The history of colour grown cotton began 5000 years ago. Virtually all coloured varieties of cotton that we use commercially and cultivate today, originated from pre-Columbian stocks grown by the indigenous peoples of Middle and South America.

Indian tribes selected, cultivated and domesticated two local species of cotton: Gossypium hirsutum and Gossyplum barbadense. The first species was cultivated in the north of Central America and in the Caribbean, the latter, known for the longest and finest fibres of all varieties, was cultivated in South America. The oldest cotton fibre found in the world, came from Tehuacan in Mexico and was dated at 2300 a.d. Chocolate brown fibres of the Gossyplum barbadense variety were unearthed at the ancient levels of Huaca Prieta, a settlement in North Peru that was colonized from 3100 a.d. to 1300 a.d. These fibres and others in softer brown shades survived in woven material thanks to both the arid ground and dry climate in North Peru. It is assumed that these colours were cultivated by ancient Peruvian fisher folk specially for making fishing nets from the darker shades because they were less visible to fish.

Contrary to the widespread use of naturally pigmented cotton south of Mexico, there is no proof that it existed in regions north of Mexico. The well-known »Hopi-cotton« Gossypium hirsutum, of the Puctatum variety from the south west of the USA is actually white or »off white«, although it is also possible chemical degradation could have occurred in the surviving samples.

Earlier recordings clearly explain, that pigmented cotton was used as tribute. Documents originating from the 16th century clearly show that brown cotton constituted a form of payment by the lowland Indians of Mexico to the Aztecs. Other documents testify that the first Spaniards who crossed the coastal areas of North Peru in 1531 marvelled at the extensive fields of cotton growing in a range of colours that they had never seen before. Naturally coloured cotton fabrics were one of the first items sent to the Spanish courts. Even the development of woven textiles was regarded as more advanced than that of textiles produced by European looms.

After the gates to the »New World« were opened to naturalists and traders, the different varieties of cotton were soon transported to the farthest corners of the world. Other known pigmented varieties of cotton were indigenous to Africa and Asia, e.g. Gossypium herbaceum and Gossyplum arboreum. However, it would appear that these varieties only had short staples that made spinning and weaving extremely difficult. In most cases, they were quickly and ultimately displaced by new varieties.

Modern Egyptian cotton, e.g. is derived from a South American progenitor, and was introduced by slaves returning via North Africa. First mentioned in 1820, this variety produced a long strong fibre, gold brown in colour. It was crossed with native varieties to produce even more commercial varieties, e.g.: Ashmouni (brown), Maitalifi (dark brown) with long fibres which gave rise to the American/Egyptian Yuma cotton in 1908 and which is now called Pima cotton. (Pima is the name of the American tribe, that helped to develop an extra long fibre growth of Gossypium barbadense. Pima cotton, developed in Arizona, was obtained from an Egyptian variety that was cultivated in the
19th century.)

Even the pigmented species, the so-called Nankin varieties with short fibres similar to the original Egyptian ones are native to China. It is assumed that this cotton variety reached China from the Caribbean (Gossyplum hirsutum).

Pigmented cotton plants from the eastern Mediterranean region and Asia obviously reached North America during the colonial period. It was spun and woven by hand in some states of America. In the Mississippi delta gold brown cotton has been grown for more than two centuries. Despite the relatively widespread, yet small cultivation areas of coloured cotton in the USA, it never became an object of commercial significance.

It would appear that Haiti and the former Soviet Union were the only countries that planted and processed coloured cotton on an industrial scale before the present day.

The global spread of the cultivated, long-fibre varieties of cotton, the so-called upland cotton followed the invention of the English »Spinning frame« in 1769 and the cotton gin in 1794. The Industrial Revolution began and together with the arrival of chemical dyes, the fate of pigmented cotton was finally sealed. White cotton was easier to process employing new technologies and the colours of the dyes endless. Around 1990, virtually all originally pigmented land varieties had been replaced by the pure, white, long-fibre commercial varieties.