India’s varied landscapes, climates, cultural traditions and religious influences mean that they have a vast range of different clothes made out of different materials that have evolved throughout history. These different Indian clothing types have also been influenced by India’s great diversity in fibres, weaves and materials.
One of the most prominent materials used in Indian clothing is cotton. Luckily India’s recorded history of clothing goes back to the 5th millennium BC so it is possible to trace the use of cotton back to ancient India. The cotton industry was quite advanced at this point; this is mainly due to the fact that Indian cotton was ideal for the hot summer climate. A vast majority of the knowledge about ancient Indian clothing comes from paintings and rock sculptures. These art forms portray goddesses and dancers wearing dhoti wraps, which are similar to sarees.
Other ancient historians spoke of the copious amounts of cotton in India. Herodotus wrote in 400BC that in India there were, “trees growing wild, which produce a kind of wool better than sheep’s wool in beauty and quality which the Indians use for making their clothes.”
By 200AD during the Guptan period cotton was being sold to neighbouring countries in the east and the west. The Romans thought highly of cotton and considered it to be as luxurious as silk. Similar to Herodotus, Pliny also wrote about Indian cotton mentioning, “trees that bear wool” and “balls of down from which an expensive linen material for clothes is made.”
Cotton production spread across the Middle East to North Africa and Spain with the establishment of the Islamic Empire in the late 600’s AD. By the 700s the people of North Africa and West Asia started wearing cotton clothing, however in Europe cotton was still considered a very unusual item. By 1000 AD Italian traders brought cotton to Europe.
By 17th century the East India Company began importing cotton to Britain, this also coincided with the invention of cotton gin in 1793. Cotton was being imported to Britain from India to be milled into cloth and then sent back to India to be made into Indian clothing. This particularly angered Mahatma Gandhi who encouraged the revival of homespun khadi, which he saw as key to India’s economic regeneration as well as its independence. In 1921, Gandhi launched a movement to encourage Indians to spin their own cloth or purchase only hand-spun Indian clothing.
Today in modern, independent India there is a great diversity in traditions and methods of cotton production. Weavers often work in close family structures where the skills are passed down from the generations for the making of their Indian clothing.