Re-fashioning Industrial Revolution. Fibres, fashion and technical innovation in British cotton textiles, 1600–1780

John Styles, University of Hertfordshire

The last forty years have witnessed an explosion of interest among historians in the things people consumed. In Britain, the roots of this new concern with consumption lie in a search for a consumer and marketing revolution that could explain the classic Industrial Revolution. The key intervention was the publication in 1982 of McKendrick, Brewer and Plumbs’ Birth of a Consumer Society. There Neil McKendrick famously identified an 18th-century consumer revolution, sudden and unprecedented, that «was the necessary analogue to the industrial revolution, the necessary convulsion on the demand side of the equation to match the convulsion on the supply side» (McKendrick 1982a, 9). Yet at precisely the moment McKendrick was formulating the notion of an 18th-century consumer revolution, economic history was moving in the opposite direction. A key intervention here was Joel Mokyr’s 1977 article, “Demand vs. Supply in the Industrial Revolution” (Mokyr 1977). Mokyr insisted that aggregate economic growth can derive only from changes in supply — cost-reducing innovations — and that there is little evidence for changes in demand autonomously inducing or stimulating such innovations on an economy-wide scale.

Among economic historians, it was this view that prevailed, although debate continued (Cole 1981; Berg 2004; Horrell 2014). The most influential recent studies in the field have tended to dismiss the significance of consumer demand as a cause of technical innovation during the Industrial Revolution. They have sought explanations in factor prices, or intellectual and cultural influences, or institutions, but not in changing patterns of consumption (Allen 2009; Mokyr 2012). There have been notable exceptions, however, particularly among economic historians who have explored the impact of overseas trade, both imports and exports, on process innovation. Nowhere has this been more apparent than in the study of cotton textiles, the industry that led mechanical innovation in manufacturing during the Industrial Revolution. Maxine Berg insists that, in Britain, «the expansion of 18th-century manufacture relied not just on process invention, but on product innovation. Understanding product innovation must lead into questions of demand». It was «the market for varieties of cotton goods and especially high quality cottons [that] played a key role in fostering innovation in the industry, both in technology and in organization, including the factory system». That market, moreover, was a high-end market for variety, novelty and fashion, created not by Lancastrian entrepreneurs, but by the English East India Company’s imports of calicoes and muslins from India. «The muslin and calico manufacturers fashioned their goods in direct competition with Indian cottons». It was India that «set the terms» (Berg 2002, 2; Berg 2009, 401–2; 405; 408; 414). In a similar vein, Joseph Inikori argues that a huge increase from the 1750s in exports of Lancashire-made cotton textiles to West Africa, to be exchanged for slaves, was the crucial stimulus to the mechanization of British cotton spinning that began in the following decade. For Inikori, however, innovation was driven by African demand for cotton checks, rather than for calicoes or muslins. During the 18th century, Indian all-cotton textiles imported to London by the English East India Company were indispensable for the purchase of slaves on the African coast, particularly textiles with loom-patterned check or stripe patterns.

Inikori suggests that for Britain, by the mid-18th century the leading European slave-trading nation, this was a decisive stimulus to product innovation in Lancashire, which then led on to innovation in manufacturing processes. Drawing on British customs records, he observes that overseas demand for British-made checks began to grow from the middle of the 18th century. The new overseas demand came predominantly from Africa and was for Lancashire-made checks which mimicked Indian textiles. Domestic demand for these textiles, he insists, was relatively stagnant, but during the 1750s and 1760s demand for Lancashire-made checks to exchange for slaves in West Africa exploded. Once again, India set the terms, but in a process of export substitution rather than import substitution. Substituting British for Indian textiles in a key overseas market put pressure on yarn supplies, prompting a search for technical innovations in spinning during the 1760s. It was the rapid growth of these exports, Inikori argues, «dependent almost entirely on the slave economy of the Atlantic system», that «created pressures which stimulated the inventions» (Inikori 1989, 354–5; 369). This article shares Berg and Inikori’s insistence on the crucial importance of product innovation, demand and fashion for technical innovation in the British cotton industry of the early Industrial Revolution. It argues, however, that understanding markets and fashions requires attention not just to changes in numbers and prices, but also to the materiality — the physical characteristics and variation — that lies concealed behind 18th-century textile nomenclature. What was cotton? Like our English-speaking predecessors of the 18th century, historians find the English words «cotton» and «cottons» convenient labels for the huge diversity of textiles which have incorporated fibres from the fruit of the cotton plant. Yet until the very end of the 18th century, the composition of the vast majority of the «cottons» manufactured in western Europe was very different from the Indian all cotton fabrics they sometimes aimed to copy. They consisted only partly of cotton fibre, if at all. Many consisted of mixtures of cotton yarns with linen (flax or hemp) yarns, in various proportions. Some combined cotton with silk yarns, or woolen yarns, or worsted yarns. One type of heavily napped woolen cloth, woven in Wales and north-west England, was known as «cotton», but contained no cotton fibre whatsoever. This ambiguity explains the tautology in a 1776 letter from a Bedfordshire gentlewoman to a friend in London about buying a piece of cotton fabric. Obliged to distinguish between a printed fabric woven wholly from cotton and one woven from the more familiar combination of cotton-linen, she asked for a printed cotton «of the new manufactory which are Cotten both ways», explaining «it is a great deal lighter than a Cotton, and the colours look more lively».2 Scrutiny of material differences between the various «cottons» is not simply an exercise in taxonomic pedantry.

These differences were crucial for the ways the manufacture and consumption of cottons developed in Europe and around the Atlantic basin between the 16th and the 18th centuries. They were especially significant for the timing and technological trajectory of the British Industrial Revolution in textiles. The early years of the British Industrial Revolution were dominated by mechanical innovations in cotton spinning — James Hargreaves’ spinning jenny (c.1766), Richard Arkwright’s spinning frame (1769) and Samuel Crompton’s spinning mule (1778–9). They emerged at a time when raw cotton prices were unprecedentedly high and the supply of all-cotton fabrics from India, the world’s principal producer of cotton textiles, had contracted dramatically. The majority of the cotton textiles produced in Britain (and elsewhere in Europe) were union fabrics, woven from a combination of cotton yarns and linen yarns. Faced with rising raw material costs, manufacturers of fabrics such as cotton checks and stripes economised by increasing the proportion of cheaper linen yarns in their fabrics and reducing the proportion of more expensive cotton yarns. This kind of manipulation of yarn content was not possible, however, in the case of the four types of fashion-sensitive cotton goods that enjoyed the greatest sales growth in British domestic and North American markets — printed fabrics made with cotton, cotton stockings, cotton velvets, and muslins. As British manufactures, these goods were newcomers. Both muslins and cotton printing fabrics, as well as the process of colour-fast printing itself, were British substitutes for imports from India. Cotton velvets and frame-knitted ribbed cotton stockings were British product innovations without obvious Indian precursors. These most fashionable of cotton products were either woven entirely from cotton, or required a fixed proportion of cotton yarn. As the cost of raw cotton rose, their burgeoning sales provided the principal inducement to increase quality and cut costs by inventing machines for spinning cotton yarn. It is these four textiles that are the focus of this article. The article is grounded in an analysis of changing demand for cotton textiles in 18th-century Britain and the British Atlantic, based on customs and excise duties and trials for theft in London. It also draws on fibre analysis of yarns in surviving 18th-century cotton textiles in Britain and North America. The article begins by locating cotton textiles in the broader history of European textiles from the late Middle Ages to the Industrial Revolution. It then proceeds to explore the relationship between the mechanization of cotton spinning and demand for cotton textiles in Britain and its export markets during the middle decades of the 18th century.



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University of Florence

University of Florence

The University of Florence is an important and influential centre for research and higher training in Italy