Egyptian Cotton, Linen and Bleach

Ancient Egyptian Clothing – The woman is richly adorned with jewelry and wears a dress decorated with a pattern of feathers, the kind of garment often associated with goddesses. She is carrying offerings of meat and a duck. Tomb of Meketre. From MetMuseum.org, Rogers Fund and Edward S. Harkness Gift, 1920

5000 years ago the Egyptians mastered the art of bleaching. White fabric was a premium choice and one might say they had a compulsive obsession to wash for personal hygiene and wear clean clothes, and that is no bad thing. Wearing dazzling white linen, their aesthetic image was complete.

The women wove linen, using the fibres from flax which grew along the Nile. The Nile was venerated by the Egyptians for good reason and I wrote a blog about the River back in 2019. Growing cotton and flax for a worldwide market requires plenty of water and the Nile is a very long river going through African countries who all want to use its magnificent waters for their own needs. Egypt is last in line.

The women would take the collected strips of fiber and begin slicing them down their length in order to make them finer. Then they would splice them by rubbing them on a flat surface. In the model, those are the three women at the far right, with their backs to the wall and crouching on the floor.

The women would then twist the spliced thread using spindles in order to form balls, or yarns, of thread. In the model, those are the three women standing in front of the previously-mentioned women, and they are holding two spindles each.

The Nile was full of dangerous crocodiles, so men usually gathered the flax and also performed the laundry duties as it was tedious work; it was dangerous for other reasons too, as many pests and parasites infested the Nile. The arid and dry conditions of Egypt were blessed with the river Nile coursing through the land, without which the Egyptian civilisation would never have developed.

It was not until a Frenchman, Monsieur Jumel, an engineer, arrived in Egypt in 1817 that cotton growing was developed. He was employed by the Pasha as director of a projected spinning and weaving mills. He found an Ethiopian cotton growing in a Cairo garden, and using seeds, began to cultivate the cotton.

This link here describes the successful project:

The year 1822 produced about 1.500 tons of this new cotton, the staple of which was markably fine, but more unequal and less clean than that of the ensuing years. Rude presses were constructed for packing the cotton at the villages; but as the machinery was defective, some of the Alexandrian merchants brought hydraulic presses, with which they caused the bales to be pressed again. The cotton eventually came to be known as Jumel (or Mahò) and it soon found voracious markets in Europe, especially in England where only the Lancashire mills with the latest machinery could handle the fineness of its quality. In 1823 the cotton crop was increased to about 10.000 tons, and its culture permanently fixed. The quality was cleaner than that of the past year but less fine in fiber. This showed the necessity of new seed, or a different system of cultivation, and measures were taken to meet these objections. In 1827 Muhammad Ali Pasha imported Sea Island cotton seeds, which let the Egyptian cotton achieve a perfect quality, and it turned out that lower Egypt, and especially the Damiata branch of the Nile, contained the districts most favorable to these cotton varieties. The combination of the best seeds in the world, together with the exceptional environment, set up the ideal cultivation conditions for the most precious cotton in the world. And during almost two centuries it has been widely proven this result.

The Egyptians developed the art of whitening the linen, but it took time to prepare. It has taken centuries to speed up the process of cleaning and then bleaching linen and cotton ready for use in textile manufacture.

Throughout history, ubiquitous bleaching practices were carried out in direct sunlight because it became apparent that the sun had a catalytic effect. In the past, bleaching agents had been identified as indigenous acids, bases, and mineral salts. They were applied as soaks and sours to achieve high whiteness levels. Up until the eighteenth century it was common practice to bleach linens and cottons in the sun and woolens in the fumes of burning sulfur. These relatively primitive bleaching practices were not only cumbersome and arduously slow, but required extensive acreage. It was not until the introduction of chlorine-based materials in the late eighteenth century that bleaching became facile. In the late 1920s, hydrogen peroxide became the most prevalent bleach. Since that time, hydrogen peroxide continues to be the prominent bleaching agent for natural fibers and blends with synthetic fibers. Synthetic fibers generally require little bleaching except for size removal, where necessary.

The anti bacterial agent, hydrogen peroxide is a much more eco friendly bleaching agent than any other. An understanding of using hydrogen peroxide for bleaching Cotton Fiber is here. Other chemical bleaches have a notorious name for harming us and the environment, reach instead for earth-friendly alternatives to do the jobs without the dangers.

Hydrogen peroxide is virtually the only bleaching agent available for protein fibers and it is also used very extensively for the cellulosic fibers. Hydrogen peroxide is a colorless liquid soluble in water in all proportions. It is reasonably stable when the pH is below 7, but tends to become unstable as the alkalinity increases. Commercial hydrogen peroxide, therefore, is made slightly acid so that it will not lose strength during storage. Solutions of hydrogen peroxide of more than 20 volumes cause intense irritation when they come into contact with skin and should be washed away immediately.

Egypt still retains the high quality reputation for its fine quality cotton and linen . But there is a water crisis in Egypt which cannot be ignored. Cotton plantations, as I have discussed in the previous blog to this one, require a massive amount of water.

There is a strict law to protect the Egyptian Cotton brand whilst juggling the issue for clean water for the populace.

The state’s control over the cotton market and the trade process has led to the restoration of manufacturer confidence in cotton and cotton blends, grown in Egypt. Already, this has led to an increase in demand for Egyptian cotton by more than 25% during 2020/2021.

To conclude, the Egyptian State is vigorously moving forward with developing the cotton trading system and combating the use of the wording ‘Egyptian cotton’ on imitation products. This will, in turn, result in an increase in the demand for Egyptian cotton and will directly improve farmers’ livelihoods and help achieve sustainable development.

9 million Egyptians are currently employed in the industry. Egypt is a powerful player. There are efforts to grow cotton more sustainably. All people around the world have no choice but to make every effort to protect their quality industries and, at the same time, protect the environment.

About borderslynn

Retired, living in the Scottish Borders after living most of my life in cities in England. I can now indulge my interest in all aspects of living close to nature in a wild landscape. I live on what was once the Iapetus Ocean which took millions of years to travel from the Southern Hemisphere to here in the Northern Hemisphere. That set me thinking and questioning and seeking answers. In 1998 I co-wrote Millennium Countdown (US)/ A Business Guide to the Year 2000 (UK) see https://www.abebooks.co.uk/products/isbn/9780749427917
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