Cotton during the Middle Ages in the Middle East?
4/4/2011, revised 2/5/2013
The short answer is: yes, cotton was used in the middle ages. It was not like cotton we
use today, and it was used decoratively and in small quantities until
the thirteenth century. Modern long-staple cotton has only been widely know in the last century.
According to S.D. Goitein in A Mediterranean Society, Vol 1, examinations of trade records reveal that cotton was available but it was quite rare. In Egypt in the 11th century, flax trade and linen production out paced every other commodity combined in trade. Wool production came in second among the textiles, and sericulture products (silk) were still made in measurably higher quantities than cotton.
Marianne Erickson notes "It was not until the 13th century that the cotton culture in Egypt actually reached a great level of importance, and it is only in the last century that the long-fibered type of cotton has been known, " in her book Textiles in Egypt 300-1500 AD. (Personally, I don't know that I could identify a short-staple cotton).
This is supported by Golombek and Gervers in their article "Tiraz Fabrics in the Royal Ontario Museum" where they note that until the about 12th century, the western Islamic world only used cotton as decorative threads (this would include Islamic Spain during this period, but I don't know about Christian Spain).
Cotton seems to be frequently mixed with other fibers in extant tiraz pieces (for example, held in the Royal Ontario Museum, The Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo; and found in the Quseir al-Qadim excavations) and those pieces are relatively small.
Yedida Stillman, in her dissertation, indicated that many times the ma'raqa, a sweat cap worn by men and women, was made of cotton according to trousseau lists. I have not transcribed everything, but I have no other mention of cotton in period from this work (however, her study of Lane's travels during the 19th century mention cotton several times).
Works cited and links to museums coming shortly.