Follow the thread

17th October 2003 at 01:00
Gavin Weightman traces the history of the cotton industry

Clothes-conscious young people used to today's vast choice of what to wear may be unable to imagine a world in which the only clothes you could afford to buy were made of wool or linen.

Everything - dresses, trousers, shirts - was woven from these materials and was mostly in drab colours. If the fashionable sought something light and colourful the only cloth that matched the order was silk, which cost a fortune.

It is hard to imagine a world in which clothing material was so limited, but that is how it was for the great majority of people in Britain and Europe before cheap, colourful and easily washable cotton was mass produced in the mills of Derbyshire and Lancashire towards the end of the 18th century.

If we ask: "What did the Industrial Revolution do for us?" one answer is:

"It gave us affordable, comfortable clothing."

Between the 1770s and the 1840s the manufacture and export of cotton goods became the single most important industry in Britain.

The story of how this came about is full of intrigue and drama: it was not just about inventing new machines or drawing on new sources of power.

Cotton transformed the lives of millions of people around the world, though not always for the better.

The story begins in the 1660s, when shiploads of Indian cotton goods began to arrive in England. They were light, colourful, washable and, as the trade increased, relatively cheap. By the early 1700s they had become so popular that landowners, spinners and weavers in England, whose livelihood depended on the sale of woollen and silk goods, had the import of what they called "calicoes" banned by Parliament. (The word calico comes from the port of Calicut on the Malabar coast of south-west India, where cotton goods were taken on board British ships.) There were "calico wars" and "calico riots" when the weavers of woollen and silk cloths tore the clothes off the backs of women wearing calico dresses and attacked the dyers of cotton fabrics.

But such was the demand for these light materials that the ban was flouted.

Londoners learned to dye plain Indian cloth with attractive patterns, and weavers and spinners in Lancashire began to learn the art of preparing and working raw cotton.

Cotton spinning and weaving was a relatively new industry, open to innovation. Machines, very simple contraptions at first, began to replace spinning wheels. When the calico ban was officially lifted in 1771 the industry began to take off. The first mills arose on remote streams in Derbyshire and Lancashire, and, in time, steam engines were adapted to work hundreds of spindles at a time.

By the end of the 18th century, Derbyshire and Lancashire's growing cotton industry was seeking new supplies of its raw material which it could not grow at home.

In 1793, the southern plantation states of America came to the rescue. A young Yale graduate who had taken a job as tutor on a South Carolina plantation devised a machine which revolutionised the growing of what was known as "up-land" cotton.

His invention was a simple "saw-gin" , a bit like a huge cheese grater, which separated the fibres of the cotton plant from the troublesome seeds embedded in them.

Eli Whitney's cotton gin was quickly copied and it enabled the planters with vast slave populations to supply England with all the bales of the raw material it needed. Just when the slave trade between Africa and the Americas was banned, in 1807 in the British Colonies, and 1808 in the United States, the southern planters demanded more black workers than ever.

American slavery, which was disappearing rapidly as it had done in the British West Indies, was revived to feed Liverpool, Manchester and the Lancashire mill-towns with millions of bales of cotton a year.

As weaving as well as spinning became mechanised, and a huge labour force of British women and children kept the spindles and looms running, the quantity of cotton sent from the slave owners increased year by year. By the mid-19th century, when Britain was at the height of its industrial power and cotton cloth was its leading manufacture, the country had become heavily dependent for its prosperity on the product of a slave-owning society.

The truth of this was brought home to England in 1861 when the tensions between the northern and southern states of America led to Civil War. Some cotton got through the blockades of New Orleans and other southern ports, but the Liverpool docks went on short time and soon the mills lay idle. The "cotton famine" brought to an end the ignoble, but incredibly lucrative alliance between the slave owning planters and English industrialists.

Once the manufacture of cotton clothing had been mechanised, the industry spread around the world and the time would come, in the 20th century, when Britain could not compete with cheaper labour abroad. Our cotton clothes are produced by a global industry which began back in the days when the wearing of calico led to riots in London.

There is a great website for background information on the rise of the cotton industry at

Gavin Weightman is author of What the Industrial Revolution Did for Us (BBC Worldwide pound;18.99), written to complement the BBC 2 series presented by Dan Cruickshank running until November 11. Schools can legally record the programmes for teaching if they are members of the Open University Licensed Off-Air Recording Scheme.

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