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V&A/RCA History of Design (MA)

Safia Ahmed Francis

Born and raised in the desert of Tucson Arizona, Safia has been exploring the often rainy streets of London. She is fascinated by the accumulated and interwoven layers of history, culture, and social dynamism of London, with its vast and varied cultural history of arts and entertainment. She is interested in sharing multicultural and intercultural stories.

During her undergraduate studies she worked with the Smith College Historic Clothing Collection. She has also interned with the Tucson African American Museum and at the Tucson Museum of Art's Education Department.

Image. Raw cotton plant

A Picture of Safia

While I have a variety of interests, the focus of my MA studies became cotton which had always held a special place for me. I grew up in Arizona driving past the cotton fields. My mother is from Bangladesh so I was surrounded by brightly colored cotton textiles and hearing tales of the famed muslins of old. So, cotton and its story have had a significant impact on my life.

Because of these influences, when I began my MA in the History of Design I focused on stories told by cotton, culminating in my dissertation entitled the 'Cotton Question: How Imperial Botanists Designed the Cotton Plant to Fit Industrial Needs in Imperial India in the Long Nineteenth Century'. In this work I discovered that the cotton plant underwent a massive transformation. Around 1800 it was a diverse plant with many unique regional characteristics cultivated and domesticated by people in their native habitats, with over 50 different species recorded. By 1914 this had been whittled down to essentially only four cultivated varieties, 90% of which is one variety. Why so? The British quest to create a competitive cotton industry after 1780 made it necessary for them to turn to mechanised spinning and weaving technology in order to catch up with the other cotton industries. It was this technology that needed a different variety of cotton, sourced principally from the southern United States. However, after the Cotton Famine (1861- 1865) precipitated by the American Civil War, British botanists set out to provide one cotton plant that would be commercially viable in order to suit industrial purposes. This included locating the new crop in Imperial India so as to ensure supply chains were secured – and this remains the dominant variety. This research has equipped me with a deep understanding of cotton, its history, and how that can be used to look towards the future. 

While my recent main focus has been the history of cotton, I do have a design background. I have experience with the Adobe suite and Creative Cloud applications and some Autodesk Maya. I have the most experience with InDesign, Illustrator, Photoshop, and Audition. I spent the first two years of my undergraduate degree experimenting with various design disciplines and learning or teaching myself a variety of skills. My first degree is a BA in Applied Humanities with an emphasis in Spatial Organization and Design Thinking. In this degree the focus was on the interdisciplinary and how to accurately communicate ideas, purposes, and information to a variety of audiences, along with creating a toolkit for this with such skills as critical thinking, visual mapping, intercultural communication, and others. Thus, I have gained exemplar skills in how to visually portray and tell the story behind complex ideas and situations. 

তুলার প্রশ্ন

The Cotton Question: how 19th-century imperialists and botanists redesigned the cotton plant to suit the British Industrial context.

Take a moment to look at the clothes that you are wearing and to think of those that are in your closet: how much of your clothing is made up of cotton? Approximately half of all textiles today are made from cotton. Cotton textiles surround us in our daily lives but while we might choose a cotton fabric over a nylon or a linen, how often do you think about what went into the process of designing and growing the plant that makes up that textile?

Cotton was once a quite diverse genus, but now there are predominantly only 4 types of cotton or Gossypium cultivated today. Of the cotton produced, approximately 97% is of G. hirsutum, 3% is of G. barbadense, and less than 1% are of G. herbaceum and G. arboreum. The reason that there are only four types of cotton today is based on human intervention – cultural, political and scientific. My dissertation will explain this genetic bias through the view of the decisions and ideals of those posed by nineteenth-century imperialists and botanists.

Cotton is a global commodity and the plants, fibres, products, and materials made from them are traded across the world. This paper will show how the cotton plant became a global plant with species spread across the continents. However, this paper will focus primarily on the story of South Asia and what Imperial Britain recognised as ‘India’. Historians have long acknowledged that by the 1500’s that South Asia has been the centre of the cotton trade and this dissertation will show not just how the cotton industry there was displaced by its British counterpart but also how this cost was ecological and cultural as well as economic.

page from a botanical book by George Watt, 1907.
A page from George Watt's 'The Wild and Cultivated Cotton Plants of the World', 1907 'The Wild and Cultivated Cotton Plants of the World: A Revision of the Genus Gossypium, Framed Primarily with the Object of Aiding Planters and Investigators Who May Contemplate the Systematic Improvement of the Cotton Staple' (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1907) p. 138.