the emergence of cotton -- 11/17/20

Today's selection -- from The Industrial Revolution in World History by Peter N. Stearns. Wool had long been the dominant source of clothing in Western Europe until machines were invented to spin cotton. With that, cotton became king, the use of wool subsided, and India's thriving industry of colorful, handmade cotton clothing was decimated:

"In the last quarter of the eighteenth century, and for long after, the spinning of thread and the making of cloth was the single most important industry in Britain and much of Europe. By tradition, home-grown sheep's wool was the basic raw material, along with linen, which is made from the pounded stalks of blue-flowered flax. The very finest cloth was made of silk which came from China or was produced in some regions of Italy and France where the planting of mulberry trees, on which silk worms feed, was successful. Cotton, grown in Egypt or India, could not be raised in the temperate climate of northern Europe and was, until the 1770s, relatively unimportant. A speciality of one part of Lancashire, cotton yarn was generally woven with wool or linen thread to produce a variety of cloths.

"For hundreds of years, colourful, lightweight and washable pure cotton cloth had been produced in India and was sold on a world market into which Europeans entered in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The British East India Company, founded in 1600, for many years picked up Indian cotton cloth at the Malabar coastal town of Calicut and traded it in Indonesia for spices. Towards the end of the seventeenth century, the Company, seeking new ways of making money, brought back to England some cargoes of colourful Indian cotton cloth. It was a sensation, not only in England but throughout Europe. When it was washed, the dyes did not run, though how this was achieved nobody outside India knew. As the East Indiamen returned from the Thames to the Malabar coast, they carried instructions as to which kinds of pattern might be popular in England.

"But the East India Company was soon in trouble, accused of unpatriotic profiteering. In the woollen-weaving and silk-producing districts of England, cotton became a dirty word. In France and other European countries too, the threat that these wonderful Indian goods presented to the established textile industries brought a swift reaction. Women seen wearing cotton gowns were attacked in the Spitalfields district of London in what became known as the 'calico riots' -- calico being the term for all cotton goods derived from the entrepot of Calicut. The selling and wearing of pure cotton goods was outlawed to protect indigenous industries. In Britain the ban lasted from 1721 until 1776, though many ingenious ways were found to get around it. Similar bans were imposed in Europe.

"The popularity of cotton was established, however, and while British dyers puzzled over the secrets of the fast colours of Indian cottons, others set out to discover how the yarn could be produced in greater quantities and more cheaply. There were a number of false starts in the 1740s with machines that could spin cotton but for one reason or another were not successful. It was in the 1760s, although it is impossible to say exactly when, that the first 'spinning jennies' appeared. The invention is generally attributed to a Lancashire textile worker called James Hargreaves, who fashioned the first prototype with a penknife. It was a small machine which could revolve up to nine bobbins at a time with the turn of a single wheel which was worked by hand. There was a certain knack to it as a tension had to be kept in the threads, but it could be operated by a child and could fit into the rooms of a cottage. Revolutionary though it was, reproductions based on the original patent application show a piece of machinery that looks primitive, if not decidedly medieval.

"Hargreaves was allegedly driven out of Lancashire and developed his jennies in Nottingham. The new machines were quickly copied and soon there were hundreds and then thousands at work. Not long after, Richard Arkwright arrived in Nottingham with his plans for a spinning machine that could be driven by 'gin' (an abbreviation of 'engine') horses or a waterwheel."



Peter N. Stearns


The Industrial Revolution in World History


Westview Press


Copyright 2013 Taylor & Francis


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