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The Biography of a Revolutionary Fiber

Whether you're eating ice cream, changing diapers, handling paper money, polishing fingernails, reading a book, or getting dressed for the day you're using cotton. At any given time everyone on earth is wearing or using something made with cotton.  
In BIG COTTON: The Biography of a Revolutionary Fiber author Stephen Yafa explores the extraordinary range of imagination and ingenuity required to convert a fluffy mass of fiber into a substance of unbelievable versatility. He traces cotton's journey from its first domestication about 5,500 years ago in Asia, Africa, and South America, through the conflicts that led to the American Civil War, and finally examines its role nano-technology and bio-engineering-hot button topics in today's global economy. Yafa reveals to us how cotton has dictated the economy, carved the environmental state, and been a key player in international relations for thousands of years.

No legal plant on earth has killed more people by virtue of the acrimony and avarice it provokes than cotton. In the American South, cotton production enslaved generations of Africans, and then ignited the American Civil War, which sent more American men to their deaths than all other wars combined. Thousands of orphaned English children in nineteenth century Manchester worked in squalid, filthy textile factories manufacturing cotton into cloth. In the twentieth century, cotton cultivated a lethal environment by being one of the world's more persistent and heaviest users of toxic pesticides. Cotton, too, has been responsible for economic disasters as rivers are diverted to irrigate cotton crops and vast expanses of fauna and flora are replaced by cotton fields.

At the other extreme, cotton manufacturing inspired innovations and inventions responsible for transforming eighteenth-century England into the world's greatest industrial power, and then spurring the new American democracy to become an economic equal among giants. After Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin, and acres of cotton fields erupted throughout the South, our new nation suddenly owned a crucial piece of international trade; cotton added the economic muscle needed to achieve true independence.

Whether you find the story of cotton to be a tribute to man's ability to succeed or a cautionary tale, BIG COTTON makes you reconsider how we got where we are through a most surprising historical vehicle.


"In his compelling new history, , Stephen Yafa relates all of this in the fabric's rise from prehistoric India to today's textile conglomerates that clothe the world, modify cotton DNA and suck up federal subsidies. Big Cotton: How a Humble Fiber Created Fortunes, Wrecked Civilizations and Put America on the Map Typically, in a "concept history" – all those popular books about salt, tea or tobacco – the historian recounts the origins of a giant industry that grew around a once-obscure product. Unsurprisingly, giant industries eventually bend entire governments to their will. These tectonic shifts, however, seem invisible to us now because they're just part of the landscape."  Read Full Review 

- Jerome Weeks, Dallas Morning News

"Did you know that dollar bills are made mostly of cotton blue-jean remnants? That ice cream is thickened with cotton's ground-up short fibers? That cottonseed, in its natural state, is poisonous? That gossypol, cotton's toxic pigment, has been used as a male contraceptive in China? These and other surprising facts begin Stephen Yafa's history of a fiber we rarely stop to consider even though, chances are, each of us is touching something made of cotton right now."  Read Full Review

- Lyn Millner, USA Today

"Versatile writer and journalist Yafa has produced a meticulous history of cotton, the scrawny plant that transformed global economies. Beginning with a lesson on domesticated cotton, Yafa briskly outlines the fiber's contributions to Old and New World textile history. Jumping ahead to 1660, the story covers the cotton chintz craze of Central and Northern Europe, a fad that laid the groundwork for cotton to overtake wool as the fabric of choice. 

Cotton changed the production of English textiles from a rural enterprise into an automated industry, so that by 1771 the grim mills that would so influence Charles Dickens were employing children as young as eight. As the cotton trade boomed, industrial piracy brought English technology to the United States, leading Yafa to recount the interrelated stories of New England cotton mills and slave labor in the South. Yafa is at his best when discussing the process of domesticating cotton, cotton's influence on the blues, the popularity of denim, and the exceptional people who tamed cotton, but he succeeds in combining terrific prose with impressive research throughout this first-rate history of the 'humble fiber.'

- Rebecca Maksel, Booklist Review


"The story of cotton, from the beginnings to its place in modern geopolitics….Well-told, effectively documented survey of a major historical subject."

- Kirkus Reviews

"With wit and intelligence, Yafa demonstrates how a good deal of history can be learned by following a single thread."  Read Full Review.

- Ira Berlin,Washington Post

"Chambray is an indigo-dyed, plain-cotton weave often used in shirts and womenswear. Chintz is a plain-weave fabric with a lustrous finish. Cretonne is a printed fabric, heavier than chintz. Got that?
Good. Because you need to understand cotton if you are going to understand the world, and I don't mean only the modern world, where nothing gets between Brooke Shields and her Calvins. I mean the ancient world, too, and colonial America and the industrializing world, to say nothing of the fashion world, because before he is done, Stephen Yafa, the author of "Big Cotton" has a lot to say about all of them.

Mr. Yafa is a screenwriter, playwright and novelist, but here he has written cotton's biography, and let me say from the outset that it is a heroic biography of the old-fashioned kind."  Read Full Review. 

- David M. Schribman, Wall Street Journal 

"In his sprawling and fascinating history, Stephen Yafa skillfully chronicles the domestication of cotton 5,550 years ago in Asia, Africa and South America; its importation to Europe and the development of the English mill system in the 1700s; slavery and the cotton gin in the American South; and the rise of New England cotton mills. 

He also covers a host of cotton-related subjects, including the rise of denim, the most American of fabrics; the influence of the dreaded boll weevil on the blues; and today's controversial bioengineering. The chronicle is best when discussing the process of domesticating cotton and the exceptional people who tamed the fiber, whether inventors, farmers or scientists."  Read Full Review.

- Rebecca Maksel, San Francisco Chronicle


"Stephen Yafa, novelist, playwright and screenwriter, grew up in Lowell, Mass., America's first company town, devoted, as it happened, to cotton manufacture — the spinning and weaving of fibers into cloth. His book "Big Cotton" revisits his youth by viewing the history of the United States "through the narrow but sharply focused lens of cotton." 

A lens of cotton is unusual, to say the least, and can distort the view, as the book's magniloquent subtitle suggests. But Yafa more than compensates for that defect with a barrage of fascinating information about cotton production and manufacture and the ramified human responses to King Cotton. He explores technological changes with precision and weighs the human gains and losses such changes involved with what may be described as hesitant perspicacity. Altogether, then, a provocative, often persuasive and sometimes uneven book with much to teach readers."  

- William H. McNeill, Los Angeles Times

"Practically everyone in the world, Stephen Yafa informs us, wears something made from cotton every day. Cotton is in the books we read, in the food we eat, in the money we spend (U.S. paper currency is 75% recycled blue-jean factory remnants). It is so ubiquitous, so versatile and so accommodating that we hardly notice it.

After reading "Big Cotton," however, you may never look at your socks quite the same way again."

- Thomas Maresca, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel 

"If you were asked to list the things that have shaped civilizations, you might think of gold and silver, of water and wheat and rice, of timber and oil and coal. But would you think of the fabric that's probably next to your skin as you read this? It's easy for me to add cotton to the list. I grew up in the deep South and can remember stooped figures in fields of white and burlap-wrapped cotton bales on loading docks. But I also know that behind the ``Gone With the Wind'' picturesqueness of those images lies a history of exploitation and toil. In my lifetime, the stooped figures were replaced by machines, and the bales are now wrapped in plastic. But the Southern cotton economy is troubled: In the Mississippi Delta there are casinos and catfish farms where there were once cotton fields. As Stephen Yafa tells us, in 1970 there were 300,000 cotton growers in the United States; today there are about 25,000. Yafa has also seen the transformation of a cotton economy, but from a different angle: He grew up in Lowell, Mass., a city created by cotton, once the proud center of the American textile industry. But when he was a boy the industry had relocated to the Carolinas. The mills were decaying hulks, ``rows of massive rectangular brick buildings with tiny windows, mostly abandoned.'' Today, Lowell has been fixed up for the tourists: The mills are museums and there are guided tours of the city's ethnic neighborhoods. ``Little did we know our sweaty streets were destined to become theme-park attractions,'' Yafa writes." Read Full Review

- Charles Matthews, Mercury News