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Book Review


Giorgio Riello and Parasannan Parthasarathi, eds. The Spinning World: A Global History of Cotton Textiles, 1200-1850. New York:  Oxford University Press, 2009. Pp. xv+489. $150 (cloth)


     The title of this scholarly text is something of a misnomer: its contents cover all aspects of the production of cotton cloth, not just the twisting of fibers into thread. A quick glance at this title might also suggest a much broader topic than is actually found here: the authors focus on the history of cotton textiles, not wool, flax, hemp, or silk, although those fibers influenced and were often intertwined with the development of cotton production and trade. Rather than a single narrative, this is a collection of essays by twenty scholars from nine countries, based on three continents. As such, it provides quick-takes on many disparate aspects of the development of cotton production, from which one can appreciate its truly global influence in the years described.

     The research described here is an outgrowth of a project and several conferences of the Global Economic History Network, based at the London School of Economics from 2003-2007.  It is published as the sixteenth volume in the Pasold Studies in Textile History series, and appears to be more generalized than most. The research often draws on painstaking analysis of fresh sources. Examples include merchant inventories, commercial correspondence and account books, and pawn shop records, along with government documents. Although many studies emphasize economic history, this one also includes the impact of cotton production on social and cultural developments. For example, the quality, complexity and rarity of certain fabrics had great influence on their monetary value, which eventually contributed to the material culture of emerging consumer societies.

     Part I focuses on the various regions where cotton was produced between 1200 and 1800. During this period, India was the primary cotton production center of the world with many regions of the subcontinent involved. Over six hundred years, many technological improvements were made to the manufacturing process there, and the division of labor and systems of trade that supported it. The export of cotton cloth often allowed these producers to purchase foreign goods for Indian use. Subsequent chapters focus on the emergence of cotton production in China, Europe, the Ottoman Empire, Africa, and Southeast Asia. There is little if any attempt in this section of the text to compare and contrast developments in each region, but these are topics that could be explored through student research.

     According to the editors, cotton cloth was the world’s first global commodity, and the chapters in Part II trace developments through that lens. Content relates more directly to trade and consumption of cotton textiles while new players appear on the global stage, specifically the Dutch and the Japanese, along with consumers in the Atlantic World. Part III focuses on revolutionary changes resulting from significant technological advances in Europe, beginning in England, and the impact of mercantilism on markets worldwide in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Several articles in this section consider how these developments led to vast expansion of European manufacturing, and the precipitous decline of cotton production in Asia, especially India. However, as the editors point out, Europe’s domination did not go unchallenged. Regions like the Indian subcontinent still benefited from specialized manufacturing, such as producing different ways to decorate cloth that appealed to the tastes of various markets. The continued role of other fibers, eventually including synthetic ones, was also significant. And it is rather ironic that since the late twentieth century most cotton manufacturing is once again based in Asia.

     Each article in this text is relatively short, no more than twenty-five pages, and each concludes with a straightforward summary, an asset to those pressed for time. Many chapters are enhanced by extensive use of maps, charts, graphs, illustrations, as well as black and white photographs clarifying the narrative. The text also contains a glossary—very helpful to the novice in this area—and an extensive bibliography for those seeking additional information. Such supporting material, along with the writers’ straightforward language, should make this a popular reference for AP or undergraduate students seeking information about the development and impact of cotton textiles on the world. Its use is highly recommended as a reference in world and global history courses, courses in the history of technology, and in economics and sociological courses as well. However, its organization and cost would prohibit its adoption as a more frequently used supplement.

Jane Weber is a retired public school Social Studies teacher and administrator. She is currently Adjunct Professor at Nashua Community College, where she teaches history courses, and at Keene State College, where she oversees students preparing to be Social Studies teachers. She can be reached at


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