Textile industry, history

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The history of the Textile industry is the story of the movement from handcraft production of cloth in every country, to the industrial revolution in Britain, driven by cotton and wool yarn and cloth factories, which then spread to Europe, America, Japan and other countries.

Handcraft era

The use of cotton textiles came to the West via the Middle East during the Middle Ages, when Muslims brought cotton cultivation from India. The earliest fabric in Europe to include cotton fibers was fustian, a combination cotton and linen used to make garments and bedding. Demand for Indian cotton textiles, especially the 100% cotton fabric known as calico, increased in the 16th century. European textile makers attempted to capitalize on this trend by making substitutions and having the Indian textiles banned.

For centuries the spinning of yarn and the weaving of cloth had remained a manual operation. In England, for example, women and children, working at home, combed cotton with wire brushes and spun it by hand; the father then wove the cotton on a hand loom. Output was expensive and consumed locally. Most of Britain's cloth was home-made from wool in the West Country, Yorkshire and Lancashire. 1702 a critical turning point occurred when Thomas Cotchett and George Sorocold built a silk mill powered by a waterwheel at Derby. Their mill was probably Britain's first factory, for it was a single establishment with complex machinery, a source of power and accommodation for workers.

Industrial Revolution in Britain

Machine productions was the answer; it would be faster, cheaper and more uniform in quality; the machine was needed to made large scale marketing possible. Textile machines were invented and improved in Britain to increase the speed of spinning and weaving. The first key innovation was the fly-shuttle, invented by John Kay in 1733. On the hand loom the operator pulled the shuttle carrying the woof from one side of the warp to the other. Kay used hammers which propelled the shuttle back and forth between the warp threads. In 1764, James Hargreaves invented the spinning jenny, which increased productivity per worker by a factor of eight.

In 1761, the Society for the Encouragement of Arts and Manufacturies offered a prize of £50 for a spinning machine that could turn fiber into yarn and replace the hand-operated jersey wheel. Numerous inventors tried their hand; in 1768 Richard Arkwright (1732-92) employed John Kay, a clockmaker from Warrington, to help build wooden models. In 1769 they invented the water frame, which passed the carded cotton between successive pairs of rollers, each pair in turn revolving with greater velocity, so that a great number of threads of any degree of fineness and hardness could be drawn. The spun thread was now strong enough to be used as warp. At first he relied on water power, but as the machinery grew more complex he turned to steam engines for power. Arkwright made a great fortune from his patents. While his role as the main creator of the factory system has been exaggerated, Arkwright was remarkable in his ability to adapt other people's techniques, raise funds from investors, and persevere with his vision of a mechanized textile factory. His Arkwright network of mills across Britain employed over over 5000 workers by 1782. [1]In 1779 Samuel Crompton combined the Hargreaves and Arkwright ideas into the "muslin machine" (or "spinning mule") which could spin yarn for making muslin (until then imported from India). Originally known as the muslin wheel, or hall-in-the-wood wheel, In 1785, Dr. Edmund Cartwright invented the first power loom, which mechanized weaving operations and eventually developed into the modern power loom. In 1794, Eli Whitney, an American, patented the cotton gin, which separated the cotton fibers from the seeds, making short-fiber cotton grown in America the major raw material for the first stage of the industrial revolution. Between 1781 and 1791 imports of cotton into Britain quadrupled, reaching 100 million pounds in 1815 and 263 million in 1830, and kept growing until the supply was cut by war in 1861.[2] In 1811 Britain saw more than 5,000,000 spindles at work, of which 310,500 used the Arkwright principle, 4,600,00 that of Crompton's mule spindle, and 156,000 that of Hargreaves's jenny.

In 1751, Britain exported £46,000 of cotton cloth; by 1800 this had soared to £5.4 million and by 1861 to £46.8 million. The cloth made for cheaper and better quality clothing, and was in demand across Europe and the world.

Decline of British industry

Britain lost its status as a major textile manufacturer in the course of the 20th century, and especially during the period 1950-65. Singleton, (1990) explains the decline by looking at the attitudes of mill owners and trade union members of the Lancashire cotton industry toward the future of the industry during the period 1945 through 1965. Both groups held a pessimistic view of the industry's prospects, largely due to increased international competition, especially from Japan and the Far East. This attitude prevented needed modernization of factories and changes in labor practices. Those reforms that came in these two areas were intended to slow, rather than reverse, the contraction.

The roots of the decline go back further according to Robertson, (1990), which examines the attitudes and actions of British cotton textile manufacturers toward Japanese competition during the period 1911 to 1937, centering on Lancashire millers. Prior to World War I, Lancashire's cotton industry paid little attention to Japan's textile industry. The interwar period brought decline in Britain's overseas cotton trade, especially in India and the Far East, with the blame placed on political and economic problems in India and China rather than on the growth of Japanese textile exports. British criticism of Japan started and grew through the late 1920s and early 1930s, as Japan's technical improvements in the cotton industry and devaluation of the yen placed British millers at a disadvantage. The Lancashire millers tried to work through various business organizations and the Chamber of Commerce to promote government action; however the industry reform plan of Sir William Preston was rejected by the cotton industry in 1936, recognition by Britain of the superiority of Japanese textile manufacturing.

United States

The United States followed the British lead, using stolen blueprints and illegally immigrating engineers. Samuel Slater (1768-1835) of Rhode Island pulled American cotton-spinning technology by constructing carding, drawing, and roving machinery, and by determining the operating and gearing ratios necessary to use water power. By 1850 the American had built their own industrial revolutions around textiles, and use of abundant water power in new England.


Hall, (1996) argues that between 1400 and 1800, South Asian textile production adapted to economic and cultural cycles and was never displaced by cheaper or higher-quality foreign imports, coming mainly from India. The example of Bandjarmasin, an important Borneo port, demonstrates the dynamic between upstream and downstream communities in a changing economy, the role of the arrival of Islam in the islands of Southeast Asia, and the interplay of international trade and the local textile industry. The growing European presence in the region was only one factor in the developments during this period.


The development of light industry, chiefly cotton spinning and other textiles, was the prototype of the large, modern corporate enterprise in Japan. Central to these firms' development was the practice of promoting from within, particularly in the case of top-level directorships, and the allocation of resources to the factory. Despite static markets and slow distribution processes, organic understanding of market demands and the threatened competition of Western enterprises forced companies to develop efficient organizations and product diversification, leading major firms toward successful prewar growth. Park and Kym (1991) studies the rise and fall of the Japanese textile industry between 1874 and 1985. Producers of textiles and clothing in advanced industrial economies were the first large group of manufacturers who went into a decline as a result of import competition from newly industrializing economies. Because of the intensive use of unskilled labor in the textile industries and the relative scarcity of such labor in more advanced economies, the advantage inheres in undeveloped countries.

Tsurumi, (1988) and Tsurumi, (1990)discusses the role of Japanese women and girls in the silk reeling and cotton spinning industries that were the mainstay of the Japanese industrial revolution beginning in 1868 with the Meiji government. Young women were encouraged to reel silk for the sake of the nation. In the 1870s rich families participated in the industry but severe financial difficulties in a changing government during the 1880's ruined many businesses. Longer hours and a general deterioration of conditions was the general trend in the silk reeling industry. Distressing songs relate the plight of the young women who left their homes not for the good of the country but out of necessity for economic survival. These women's families made up 83% of the population but received only 50% of the country's household income.


In 1890 the first cotton textile factory was established in China, marking the beginning of textile modernization in China. For the period 1890-1937 China was unable to maintain control over the industry, which for the most part was controlled by foreign investors. This was due in part to China's lack of capital and managerial knowledge and techniques, which were supplied by such countries as Japan and Great Britain. However, the industry greatly expanded during this period and had vast influence on the Chinese economy. The new factory system resulted in a move from small-scale family production to mass production. It also accelerated urbanization since the factories required concentrated masses of laborers. Chinese cotton seed was improved by the importation of American seed. Since the textile industry was the largest in China and employed one-fourth of the labor force, it had repercussions on the traditional society. The textile industry also formed the basis for labor movements and collective bargaining and strikes.[3]


The "deindustrialization" of the Indian economy, and of India's textile industries in particular, is the subject of a major historiographical debate.[4] While some scholars have claimed that colonial rule permanently undermined indigenous production, others have argued that handloom weavers were able to adjust to colonial conditions and therefore carved out new niches for themselves. Hanretty (1991) examines handloom weavers in one part of India, an area that is now Madhya Pradesh, between 1800 and Indian independence in 1947. Eschewing a simplistic attachment to either of the two main positions, Hanretty shows that while handloom weavers as a group faced great competition in the mid-19th century from imported cloths, some specialist producers were able to cope better than others, mainly because of their production of specialized products and the security given them by enhanced caste status. The real challenge came in the 20th century as India's own mills subordinated weavers to middlemen as the former became more dependent on mill-spun yarns.[5]

When the British left India in 1947, the economy was only slightly more industrialized than when they had taken formal control nearly one hundred years earlier. Wolcott (1997) asks, were they responsible for the lack of development? Two strains of argument suggest they were. The first, primarily associated with Amiya Bagchi, faults the British for not giving sufficient protection to domestic industries. The second, associated with Morris Morris, faults them for not investing in infrastructure - specifically the capital market and education. This article reexamines the development of cotton textile production, the most important factory industry in colonial India. There is no evidence that any of these factors contributed significantly to the slow interwar growth of the industry. Thus, Wolcott concludes, there is no basis for arguing that a national government could have speeded up development. The problems were imbedded in the structure of the labor market, beyond the control of any government.

By the end of the 19th century, domestic wool production in India was experiencing a transformation that was largely attributable to colonial rule. Arable land which pastoralists needed for their sheep was becoming less available; hence, wool production tended to become concentrated in areas where there were more opportunities for grazing. Railways were important in helping to transform weaving from a small-scale household-centered activity to larger factory production. Competition from imported wool led to greater specialization in weaving and spinning, and encouraged the production of finer cloth. These transformations, of which the most important seems to be the loss of common grazing lands, have continued in postcolonial India.[6] Shah (2001) examines the growth of an industrial working class in Ahmadabad, chief city of Gujarat. In textiles, the most important industry, new recruits were chiefly lower-caste landless agricultural laborers and handloom weavers - men, women, and children. Despite strikes against long hours and low wages, caste identity remained strong, and stable, effective trade unions were not achieved.

See also



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  • Giedion, Sigfried, Mechanization takes command: a contribution to anonymous history (1948) online at ACLS e-books
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  • Pomeranz, Kenneth. The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy (2000)
  • Robertson, Alex J. "Lancashire and the Rise of Japan, 1910-1937." Business History 1990 32(4): 87-105. Issn: 0007-6791 Fulltext: in Ebsco
  • Singer, Charles Joseph, ed. A history of technology: vol 4: The Industrial Revolution c 1750-c 1860 (1960) ch 4, and vol 5: The Late Nineteenth Centuiry, c 1850- c 1900, ch 3; online at ACLS e-books
  • Singleton, John. "Showing the White Flag: the Lancashire Cotton Industry, 1945-1965." Business History 1990 32(4): 129-149. Issn: 0007-6791 Fulltext in Ebsco
  • Usher, Abbott Payson. An Introduction to the Industrial History of England (1920) 529 pages online edition

Social history

  • Checkland, S. G. The Rise of Industrial Society in England, 1815-1885, 1964.
  • Clapham, J. H. An Economic History of Modern Britain: The Early Railway Age, 1820-1850 (1926) online edition
  • Feinstein, Charles H. "Pessimism Perpetuated: Real Wages and the Standard of Living in Britain during and after the Industrial Revolution." Journal of Economic History 1998. 58.3: 625-658. in JSTOR
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United States

  • Batchelder, Samuel. Introduction and Early Progress of the Cotton Manufacture in the United States (1863) online edition
  • Blewett, Mary H. The Last Generation: Work and Life in the Textile Mills of Lowell, Massachusetts, 1910-1960 1990 online edition
  • Cohen, Isaac. American Management and British Labor: A Comparative Study of the Cotton Spinning Industry (1990) online edition
  • Cole, Arthur Harrison. The American Wool Manufacture 1926
  • Copeland, Melvin Thomas. The Cotton Manufacturing Industry of the United States (1912) online edition
  • Daniel, Clete. Culture of Misfortune: An Interpretive History of Textile Unionism in the United States 2001 online edition
  • Flamming, Douglas. Creating the Modern South: Millhands and Managers in Dalton, Georgia, 1884-1984 1992 online edition
  • McHugh, Cathy L. Mill Family: The Labor System in the Southern Cotton Textile Industry, 1880-1915 (1998) online edition
  • Olson, James S. Encyclopedia of the Industrial Revolution in America (2001)


  • Brown, John C. "Market Organization, Protection, and Vertical Integration: German Cotton Textiles Before 1914." Journal of Economic History 1992 52(2): 339-351. Issn: 0022-0507

Fulltext: in Jstor

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  • Liu, Tessie P. The Weaver's Knot: The Contradictions of Class Struggle and Family Solidarity in Western France, 1750-1914 1994 online edition


  • Habib, Irfan. Indian Economy, 1858-1914 (2006).
  • Hall, Kenneth R. "The Textile Industry in Southeast Asia, 1400-1800." Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 1996 39(2): 87-135. Issn: 0022-4995 in Jstor
  • Harnetty, Peter. "'Deindustrialization' Revisited: the Handloom Weavers of the Central Provinces of India, c. 1800-1947." Modern Asian Studies 1991 25(3): 455-510. Issn: 0026-749x in Jstor
  • Teh-wei Hu, "The Development of the Cotton Textile Industry and Chinese Economic Development, 1890-1937," Journal of Asian and African Studies 1970 5(4): 266-273. Issn: 0021-9096
  • Kumar, Dharma and Meghnad Desai, eds. The Cambridge Economic History of India: Volume 2, c.1751-c.1970 (1983).
  • McNamara, Dennis L. Textiles and Industrial Transition in Japan. 1995. 203 pp.
  • Mass, William and Robertson, Andrew. "From Textiles to Automobiles: Mechanical and Organizational Innovation in the Toyoda Enterprises, 1895-1933." Business and Economic History 1996 25(2): 1-37. Issn: 0894-6825 online version
  • Nair, Janaki. Miners and Millhands: Work, Culture, and Politics in Princely Mysore. Sage, 1998. 324 pp.
  • Otsuka, Keijiro; Ranis, Gustav; and Saxonhouse, Gary. Comparative Technology Choice in Development: The Indian and Japanese Cotton Textile Industries. 1988. 247 pp.
  • Park, Young-il and Anderson, Kym. "The Rise and Demise of Textiles and Clothing in Economic Development: the Case of Japan." Economic Development and Cultural Change 1991 39(3): 531-548. Issn: 0013-0079 in Jstor
  • Pomeranz, Kenneth. The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy (2000)
  • Roy, Tirthankar. "Changes in Wool Production and Usage in Colonial India." Modern Asian Studies 2003 37(2): 257-286. Issn: 0026-749x
  • Roy, Tirthankar. The Economic History of India 1857-1947 (2006).
  • Rothermund, Dietmar. An Economic History of India: From Pre-Colonial Times to 1991 (1993) online edition
  • Shah, Kunjlata N. "The Making of the Industrial Working Class in Ahmedabad (1861-1915)." Indica 2001 38(1-2): 253-260. Issn: 0019-686x
  • Simmons, Colin. "De-Industrialization', Industrialization and the Indian Economy, c. 1850-1947," ;;Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 19, No. 3, April 1984 (1985), pp. 593-622 in JSTOR
  • Wolcott, Susan and Clark, Gregory. "Why Nations Fail: Managerial Decisions and Performance in Indian Cotton Textiles, 1890-1938." Journal of Economic History 1999 59(2): 397-423. Issn: 0022-0507 Jstor
  • Wolcott, Susan. "The Perils of Lifetime Employment Systems: Productivity Advance in the Indian and Japanese Textile Industries, 1920-1938." Journal of Economic History 1994 54(2): 307-324. Issn: 0022-0507 [ in Jstor]
  • Wolcott, Susan. "Did Imperial Policies Doom the Indian Textile Industry?" Research in Economic History 1997 17: 135-183. Issn: 0363-3268


  • Canning, Kathleen. Languages of Labor and Gender: Female Factory Work in Germany, 1850-1914 (1996)
  • Canning, Kathleen. "Gender and the Politics of Class Formation: Rethinking German Labor History." American Historical Review 1992 97(3): 736-768. Issn: 0002-8762 in Jstor
  • Gamber, Wendy. The Female Economy: The Millinery and Dressmaking Trades, 1860-1930 (1997), in U.S.
  • Green, Nancy L. Ready-to-Wear and Ready-to-Work: A Century of Industry and Immigrants in Paris and New York (1997).
  • Maynes, Mary Jo. "Gender, Labor, and Globalization in Historical Perspective: European Spinsters in the International Textile Industry, 1750-1900." Journal of Women's History 2004 15(4): 47-66. Issn: 1042-7961 Fulltext: in Project Muse and Ebsco
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  • Tsurumi, E. Patricia. Factory Girls: Women in the Thread Mills of Meiji Japan. 1990. 215 pp.

Primary sources


  1. Karen Fisk, "Arkwright: Cotton King or Spin Doctor?" History Today 1998 48(3): 25-30. Issn: 0018-2753 Fulltext: in Ebsco; R.S. Fitton, The Arkwrights: Spinners of Fortune, 1989.
  2. Pomeranz 275-78
  3. Teh-wei Hu, 1970
  4. Simmons (1985)
  5. Hanretty 91991)
  6. Roy, (2003)