Textiles Before 1800

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Textiles before 1800

The history of the textile trade between 1450 and 1800 must be told in terms of three interlocking developments: the gradual emergence of a world market for textiles; the changing demand for textiles; and innovations in production. Admittedly, the scale, scope, and impact of these developments was limited. In 1750, as in 1450, local and regional textile industries that served the needs of a relatively stable and bounded market using traditional methods of production still provided most of the cloth consumed worldwide, while silks and cottons produced in Asia dominated the international textile trade. However, as is so often the case, the actual changes in large economic systems lagged behind the factors that make change possible. Thus this article focuses on the developments in the textile trade which helped put in place the consumers, markets, mercantile expertise, and production systems that allowed for a rapid expansion of the European textile industry in the eighteenth century and set the stage for its domination after 1800.


At the beginning of this period, there already existed significant regional and international trade in textiles. Ming China and Mughal India clearly led the world, for both had regions specializing in the production of silk and cotton on a substantial scale that served the needs of elite and middling consumers in each empire, and both countries also supplied a nascent world market by virtue of their substantial export trade (in silk and cotton respectively) to Southeast and Southwest Asia. Europe's woolen and linen industries were less well developed, as most served only regional and national markets, but fine woolens produced in Flanders and Italy were traded across the Continent and some were exported to the Levant.

The expansion of the world market in textiles can be traced to European attempts to establish direct trade with Asia. Initiated in the late fifteenth century by Portugal, this trade expanded significantly after 1600 with the growing dominance of the Dutch and then the English. The Europeans were after Oriental luxuries, chiefly spices, silk, and ceramics, and their presence in Asia thus expanded the possible routes by which Chinese silks reached European markets. However, because cottons made along India's Coromandel Coast were one of the few products spice growers in Southeast Asia would buy, Europeans also entered the cotton trade, leading to an expansion in the markets for Indian textiles. In Africa, cotton cloth from Gujarat was already important in the trade along the East African coast, but Europeans expanded that market by purchasing cottons for the rapidly growing West African slave trade. Beginning in the mid-seventeenth century a second new market for Indian cottons developed in Europe, giving rise to the "calico craze" and subsequent efforts (c. 1700) to protect both nascent cotton industries and the traditional mainstays of wool and linen.

Developing in tandem with European participation in the trade in Indian cottons was the growth of the Atlantic economy. Characterized by complex multilateral trade networks, the Atlantic trade became increasingly important to textile industries in Europe particularly as the pace of economic change accelerated in the eighteenth century, for both the slave economies in the tropics and the settler societies in more temperate zones consumed an increasing quantity of European manufactures, of which textiles formed a prominent part. Britain's North American colonies, for example, consumed 4 percent of British wool textile exports in 1700, and that share rose to 16 percent by 1770, expanding still further after the colonies' independence, even though the protectionism of the navigation acts had lapsed. Such statistics cannot measure the size of the home market or domestic production in the colonies, but they do illustrate how the Atlantic economy spawned a growing and concentrated demand for textiles that producers and merchants sought to meet.


The growth in aggregate demand for textiles in the world market was in part a function of population growth, but more interesting, and significant, was a growing specialization of economic effort by households, regions, colonies, and nations that, in the simplest terms, made consumers out of producers. An essential element of any system of trade, this economic specialization is evident throughout the world textile trade in this period, from pepper growers in the Spice Islands to market-oriented farmers in India and China. The acceleration of this phenomenon was most marked, however, in Europe, for whether one considers slaves on a sugar plantation or rural householders in Holland, it seems clear that between 1450 and 1800, more and more economic actors met their needs for textiles by purchases in the market rather than by domestic production. The cumulative effect was an expansion in the social depth of markets for textiles in Europe, a trend that encouraged further specialization in production and marketing systems to meet that demand.

There were also important changes in the characteristics of demand between 1450 and 1800 as fashion became a major economic force. The rise of the "new draperies" in Europe from the fifteenth century is one illustration of how consumer tastes could transform trade. These new fabrics used worsted (combed) instead of woolen (carded) yarn for a warp and came in a wide range of weights, prices, patterns, and finishes. They originated in Flanders, but they were quickly taken up in Holland and England, their diffusion hastened by the migration of skilled craftsmen escaping warfare and religious persecution. During the sixteenth century they supplanted heavier, more expensive woolen textiles in the European trade largely because consumer taste shifted in their favor.

A second telling example of the impact of fashion can be traced from the appearance of Indian cottons in Europe. Made in patterns that emulated expensive and prestigious Chinese silks, these printed or painted cottons were priced at a level that allowed middling women, and men, to buy and flaunt them. The closure of some European markets to imported cottons did nothing to stem consumer desire for cloth purchased more for its look, price, and novelty than its durability. Behind a wall of mercantilist protection, cotton manufacture sprang up in several European countries, and producers in the linen and wool textile industries adapted and expanded their line of products, often blending fibers in a bewildering array of combinations, to make cloth that would emulate current tastes or capture consumer fancies. Because consumers motivated by fashion were likely to buy more cloth more often than those simply filling a utilitarian need, the growing importance of fashion compounded and enhanced the impact of the increasing aggregate demand for textiles.

In addition to its impact on demand, fashion was also important because it required much closer connections between producer and consumer, for textiles had to be made to exacting, and often rapidly changing, standards of price, quality, color, and design. Indian calico makers and painters, for example, had to modify traditional designs to make them more appealing to the taste of European consumers who wanted these exotic cloths to look "Chinese." European textile manufactures faced similar challenges in making cloth for sale to Native Americans or Africans, or for that matter to new markets within Europe. Because of their control over information about design, merchants and merchant manufacturers came to play a pivotal role in production as well as exchange, and the fact that by the middle of this period an increasing proportion of the international trade was in European hands thus contributed to the emerging dominance of the West in the world textile trade.


In the period before 1700 there were a number of incremental advances in production technique and organization. Examples of the former include the invention of the stocking- and ribbon-knitting frames and silk-throwing reels, but the impact of these early machines was limited. Organizational change in this early period had a wider impact; the most significant example being the demise of the urban textile industries of medieval Europe in the period between 1450 and 1650 and the rise of new industrial centers in Flanders, northern France, and most importantly, England. Although the merchants and finishing operations in these new industries were still urban, the actual production of cloth usually took place in rural hinterlands and made extensive use of female and child labor. The decline of the urban production systems in Europe was caused in part by the high urban labor costs and the inertia of guild regulation, but it is also clear that the rural manufacture could adapt better to the increasing variety and volume of products that merchants needed for sale in an expanding world market.

The development of a rural manufacture by independent or semidependent artisans using familial labor brought Europe's textile industries into line with the production systems already well established in China and India, although during this period European manufactures never matched Asian textiles in either price or quality. However, if the modes of production in Europe and Asia were broadly similar by the seventeenth century, they responded quite differently to the accelerating pace of economic growth in the eighteenth century. In China and India, there is little evidence that expanding or changing world demand for textiles had much impact on structures of production. European trading companies in India, for example, attempted to exert control over manufacture to ensure the production of cloth of the type, price, color, and pattern they required, but they never did so on a large enough scale to effect fundamental transformations. In contrast, textile production methods in Europe developed rapidly, particularly in the latter part of the century. Undoubtedly the most important inventions were machines for spinning—Hargreaves's spinning jenny (1764), Arkwright's water frame (1769), and Crompton's mule (1779). There were also important if less often recognized changes in finishing technology which included the ability to print patterns on cotton and linen cloth and new pressing and shearing techniques for wool textiles. Moreover, all of these technological innovations contributed to changes in the organization of production that culminated in the nineteenth-century factory. However, the litany of individual inventions must be understood in a larger context as a broad-based response by European entrepreneurs to the growing and changing world markets for textiles in the eighteenth century.

SEE ALSO Cotton; Ethnic Groups, Huguenots;Industrial Revolution; Industrialization;Silk;United Kingdom;Wool.


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