indian thread and fabric were priced out of a market inundated with cheap alternatives. In a cruel turn, India was now forced into becoming the largest importer of the British cotton cloth they had once been accused of threatening to put out of business. And with no grains interspersed in their cotton fields, they had to buy grain as well, thus setting up the conditions for years of famine and tens of millions of famine-related deaths.

In the 1920s, as the Indian nationalist movement gained momentum for home rule and self-sufficiency from Britain, Mohandas Gandhi positioned the spinning wheel as a symbol of his resistance movement. Gandhi himself spun at the wheel daily and always clothed himself in a white dhoti of homespun cotton.{1} The officers of the Indian National Congress did the same. A boycott of foreign fabrics was put in place to support the khadi movement.{2}

Khadi weaver in India. (Image courtesy of sarangib.)

When India did win its independence, the elected path forward was not through handweaving but industrialization. The displaced cotton field workers were pulled into the new cotton factories to produce mechanically spun yarn. The Indian government provided this yarn to handweavers in a nod to the preservation of traditional practices and modes of self-sufficiency, at least for the time being.

The United States has long valued its cotton fields. Even today when its cotton mills are gone, the fields remain and the U.S. is the world’s number one exporter of cotton. India and China actually grow more cotton than the U.S., but they retain most of it for use in their own textile mills, producing the fabric and garments that ultimately are exported to the U.S.

Although most of the cotton fields in the U.S. today are in the western part of the country, cotton was a predominantly southern crop until 1920. In the first two decades of the nineteenth century, cotton production began to boom and by the middle of the century cotton was the key cash crop for the southern states. More than half of the 3.2 million enslaved people in the fifteen U.S. states permitting slavery were involved in the production of more than 2 billion pounds of cotton annually.

Cotton harvesting in colonial and pre-Civil War southern United States (source:

Land used to grow only cotton was played out within ten to fifteen years and new land was needed for ongoing production of the monocrop. As the Louisiana Purchase and the acquisition of Texas added new states permitting slavery to the country’s available territory, cotton production spread through the movement of large numbers of enslaved people to the Deep South and the West.{3} Land was cleared so that cotton fields replaced old-growth forests and perennial vegetation.{4} At harvest time, an enslaved person was expected to pick two hundred pounds of cotton every day. The picking continued from sunrise to sunset from August through December. After the cotton was picked, it was ginned to remove the seeds, and after it was ginned, it was baled. Each burlap-wrapped bale weighing as much as 500 pounds was loaded onto a steam boat headed down the Mississippi River. From New Orleans, the cotton was bound by ship for Liverpool, England. From there it went to the mills in Manchester and other mill towns around the globe.{5}

The United States was founded on a Declaration of Independence eloquently articulating the rights of “men,” including liberty as well as equality. This was followed by a constitution that guaranteed the protection of these rights and equality under the law. At the same time, the United States of America was succeeding based on an economic foundation completely antithetical to this. Prior to its formalization as an independent nation and for much of the first century of its formal existence, slavery and its primary raison d’être—cotton—underpinned the nation’s economy and defined much of its culture and values.

From 1820 to 1860, nearly 80 percent of the world’s cotton came from the U.S.{6} In the last decade of this period, the cotton crop went from 2.1 million bales to 3.8 million bales. While investors in the northern states were putting their money into factories and equipment, investors in the south continued to invest in land and enslaved people for their cotton crops. The North was embracing critical industrial values while the South held fast to agrarian values and culture. Cotton was still, by a wide margin, the biggest export product for the country as a whole.

While southern cotton plantations are what generally comes to mind when thinking of this preeminent crop, roughly three quarters of southern families did not have enslaved people. Most of these predominantly white small-farm families grew cotton since it required little capital investment and was non-perishable. The plantations where the vast majority of enslaved people worked went into complete disarray with the onset and continuation of the U.S. Civil War. As enslaved people ran away from their enslavers and the others were ultimately emancipated, Southern capital as well as its economy and culture were demolished.

After the Civil War, little changed in the life of most people freed from being enslaved. The majority were kept from owning land and from alternative means of making a sustainable living. For many, the singular option was sharecropping. Growing cotton was their predetermined destiny. Over the next fifty years it became the destiny of many poor white farmworkers as well. Fully in force by the 1870s, sharecropping provided at least some economic independence from the large landowners but less independence from those providing sharecroppers with the needed supplies and other goods. These merchants took their payment in liens on future crops. It was just a different kind of indentureship and tied the sharecroppers indefinitely to cotton farming.


1–A dhoti is a kind of sarong tied in a way that resembles loose trousers and is traditionally worn in southern Asia by Hindu men.

2–Khadi is an indigenous method of hand-spinning fabric reclaimed since the 1920s as a symbol Indian autonomy.

3–By 1890, Texas produced more cotton than any other state in the U.S.

4–In addition to trees and other vegetation, clearing land for cotton also meant clearing it of its Indigenous inhabitants. This included the removal of the Cherokee from their homes in Georgia.

5–By 1935, New Orleans was a banking center and a city rich in cultural diversity thanks to the cotton trade that flowed out of there. It was also home to the largest slave market in the country.

6–A majority of this went to Britain, making the British Empire both dependent on U.S. cotton and complicit in U.S. slavery. 

Note: Thank you Manon for sharing with me the oldest pants ever found.

Reference Sources for Parts 1 and 2:

Bower, Bruce. 2022. The World’s Oldest Pants Stitched Together Cultures Across Asia. ScienceNews. 

Eves, Jamie H., York, Beverly L., Buch, Carol, & Palmer, Michele. 2021. Sewing Revolution: The Machine That Changed America. The Mill Museum.

Foner, Eric. 1988.  Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877. New York:  Harper & Row.

Glass, Brent D. & Kress, Kelley. 2006. Textiles. NCPedia.

Hanchett, Thomas W. & Huffman, William H. 1986. Mecklenburg Mill: Historical Overview.

Kanetkar, Riddhi. 2021. Khadi Weaving: An An ti-Colonial Symbol Turned Eco-Solution. Ours to Save.

North Charlotte Historic District. 2022. Charlotte City, Mecklenburg Count, N.C.

Santhanam, V. & Sundaram, V. 1997. Agri-History of Cotton In India: An Overview. Asian agri-History, Vol. 1, No. 4.

Thanhauser, Sofi. 2022. Worn: A People’s History of Clothing. New York: Pantheon Books.

Who Was Ella May Wiggins. Ella May Wiggins Memorial Committee.

Wright, Gavin. 1986. Old South, New South: Revolutions in the Southern Economy Since the Civil War. New York: Basic Books

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