As Stephen Yafa is no doubt well aware, cotton is one of the oldest fabrics on the planet. Given that, a history focusing on its use in America is incomplete by necessity. But even with that limitation, Cotton: The Biography of a Revolutionary Fiber is a crowded biography, a life packed with sin, disgrace, false promises, and the occasional apparent miracle. Yafa gives the preAmerican history of cotton just enough space to illustrate the true worldwide importance of the plant. That brief perspective also serves to both highlight the brevity of America’s involvement with the plant and the disproportionate contribution of American adaptations to the use of cotton in the world textile industry.
Cotton is a brief book, but Yafa wastes no time in his narrative. Every page reveals a new and telling bit of history, all of it woven together in an endless tapestry. There are no idle anecdotes here. Even a brief detour into the land of high fashion only serves as a bridge to take cotton into the international marketplace. The history of the humble blue jean offers an opportunity to reflect on dyeing practices, American transportation solutions, and cultural imperialism.
Wars, empires, and religions end, but textiles just change design; so the ending of Cotton feels a bit a random, even if it is nicely capped with a personal reminiscence by Yafa on his native mill town of Lowell. The thread of cotton’s history may be lying loose, waiting to be picked up again, but Yafa has gathered a fair-sized bale of it for Cotton: The Biography of a Revolutionary Fiber.