Textiles Since 1800

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Textiles since 1800

International trade in textiles since 1800 is best understood in the context of certain characteristics of, and developments within, the world textile industry:

  1. The relative unimportance of transport costs (which continue to decline) means that textile manufacturing need not be located close to either the source of the fiber it utilizes or its final market. Consequently, textile manufacturing has been a "footloose" industry, easy to attract and easy to lose, and the international trade in textile fibers has grown enormously. Moreover, there has been a clear tendency towards one country at a time dominating world trade in one particular type of textiles. The classic example is Britain's dominance of world trade in cotton textiles during most of the nineteenth century.
  2. All countries have long had a local market for textiles. The imposition of trade barriers (tariffs or quotas) can thus guarantee a domestic textile industry some demand for its products. There is no absolute necessity to be competitive with foreign producers.
  3. Since the Industrial Revolution (mechanized) textile manufacturing has required relatively little capital, physical or human. This, together with the preexisting domestic market, makes it highly suitable to be a country's first mechanized industry. Trade barriers have usually played an important role in getting a newly industrializing country's modern textile industry started. As industrialization proceeds, and a country accumulates physical and human capital, however, its comparative advantage tends to shift away from textiles. Pressure then tends to develop for protection or subsidies. This is why many high-income countries have ended up with noncompetitive, low-wage, protected and shrinking textile industries. The protection provided to these declining industries increasingly has taken the form of quotas, often incorporated into trade agreements with low-income, textile-exporting countries. Late-twentieth-century free-trade initiatives have often encountered political opposition in areas dependent on the textile industry (e.g., in North and South Carolina).
  4. Certain general patterns can be discerned amidst at least 200 years of ongoing mechanization and technical improvement in all branches of the textile industry. Productivity-increasing innovations were applied to spinning before weaving, to cotton before other fibers, and to low quality before high-quality cloth. The mechanization of spinning, especially in cotton, initially hurt hand spinners but helped hand-loom weavers, in Britain, India, and elsewhere. When weaving began to be mechanized, however, the notorious "hand-loom weavers" problem emerged, once again in Britain, India, and elsewhere. The difficulty of mechanizing high-quality fabric production gave some temporary respite to skilled handworkers.
  5. The differing supply elasticity of various fibers played a major role in the evolution of the textile trade. The cotton gin in the late eighteenth century and the introduction of sheep into Australia during the nineteenth century were crucial to the enormous expansion of those manufacturing industries. The twentieth century, especially its second half, witnessed the introduction and continuous improvement of man-made fibers. These artificial fibers have not only created a "new" textile industry, they were also incorporated, especially as blends and mixes, into the traditional cotton, wool, and silk industries.


The transformation of cotton manufacturing during Britain's Industrial Revolution resulted in an explosive growth of both the industry and its exports. Britain quickly became the world's leading exporter of cotton yarn, and soon, also of cloth. Between 1815 and 1824 and 1905 and 1913, British annual cotton-cloth exports increased from approximately 260 million to 6.3 billion yards. Britain's share of world cotton-textile goods exports by weight increased from 70 percent in 1829 to 1831 to 82 percent in 1882 to 1884. That, however, was the high-water mark. Despite a continued increase in absolute volume, Britain's percentage of world trade declined to 58 percent in 1910 to 1913. Because these exports amounted to between 75 percent and 80 percent of the British industry's output, it was very vulnerable to foreign competition and protection.

Even before 1850 the United States, Germany, France, Italy, Brazil, and other countries began imposing tariffs designed to create domestic cotton-textile industries. These new industries had their earliest successes with low-quality production, but over time they advanced to higher-quality goods. As a result, British exports to these markets stagnated or even declined. The continued expansion of British exports came to depend on the continued rapid growth of generally low-income markets such as India and China. Indeed, by 1913 more than 45 percent of that year's all-time record cotton-cloth exports went to British India. By then, however, comparative advantage, at least in low-quality cotton textiles, had begun to shift in favor of India, China, and Japan. These countries could not only gain shares of their own markets, even in the absence of barriers to trade, but they also could compete with Britain in third markets.

These developments continued after World War I. Led by losses in China and India, British cotton-goods exports became an ever-smaller share of a shrinking volume of worldwide exports. By 1953 to 1955, Britain produced only a paltry 5 percent of cotton cloth worldwide, with a 12 percent share of exports. Japan had become the most efficient producer of most cotton textiles, and despite facing even more severe trade barriers than did Britain (e.g., in India), it became the largest exporter of cotton cloth by the mid-1930s.

Ever since then, comparative advantage in cotton textiles has been firmly anchored in Asia. Over time, however, as Japan grew richer, comparative advantage, once again starting with low qualities, shifted towards other Asian countries such as India, Hong Kong, Korea, and, lastly and most spectacularly, China. The continued existence of protected industries elsewhere, however, prevented these countries from reaping the full benefits of their potential export superiority.


Nineteenth-century technological advancement in the woolen (including worsteds) industry generally lagged behind that in cotton textiles. Similarly, the woolen industry experienced a less explosive growth. Thus, shortly before World War I Britain's world-leading woolen- and cotton-textile industries employed 260,000 and almost 600,000 workers, respectively. Unlike cotton, the woolen industry overwhelmingly remained centered in Europe and the United States. Exports were dominated by Britain, France, and Germany. During the periods between 1880 and 1884 and 1909 and 1913, British exports increased in value terms by approximately one-third, while Germany's increased a bit over 10 percent and those of France decreased by over 40 percent. This left Britain with exports twice those of Germany and three times those of France. Fourth-place Austria-Hungary managed barely a tenth of Britain's exports.

As with cotton, British—as well as French and German—woolen fabric exports declined rapidly beginning after World War I, but this industry depended less on exports. During this period, and especially after World War II, the great success story in woolen exports was Italy. Interestingly enough, this prominently included exports of mixed and light cloth to South Asia. In 1990 Italy was easily the world's leading exporter of wool-woven fabrics. By weight, her exports were two-and-one-half times those of number two, Germany. British exports barely amounted to one-fifth of Italy's. Far Eastern exports remained extremely modest. Japan exported about one-tenth of Italy's volume.


Prior to the mechanization of the textile industry, linen and silk manufacturing were major economic activities. Moreover, silk goods were an important item of international trade. Although the technical transformation of textiles production was positive for the industry, mechanization eventually affected the processing of silk and linen, the net long-term effect was a major decline of these activities. By the second half of the twentieth century the once flourishing low- and medium-quality sectors of both linen and silk manufacturing were essentially extinct. What remained was the production of specialized high-quality products.

These two sectors of the textile industry were handicapped both by mechanizing more slowly and less fully, and by the less elastic supplies of linen yarn (processed flax) and silk. In 1900 the price of flax relative to that of cotton was similar to what it had been in 1800, but production of cotton had increased much more rapidly. For most uses, cotton cloth was cheaper to produce and preferred by consumers.

Silk was particularly hurt by the development of new fibers. Mercerized cotton was followed by rayon ("artificial silk") and then, around the time of World War II, by nylon. Today true silk stockings are rare; only a modest, high-price trade in specialized silk products remains. In 1990 flax constituted 2 percent and silk a minuscule 0.2 percent by weight of world fiber production.


The spectacular growth of man-made fiber production was a central development in the twentieth-century textile industry. By 1990 approximately 45 percent by weight of world fiber production consisted of artificial materials. Without these new products, natural fibers would have become much more expensive, and total fiber production would have been considerably smaller. Thus, if the textile industry is defined as the processing of fibers into cloth, hosiery, and industrial materials (e.g., tires), then the availability of man-made fibers unquestionably increased demand for that industry. Their effect on various branches of the industry, however, is complicated by questions of definition. When artificial fibers were made to resemble natural fibers and/or were processed more or less interchangeably with natural-fiber materials, they often were credited to the "cotton" or "wool" industry. No one, however, would assign nylon stockings to the "silk" industry.

By further eroding the existing modest advantage of being located close to the source of natural fibers, the man-made fibers probably made the textile industry even more footloose. Comparative advantage in processing, sometimes offset by still-considerable government protection, dictates the location of today's world textile industry.

SEE ALSO Ali, Muhammad; Bengal; Bangladesh; Brazil; China; Cotton; East India Company, British; Egypt; Empire, British; Empire, French; Empire, Japanese; Empire, Ottoman; Empire, Qing; Free Trade, Theory and Practice; Gujarat; Imperialism; Import Substitution; India; Indonesia; Industrial Revolution; Industrialization;International Trade Agreements; Korea;Levant Company;Madras;Mexico;Mumbai;New York;Pakistan;Protectionism and Tariff Wars;Silk;Taiwan;Textiles;United Kingdom;United States;Wool.


Farnie, Douglas A. The English Cotton Industry and the World Market, 1815–1896. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 1979.

Jenkins, David T., and Ponting, K. G. The British Wool Textile Industry, 1770–1914. London: Heineman, 1982.

Jenkins, David T., ed. The Cambridge History of Western Textiles. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Lazonick, William. "The Cotton Industry." In The Decline of the British Economy, ed. B. Elbaum and W. Lazonick. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Sandberg, Lars G. Lancashire in Decline. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1974. Reprint, Aldershot: Gregg Revivals, 1993.

Lars G. Sandberg