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TEXTILES. Textile production played a crucial part in the American industrial revolution, the establishment of organized labor, and the technological development of this country. Once, textile production was simple enough that the entire process could and did take place in the home. Now, textiles represent a complex network of interrelated industries that produce fiber, spin yarns, fabricate cloth, and dye, finish, print, and manufacture goods.

Products and Services

About 35 percent of U.S. manufactured cloth is intended for apparel, 16 percent for home furnishings, and 24 percent for floor coverings. The remaining 25 percent is used in industrial textiles, which include sports equipment, conveyer belts, filtration materials, and agricultural and construction materials. So-called geotextiles are used for earth stabilization and drainage as well as reinforcement in roads and bridges. The aerospace industry uses industrial textiles in the nose cones of space shuttles, and medicine uses textiles as artificial arteries and dissolving stitches.

Fiber Producers

Until the early twentieth century, all textiles were derived from plants or animals. The invention of a process for regenerating cellulose from wood chips and cotton linters into a usable fiber marked the beginning of research, development, and innovation. Many of today's textile producers started as chemical companies.

Producers of natural fibers are dependent on raw materials and often held hostage to nature. It is not easy for them to quickly increase or decrease output based on consumer demand. Most producers sell their fiber to mills or wholesalers for resale and seldom have any direct involvement after the fiber is sold. Trade organizations like Cotton Incorporated and the American Wool Council have been established to support producers by providing educational materials, helping with public relations, and assisting with advertising.

Manufactured fibers can be made from regenerated natural materials, or they can be synthesized from chemicals. Because many of these processes may be petroleum-based, such producers may be affected by events concerning the oil industry. The American Fiber Manufacturers Association is the primary association for the manufactured fiber industry. Manufactured fibers can be sold as unbranded fiber, where the fiber producer has no further involvement; trademarked fiber, where the fiber producer has some control over the quality of the fabric; or licensed trademarked fiber, where the fiber producer sets standards that must be met by the fabric manufacturer. An advantage of trademarked or licensed trademarked fiber is that the fabric manufacturers and, ultimately, the garment manufacturers, can capitalize on advertising and brand recognition.

Origins in America

The American colonies were viewed as rich deposits of natural resources for Europe, and the colonists were considered as a consumer pool. Because Holland and France were producing their own wool, England was forced to look west for a new market. England encouraged the culture of flax, hemp, and silk in the colonies, but only if it aided English industries. Though the colonists were capable of producing cloth through spinning and weaving, they found no real necessity to do so as long as cloth could be imported. Problems arose in the Massachusetts colony when the French captured supply ships. The lack of sufficient warm clothing in an inhospitable climate created great hardship in the northern settlements.

The Massachusetts colony recognized the need to be as self-sufficient as possible. It encouraged the development of raw materials and the manufacture of wool and linen cloth. A bounty was offered to weavers as inducement, and the coarse linen they produced was the first officially recorded American-produced textile.

In 1638, twenty families arrived in Massachusetts from Yorkshire, a wool-producing district in England. Five years later, they began the manufacture of cloth, establishing the textile industry in America. Although they worked primarily in wool, they also spun and wove flax and cotton. The mill they established continued in production into the nineteenth century. With increasing concern over the availability of goods, in 1645 the Massachusetts colony instructed the public to preserve and increase their flocks of sheep, make woolen cloth, and advise friends and family still in England to emigrate and bring as many sheep with them as possible. By the beginning of the eighteenth century, there were a quarter of a million colonists. Textile production had become important enough to pose a threat to English merchants and manufacturers. The English enacted restrictions that detailed what goods could be exported to the colonies and by whom, and what items could be exported from the colonies and where. This only served to instill a greater sense of defiance among the colonists. George Washington was a great supporter of homespun American cloth and maintained a weaving house on his Mount Vernon estate, as did Thomas Jefferson at Monticello. Imported textiles became very unpopular, especially after the 1765 Stamp Act. England retaliated for colonial disobedience by disallowing the exportation of any textile goods, machinery, or equipment to the colonies. The American army suffered terribly during the Revolution because of lack of proper clothing. The freedom won by the former colonists allowed the textile industry to develop.

Industry Pioneers

George Cabot founded the first integrated American textile mill in Beverly, Massachusetts, in 1787. His mill hand-carded fiber, spun yarn, and wove cloth, all under one roof. The company produced a variety of cotton fabrics until the early 1800s.

Samuel Slater may be considered the father of the American industrial revolution. English by birth, he trained for seven years in a textile mill, and left England in 1789 at age twenty-one. Settling in Rhode Island, he built the first successful water-powered spinning mill in Pawtucket in 1793.

Francis Cabot Lowell, nephew of George Cabot, visited English textile mills and committed the workings of the power loom to memory. Upon his return, he worked with the inventor Paul Moody at Waltham, Massachusetts, to develop the first American power loom.

George Corliss contributed to steam engine design and succeeded in making Providence, Rhode Island, the center of steam engine manufacture in the 1850s. First used as a source of alternate power during the dry season, steam slowly replaced water as an energy source. It allowed a mill owner to build in a populous area without regard for waterpower.

How the Industry Developed

Cloth production is a two-part process: spinning fiber into yarn, and weaving yarn into cloth. A mechanized spinning frame was invented in England in 1764 that could spin eight spools of yarn at once. Within a few years, it was improved to spin 100 spools simultaneously. Richard Arkwright improved upon the original design so that all steps occurred in one machine. It was in the factory of his partner, Jedediah Strutt, that Samuel Slater was trained. Slater opened Slater Mill in 1793 with money from Providence investors. His organizational methods

became the blueprint for successors in the Blackstone River Valley. Based on mills smaller than those used in Massachusetts, his plan was ideal for small rural mill villages. Seven more mills opened by 1800, and there were 213 by 1815. The mills flourished in areas where the rocky terrain made farming unsuitable.

The year after Slater opened his mill, Eli Whitney patented a machine that would lead to the revival of the declining practice of slavery and ultimately contribute to the causes of the Civil War. In 1790, there were 657,000 slaves in the southern states. In 1793,187,000 pounds of cotton was harvested. Because one slave was able to clean only one pound of cotton fiber per day, the crop hardly was worth the trouble. Whitney's cotton gin, however, could process fifty pounds a day, enabling the harvest to grow to six million pounds in 1795. The business of slavery grew as well, so that in 1810 there were 1.3 million slaves and 93 million pounds of cotton harvested. Cotton became the largest U.S. export and textiles the most important industry before the Civil War.

Weavers could not keep up with the abundance of yarn being produced by the mechanized mills. This problem was solved when Francis Cabot Lowell and Paul Moody created their more efficient power loom and spinning apparatus in 1813 in Lowell's Waltham mill. With a dependable loom, weaving could now keep apace of spinning. Soon mills began to dot the rivers of New England. The fully integrated mill marked the shift from a rural, agrarian society to a manufacturing economy. Shortly after his death, Lowell's associates began to develop an area north of Boston where the Merrimack River and Pawtucket Falls had the waterpower to operate dozens of mills. Named for Lowell, the planned community was set up in 1823 and incorporated in 1826. By 1850 almost six miles of canals flowed through Lowell, drove the water-wheels of 40 mill buildings, and powered 320,000 spindles and almost 10,000 looms, operated by more than 10,000 workers.

The period from 1820 to 1860 saw the rapid development of many more factories. New England became the nation's textile center. In 1825, there were 16,000 mills in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and New York. By 1850, there were 60,000 mills in the United States. New England alone had 896 power-driven mills, almost 500 of which were in northern Massachusetts, patterned after Lowell's Waltham mill. Virtually all mills were fully mechanized by the early part of the nineteenth century. Initially powered by water, the mills eventually switched to steam, then electricity. By 1910, the Lowell mills were using hydroelectricity.

The Civil War dramatically changed production. The cotton harvest shrunk to 200,000 bales in 1864, and after the war the western states began producing cotton. The South was faced with the need to reinvent itself and began to build spinning and weaving mills. Its lower wages, lower rate of unionization, and openness to new technology induced many northern mills to relocate southward in the years between the world wars.

Chemistry began to play an important part in the textile industry in the mid-nineteenth century when synthetic dyes were discovered. These were followed in 1891 by the development of regenerated cellulose, the first manmade fiber. The first plant for manufacturing "artificial silk" in America opened in 1910. Later named rayon (1924), the fabric was followed by acetate and triacetate, also cellulose derivatives. Chemical companies set up research and development labs in the race to find new fibers.

DuPont established an experimental lab for the purpose of pure scientific research in 1928. Directed by Dr. Wallace Hume Carothers, the lab conducted work on polyesters but abandoned the project to pursue what would become known as nylon. After several years of development, the fiber was presented to consumers in the form of women's stockings. In 1940, when they became available to the general public, nylon stockings earned more than $3 million in profit in seven months, completely covering the cost of research and development. Nylon stockings ceased production during World War II when nylon was needed for parachutes, ropes, and tents.

British scientists picked up Carothers's work on giant molecules and further developed polyesters. DuPont bought the appropriate patent and opened the first U.S. plant to produce Dacron polyester in 1953. Subsequent developments include manufactured fibers for protection, high performance, durability, strength, and ease of care. Other important chemical contributions are finishes on traditional fabrics for wrinkle resistance, shrinkage control, and color fastness. Technological developments include computer-aided design (CAD) and computer-aided manufacture (CAM). CAD equipment is used in the design of yarns and fabrics and the development of coloration. Prints can easily be manipulated, and designs can be reconfigured in seconds. CAM is used for designing factory layouts and in textile production processes like the control of looms and robotics. Computers are invaluable in communications and for tracking inventory.

Concern for the impact of manufacturing on the environment led to the development of so-called environmentally improved textile products. One such product is lyocell, regenerated cellulose produced using a nontoxic solvent. Organic cotton and naturally colored cottons are being cultivated, and natural dyes have sparked interest. Attention is also being given to recycling materials such as old carpets as well as other used textile products into new materials. Plastic soda bottles are being processed into fiberfill, polar fleece, and geotextiles.


By the end of the twentieth century, there were approximately 75,000 woolgrowers in the United States, active in almost every state, and 35,000 cotton growers, mainly in the South. Textiles were also being manufactured in almost all states, with the largest concentrations in Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina.

According to the U.S. Department of Commerce and the Bureau of Labor Statistics there were 5,117 companies, with 6,134 plants, in 1997. The companies employed 541,000 workers in 2000, but within a few years 177,000 jobs had been lost and more than 215 mills had closed. Though the industry income was $57.8 billion in 2000, shipments and exports soon dropped as the strength of the U.S. dollar against faltering Asian economies allowed for a surge of inexpensive imported textiles and clothing.

Changes in Business and Commerce

The textile industry has undergone significant changes in business practices in several key areas. Labor relations, trade practices, product labeling, product safety, and environmental and antipollution measures have been subjects of public scrutiny and federal legislation.

Employee and Labor Practices

Once farmers gave up rural self-sufficiency, they had to adapt to a mill whistle rather than the rhythm of nature. Life was difficult and unhealthy with long hours and poor conditions. Respiratory disease was common and there was always the danger of losing a limb in the machinery. The mills were cold and drafty in the winter and stifling in the summer, as well as dirty and noisy. Physical abuse occurred and it was not uncommon for mill owners to take advantage of workers. When labor was scarce, conditions improved, but conditions declined again when more workers became available.

Samuel Slater developed a management style that became known as the Rhode Island system. He hired entire families, who often lived in company housing, shopped in the company store, and attended company schools and churches. It was a clever means of control because bad behavior on one worker's part could get the entire family fired. Work was ten to twelve hours a day, six days a week. Sunday was for church and for children to learn basic reading, writing, and arithmetic. Though the mill complex did provide a measure of convenience for the workers, it was actually a way for the owner and investors to regulate every aspect of the workers' lives. Paid by the mill owner, teachers and ministers preached the party line.

By 1830,55 percent of Rhode Island mill workers were children earning less than $1 a week. Children on farms worked equally long hours, and so for poor families, millwork was seen as an improvement. Textile machines lent themselves to child labor because they were simple enough for unskilled children to operate under adult supervision.

By 1900,92 percent of southern textile workers lived in mill villages. By 1908, fewer than 7 percent had a living situation with anything more than a simple privy. Some villages had a rule that a family had to have one employee for each room in the house, further ensuring child entry into the workforce. School was discouraged so that children would have no option but to enter mill life. Schools were free to seventh grade, then charged tuition after that. Between 1880 and 1910 about one-fourth of southern cotton mill workers were under sixteen, having entered the mills full-time by age twelve. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 finally regulated child labor.

In the 1890s, the National Union of Textile Workers held meetings throughout the Carolina Piedmont, organizing ninety-five locals by 1900. Unions continued to organize workers and in 1929 a wave of strikes began in Elizabethton, Tennessee. Thousands of mill workers walked out and stayed out three months even in the face of intimidation and the murder of Ella May Wiggins, organizer of the Gastonia, North Carolina, strike. Though hunger forced the workers back with only minor concessions from the owners, the stage was set for later protest.

In an effort to stimulate recovery from the 1929 stock market crash and the depression that followed, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) into law in 1933. Under NIRA, a Cotton Textile Board was established to enforce a code of fair competition in the industry, limit destructive price competition, prevent overproduction, and guarantee mill hands a minimum wage. Unfortunately, the Board was controlled by mill owners, who used the minimum wage as the maximum and laid off even more workers.

The 1934 General Textile Strike led to the eventual abandonment of the mill village system. Twenty thousand Alabama workers walked out, demanding a minimum of $12 for a thirty-hour week and reinstatement of fired union members. The unrest spread, and when the United Textile Workers (UTW) called for a general strike an estimated 400,000 workers walked out, making it the largest labor conflict in American history. The governors of South Carolina, North Carolina, and Georgia called out the militias and the national guards to support the mill owners. Financial need forced workers back and the UTW called off the strike three weeks later. Many workers were fired and blacklisted.

In the early 1960s, African Americans made up fewer than 2 percent of textile industry employees. Although the industry was very competitive and most jobs were largely unskilled, it chose to overlook this source of labor. Integration occurred through the enforcement of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964.


In the 1980s, half a million jobs moved overseas in the search for cheap labor, and in the next decades jobs continued to be lost and mills shut down. Legislative efforts have been made to protect the American textile industry, which will also need continuing innovation and technological advances in order to survive.


Collier, Billie J., and Phyllis G. Tortora. Understanding Textiles, 6th ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 2001.

Hall, Jacquelyn Dowd, et al. Like a Family: The Making of a Southern Cotton Mill World. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987.

Harris, J., ed. Textiles, 5000 Years: An International History and Illustrated Survey. New York: Abrams, 1993.

Kinnane, Adrian. DuPont: From the Banks of the Brandywine to Miracles of Science. Wilmington, Del.: DuPont, 2002.

Little, Frances. Early American Textiles. New York: Century Co., 1931.

Minchin, Timothy J. Hiring the Black Worker: The Racial Integration of the Southern Textile Industry, 1960–1980. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.

Tortora, Phyllis G., and Robert S. Merkel, eds. Fairchild's Dictionary of Textiles, 7th ed. New York: Fairchild, 1996.


See alsoIndustrial Revolution ; Labor ; Labor Legislation and Administration ; Mill Streams ; Slavery ; Strikes ; United Textile Workers andvol. 9:Mill Worker's Letter on Hardships in the Textile Mills .

Lowell Mill Girls

Beginning in 1823, girls from farms and local villages were recruited to work in the Lowell mills for a few years before they left for marriage or other reasons. Most were between fifteen and thirty years old and worked an average of three years. They lived in dormitories and boarding houses with strict rules of curfew and moral conduct. In 1834, 800 young female mill workers went on strike to protest wage cuts, claiming the cuts threatened their economic independence. The Lowell Female Labor Reform Association was formed in 1844, the first organization of working women to try to bargain collectively for better conditions and higher pay. The economic downturn of the 1850s led to lower pay and longer hours, and as a result, immigrant Irish women replaced American farm girls. In the late nineteenth century, women held nearly two-thirds of all textile jobs in Lowell.

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textiles, all fabrics made by weaving, felting, knitting, braiding, or netting, from the various textile fibers (see fiber).

Types of Textiles

Textiles are classified according to their component fibers into silk, wool, linen, cotton, such synthetic fibers as rayon, nylon, and polyesters, and some inorganic fibers, such as cloth of gold, glass fiber, and asbestos cloth. They are also classified as to their structure or weave, according to the manner in which warp and weft cross each other in the loom (see loom; weaving). Value or quality in textiles depends on several factors, such as the quality of the raw material used and the character of the yarn spun from the fibers, whether clean, smooth, fine, or coarse and whether hard, soft, or medium twisted. Density of weave and finishing processes are also important elements in determining the quality of fabrics.

Tapestry, sometimes classed as embroidery, is a modified form of plain cloth weaving. The weaving of carpet and rugs is a special branch of the textile industry. Other specially prepared fabrics not woven are felt and bark (or tapa) cloth, which are beaten or matted together, and a few in which a single thread is looped or plaited, as in crochet and netting work and various laces. Most textiles are now produced in factories, with highly specialized power looms, but many of the finest velvets, brocades, and table linens are still made by hand.

The Printing of Textiles

Textile printing, the various processes by which fabrics are printed in colored design, is an ancient art. Although the time and place of origin are uncertain, examples of Greek fabrics from the 4th cent. BC have been found. India exported block prints to the Mediterranean region in the 5th cent. BC, and Indian chintz was imported into Europe during the Renaissance and widely imitated. France became a leading center and was noted especially for the toile de Jouy manufactured at Jouy from 1760 to 1811.

Early forms of textile printing are stencil work, highly developed by Japanese artists, and block printing. In the latter method a block of wood, copper, or other material bearing a design in intaglio with the dye paste applied to the surface is pressed on the fabric and struck with a mallet. A separate block is used for each color, and pitch pins at the corners guide the placing of the blocks to assure accurate repeating of the pattern. In cylinder or roller printing, developed c.1785, the fabric is carried on a rotating central cylinder and pressed by a series of rollers each bearing one color. The design is engraved on the copper rollers by hand or machine pressure or etched by pantograph or photoengraving methods; the color paste is applied to the rollers through feed rollers rotating in a color box, the color being scraped off the smooth portion of the rollers with knives.

More recent printing processes include screen printing, a hand method especially suitable for large patterns with soft outlines, in which screens, one for each color, are placed on the fabric and the color paste pressed through by a wooden squeegee; spray printing, in which a spray gun forces the color through a screen; and electrocoating, used to apply a patterned pile. Color may be applied by the various processes directly; by the discharge method, which uses chemicals to destroy a portion of a previously dyed ground; or by the resist, or reserve, method, which prevents the development of a subsequently applied color to a portion of the fabric treated with a chemical or with a mechanical resist.


Yarn, fabrics, and tools for spinning and weaving have been found among the earliest relics of human habitations. Linen fabrics dating from 5000 BC have been discovered in Egypt. Woolen textiles from the early Bronze Age in Scandinavia and Switzerland have also been found. Cotton has been spun and woven in India since 3000 BC, and silk has been woven in China since at least 1000 BC About the 4th cent. AD, Constantinople began to weave the raw silk imported from China. A century later silk culture spread to the Western countries, and textile making developed rapidly. By the 14th cent. splendid fabrics were being woven on the hand looms of the Mediterranean countries in practically all the basic structures known to modern artisans, and there has been no change in fundamental processes since that time, although methods and equipment have been radically altered.


See A. T. C. Robinson, Woven Cloth Construction (1967); E. E. Stout, Introduction to Textiles, (3d ed. 1970); A. Geijer, A History of Textile Art (1982); F. M. Montgomery, Textiles in America, 1650 to 1870 (1984); M. Thomas, Textiles: History of an Art (1985); E. J. W. Barber, Prehistoric Textiles (1991).

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tex·tile / ˈtekˌstīl/ • n. 1. (usu. textiles) cloth or woven fabric: a fascinating range of pottery, jewelry, and textiles. ∎  (textiles) the branch of industry involved in the manufacture of cloth. 2. inf. used by nudists to describe someone wearing clothes, esp. on a beach. • adj. 1. of or relating to fabric or weaving: the textile industry. 2. inf. used by nudists to describe something relating to or restricted to people wearing clothes. ORIGIN: early 17th cent.: from Latin textilis, from text- ‘woven,’ from the verb texere.

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textiles Fabric, especially those produced by weaving yarn. The yarn is made by spinning natural or artificial fibres. Textiles are used to make clothing, curtains, carpets, and many other products. Powered looms for spinning and weaving were introduced in the 18th century. See also acrylic; cotton; flax; linen; nylon; polyester; rayon; silk; wool

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textile adj. and sb. woven (fabric). XVII. — F. textile or L. textilis, f. pp. stem of texere weave.

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textile •tactile • pantile •erectile, insectile, projectile •gentile, percentile •reptile •sextile, textile •hairstyle • freestyle • fictile • epistyle •peristyle • acetyl • lifestyle • hostile •homestyle •butyl, futile, rutile, utile •ductile • fluviatile • infantile •decastyle • mercantile • cyclostyle •volatile • hypostyle • tetrastyle •hexastyle • versatile • fertile •turnstile • servile • meanwhile •erstwhile • exile

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