Why Linen, Not Cotton?

When describing our 18th century garb to contemporary audiences, we tell them that common clothing would have been made of linen or wool rather than cotton, because cotton was expensive.

To gain some sense of the difference, consider this. At the time of the Revolution, the fiber hairs of cotton had to be separated from the cotton seed by hand. For every pound of cotton fiber, three pounds of cotton seeds had to be removed. Eli Whitney did not invent the cotton gin, which could separate fiber from seed by machine, until 1794. So at the time of the Revolution, it took twelve to fourteen days of labor to produce a pound of cotton thread, but it took only one or two days to produce a pound of wool thread.

Um, wool underwear rubbing against the skin. Ah, now maybe we understand why our colonial ancestors didn’t wear any?

Author Bio

Donald L. Hafner is Drum Major of the Lincoln Minute Men. When he is not serving as a fifer in the ranks of the Minute Men, he is a Professor of Political Science at Boston College. His scholarly work has been principally in the fields of arms control and U.S. foreign policy.

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