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Cotton: The Biography of a Revolutionary Fiber

3.63  ·  Rating Details ·  168 Ratings  ·  38 Reviews
In the tradition of Mark Kurlansky's Cod and Salt, this endlessly revealing book reminds us that the fiber we think of as ordinary is the world's most powerful cash crop, and that it has shaped the destiny of nations. Ranging from its domestication 5,500 years ago to its influence in creating Calvin Klein's empire and the Gap, Stephen Yafa's Cotton gives us an intimate loo ...more
Paperback, 432 pages
Published June 27th 2006 by Penguin Books (first published 2004)
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You Read a Book about What?
356th out of 1,172 books — 590 voters
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Commoditgraphs
16th out of 38 books — 14 voters


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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30)
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Anthony
Jun 15, 2009 Anthony rated it really liked it
So I told this girl I was trying to get to go out with me that I was reading this book. She told me it sounded boring. Maybe that's why she hasn't called me in a few days.

It does sound pretty boring, and at first I was having trouble getting into it, but it's actually pretty interesting. Cotton has a ton of drama associated with it - from industrial espionage to child labor to slavery to genetic engineering to trade policies and their effect on third-world citizens. Cotton does a good job of out
...more
Pam Porter
Oct 12, 2016 Pam Porter rated it really liked it
Excellent history of cotton and how it shaped our country.
Evan
Apr 29, 2011 Evan rated it really liked it
I wrote a lengthy review of this book, and then accidentally backed my browser up and lost it. Cotton is a worthy addition to the list of "Commoditographs" - histories of single items. It does a great job of putting into context economic upheaval from British colonial India, to the mills of Manchester, to Lowell, MA, to the Norma Rae-era textile mills in the US South, and finally, to the heated conflicts surrounding the global cotton market (and manipulation of same).

The strongest chapters are n
...more
Janelle
My interest in this book began when I visited the National Museum of the American Coverlet in Bedford, PA, and saw it in the bookstore - the museum had a neat exhibit of antique spinning wheels on display when I went. I've never been into cotton as a material for spinning or knitting, but I'm fine with reading about it.

A few facts in the first quarter of the book (which unfortunately I did not mark) struck me as wrong, given my knowledge of fiber stuff, so I felt like I had to take a lot of the
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Josh Paul
Jul 26, 2016 Josh Paul rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
As a few other people have noted this book is not an exhaustive history of cotton, but something closer to a series of closely connected essays on the plant. The book focuses heavily on the United States. While I generally found Cotton interesting, and Yafa's style engaging, I had two (fairly minor) issues with the book.

The first is that he has a few tangents that are not really related to the main theme of the book. For instance he dedicates a fair amount of space to giving an overview of the
...more
Sarah
This is pretty much exactly what you think it is going to be: A big ol' history of cotton. The author is from Lowell, Mass, the original home of American cotton manufacturing. As a result of this, the book has a certain US perspective, but still examines the global ramifications of international cotton trade, from early times to today's China trade conundrum. I thought the one thing lacking from this book was the environmental disruptions of cotton growing. Most of the discussion of harsh ...more
Jrobertus
Sep 09, 2008 Jrobertus rated it really liked it
You're thinking, "he read a book about cotton? How lame is that?" Well you would be wrong - this is quite a fascinating book. I had no idea that the wonder fiber has had such an impact on human history and culture. But we do all wear clothes so I guess it should not be a surprise. The desire to control cotton led Britain to over run India. THey then halted Indian spinning and sent the cotton to England where mill towns did the spinning and weaving. Cotton also shaped the American economy at the ...more
J.M.
Jul 24, 2009 J.M. rated it liked it
A very interesting book about the history of cotton, not just in the US but abroad as well. From the cotton mills in England to the early factories in the northern United States, it's informative, well-written, and flows nicely. The author also describes how cotton production was a contributing factor leading up to the American Civil War, and goes into great detail about how that changed after the war and the infestation of the boll weevil.

Probably the best thing about this book is the depth of
...more
Bookmarks Magazine

You are what you wear. Or read. Or eat. Or something like that. In the spirit of recent books like Salt and Coal, A novelist and playwright, Yafa examines world history through the prism of a tiny little fiber called cotton. He touches on everything from science and economics to race and popular culture, painting nuanced portraits of cotton's far-reaching effects on the English mill system, B.B. King's blues, and controversies over bioengineering, among other topics. It's a good, solid history,

...more
Melissa
Jul 18, 2008 Melissa rated it really liked it
June selection for museum's book club
If the rest of the book holds up to the promise of the first 25 pages, we're in for a treat--and a great discussion. . .

The rest of the book did indeed hold up. While some of the descriptions of the various weaving equipment confused me, the personalities involved with the early textile industry were fascinating. MUch of it felt very familiar, especially once we got to slavery and sharecropping, but the last two chapters on modern farming, nano-technology and
...more
Caitlin
Apr 26, 2013 Caitlin rated it it was ok
It's more like a 2.5. The chapters about the growing and manufacture of cotton were good; as were the chapters on GMO and trade disparities. However, the multiple chapters on jeans, music and pop culture all struck such sour notes I almost tossed the book then and there. Really this book could have used a better editor.

Not normally a topic I have any interest in, I did learn a lot in reading this book. It was my 2nd-year anniversary gift from my husband (year 2 is a cotton gift) and therefore,
...more
Brinn Colenda
Sep 17, 2013 Brinn Colenda rated it it was amazing
This is a wonderful non-fiction book. It reads like a historical novel and touches on economics, history, race, botany and fashion. Who would have thought that a simple plant could have such influence on human history? There are so many interesting facts that I was soon overwhelmed. Great book for historians, trivia freaks and cocktail party one-uppers. It complements the other Penguin book, Coal, which has the same far-reaching sweep for combustible rocks. Both are great reads...makes you feel ...more
Barb
Feb 18, 2016 Barb rated it liked it
A good book in the tradition of Simon Garfield...a trip through the ages with cotton fiber as the focus. I would recommend for anyone who enjoys traveling through history one product at a time. The author takes you from the Middle Ages through the early millennium, ending with biotechnology and fair labor practices. Although I am familiar with the story, it was a good romp through history with interesting biographies of individuals to enhance the story.
Cam
Jan 27, 2015 Cam rated it liked it
Nice overview of the plant, changes in farming and weaving techniques over the centuries. Place cotton at the center of industrialization for both the U.K. and the U.S. and their respective national and international trade and politics for most of the 19th and 20th centuries. Leaves a little to be desired when it gets to looking at modern trade policies and politics, but a solid example of modern popular history focusing on one thread of history, or one fiber in this case.
Melissa
Aug 06, 2011 Melissa rated it liked it
Shelves: history
This book is less of an exhaustive history of cotton and more of a collection of interesting perspectives which are at least somewhat linked to cotton. Each chapter could really stand on its own and it would probably make for a better to read to just pick up one chapter at a time at your convenience. While Yafa may not be a great historian, he is an entertaining writer. His chapter on denim was particularly engaging and I was completely creeped out by his description of boll weevils.
Jen
Jan 22, 2013 Jen rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
I was given this book as a gift and did find it an enjoyable and informative history of cotton in the United States. While the book does briefly touch on cotton in other cultures, it is primarily a US-centric history. There was also plenty of sexism, racism, and classism. If you're looking for a history of cotton in the USA, this book is worth picking up. If you want a world history, look elsewhere.
Andy Anderson
Jul 03, 2015 Andy Anderson rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
Wow. Never knew cotton brought so much pain and suffering on one hand and fame and fortune on the other. Great book telling about two basic strains of cotton, history of Britain taking India over cotton, how cotton influenced the Civil War and how inventors made fortunes making machines to process it. The chapter on the fight against the boll weevil that really was just mostly solved just recently. Amazing book.
Greg
Jan 27, 2013 Greg rated it really liked it
Shelves: sci-nat
Not quite to the level of "Oranges" by McPhee or "Botany of Desire" by Pollard, but still and interesting timeline-based walkthrough of the history of this adaptable and applicable fiber plant. Read this for the Civil War historical basis, but was interesting to know evolution of this textile and how it replaced wool in Western world. Towards end of book, Yafa gets a bit activist and focused a bit too much on genetics and the WTO contest-based protests of 2002.
Melvenea
Dec 31, 2012 Melvenea rated it liked it
This book was fun to read. I was drawn to this book after becoming obsessed with hand spinning and weaving naturally colored cotton. I would have given this book more stars if it included a more detailed narrative about cotton being used on a small cottage scale. Especially its cultivation and use prior to industrialization. Nonetheless this was a worthwhile read
Chris
Jul 13, 2015 Chris rated it it was amazing
By far, one of THE most FASCINATING books I've read in a VERY long time! This did NOT read like a boring history book.......... but it gave a phenomenal insight into the growing and production of Cotton! Yes. Cotton with a capital C! If you love learning things new, I highly recommend this book! Enjoy it....... and I bet you never look at a cotton shirt again, in the same way!
Tom
Sep 13, 2014 Tom rated it liked it
The topic is more than just interesting, it's fascinating; however, the writing is at the other end of that range. More metaphors than Ovid's Metamorphoses; similes as plentiful as the sands of the Sahara. Puns: are they needed to make the story more readable (I think not). The asides (some seemed a bit snarky at times) deprecate the overall narrative.
Kevin
Nov 22, 2008 Kevin rated it really liked it
No as good a read as Kurlansky's books, but still very good. I learned too much about Jeans and genetically modified cotton. I learned that most cotton plants in the US are made into feed for cows and such. Pretty gross. The story was too academic in some parts and too non academic in others. I would definitely recommend however.
Charlotte
Sep 07, 2011 Charlotte rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Charlotte by: Dan
A surprisingly interesting book about the history of cotton. Not one I would have picked up on my own, but I'm glad Dan recommended it. Yafa manages to write in a story-telling manner, keeping the reader interested and wondering what the future has in store for cotton and it's place in the world.
John
Jan 11, 2008 John rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Yafa is very detailed and thorough in his reporting on this natural fiber and its role in the birth of the industrial revolution. I think some more attention could have been given to cotton in the context of US and global economies, both in historical and more modern contexts.
Amil Cook
Feb 10, 2015 Amil Cook rated it it was amazing
Very important historical overview of a product that for centuries was as important as fossil fuels are today. If you want to better understand Industrialization, American Slavery and Colonization then read this book.
Ben
Jul 28, 2011 Ben rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
At times too cutesy in its language, this is nevertheless a delightfully myopic history of a cotton in (mostly) American society.
Carol
Jul 19, 2010 Carol rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I was fascinated with the power and influence these humble fibers have had on the social, political and cultural development of our world. Great book.
Jean Bonilla
Jul 25, 2016 Jean Bonilla rated it really liked it
Witty and compelling arguments. This interesting take on "King" cotton actually prompted me to add two of the Mark Kurlansky books to my list.
david Gorrell
May 31, 2008 david Gorrell is currently reading it  ·  review of another edition
this story pairs well with Cadillac Desert to reveal the errors in the development of the desert U.S.
CFAITC
A novel that discusses how the cultivation and production of cotton profoundly helped shape human history and impacts the way we live.
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