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A - 3 : A Kingdom for a Light Shirt

Cotton just ready for harvesting

Some of you must be packing their bags by now. Did you pack your heavy woollen jacket, trouser and shirt already? Together with your leather boots? Since this trip is about providing a genuine Venetian travel experience, we expect you to dress like the Venetians 500 years ago. Just kidding! We hope you all bring your light summer clothes.

English Sailor in the 15th Century - all Clothes made from Wool

With no knowledge of plant based fibers, Europeans had no other choice than wearing woollen clothes. All the big explorers such as Vasco da Gama, Christophe Colombus or Maghellan travelled in woollen outfits. No wonder that the Japanese put the first Portuguese to arrive in Japan in 1543 for a full week into a bathhouse - their smell must have been awful!

The smelly Portuguese arriving in Nagasaki, Japan

Cotton is pure cellulose and grows as a fluffy fiber growing on a ground hugging shrub. It was first cultivated in the Indus Valley and in Mexico. On both sites cotton textile fragments were found which date back to 5’000 BC. We are going to focus on Indian cotton which was brought to the Middle East by Alexander the Great. But cotton which requires valuable arable land for cultivation, did not make it into Greco-Roman main culture. Even in Persia and Mesopotamia, there are few sources mentioning cotton production.

All this changed when the Arabs got hold of cotton. We could not find any information as to how this happened - maybe the desert was simply to hot to continue wearing camel based fabrics? In any case, cotton now became a well sought after product. Given that the entire continent of India was producing cotton, importing it was cheaper than producing it locally. The few cotton fields in southern Turkey and Cyprus we know about are the exception. Cotton was imported both in bales and as finished fabric. And guess who spotted a business opportunity when meeting the lightly dressed Arabs? You are right - the Venetian Merchants. Always money minded!

Spinning Cotton in Malta - It was woven using similar Techniques as with Wool

Cotton became quickly a staple product on Venetian merchant vessels. The arrival of a new, lighter textile triggered a craze in Europe. Everybody had to have it. But nobody knew where it came from. That wool could grow on a shrub was a concept that Europeans had difficulty to cope with. So they speculated that it must have come from tree borne sheep which would never climb down (sic!). At this point, India was the main beneficiary of the cotton craze and started to decorate the white fabric with printed patterns. Cotton became fashionable and women could wear colourful dresses without having to buy expensive silk.

Replica of Cotton Shirts from the 16th Century - now available on the Internet

Here the story of cotton starts to overlap with the history of Lombard Odier. Many of our ancestors were calvinist cotton printers in Geneva which originally came from Nîmes before Louis XIV kicked them out of France in 1685. They brought with them a product called Calicoes (= printed cotton fabric which took its name for Calicut - the famous Indian trading port) which they also sold as Produit de Nimes. The genius of American pronunciation made this later into Denim - a word which we still recognise today - your cotton jeans.

The story of how cotton triggered the industrial revolution shall be told on another occasion - maybe over dinner on the boat?

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