Cotton textiles were amongst the first goods to achieve a truly global reach. For many centuries cotton from the Indian subcontinent was in great demand in the trading worlds of the Indian Ocean and the eastern Mediterranean. The early-modern European craze for Indian calicoes and the huge nineteenth-century export trade in Lancashire goods, and subsequent deindustrialization of the Indian subcontinent, are merely the best known. These episodes, although of great importance, far from exhaust the story of cotton. They are well known because of the enormous research energy that has been devoted to them, but other important elements of cotton’s long history are deserving of similar attention.

Cotton was a common fabric during the Middle Ages, and was hand-woven on a loom. The knowledge of cotton weaving was spread to northern Italy in the 12th century, when Sicily was conquered by the Normans, and consequently to the rest of Europe. The spinning wheel, introduced to Europe circa 1350, improved the speed of cotton spinning. Cotton cloth started to become high in demand for the European urban markets during the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. Vasco da Gama, a Portuguese explorer, opened Asian sea trade, which replaced caravans and allowed for heavier cargo. Indian craftspeople had long protected the secret of how to create colourful patterns. However, some converted to Christianity and their secret was revealed by a French Catholic priest, Father Coeurdoux. He revealed the process of creating the fabrics in France, which assisted the European textile industry.

Cotton in the British Empire

cotton spinning british empireCotton’s rise to global importance came about as a result of the cultural transformation of Europe and Britain’s trading empire. Calico and chintz, types of cotton fabrics, became popular in Europe, and by 1664 the East India Company was importing a quarter of a million pieces into Britain. By the 18th century, the middle class had become more concerned with cleanliness and fashion, and there was a demand for easily washable and colorful fabric. Wool continued to dominate the European markets, but cotton prints were introduced to Britain by the East India Company in the 1690s. Imports of calicoes, cheap cotton fabrics from Kozhikode, then known as Calicut, in India, found a mass market among the poor. By 1721 these calicoes threatened British manufacturers, and Parliament passed the Calico Act that banned calicoes for clothing or domestic purposes. In 1774 the act was repealed with the invention of machines that allowed British manufacturers to compete with Eastern fabrics. Cotton’s versatility allowed it to be combined with linen and be made into velvet. It was cheaper than silk and could be imprinted more easily than wool, allowing for patterned dresses for women. It became the standard fashion and, because of its price, was accessible to the general public. New inventions in the 1770s—such as the spinning jenny, the water frame, and the spinning mule—made the British Midlands into a very profitable manufacturing center. In 1794–1796, British cotton goods accounted for 15.6% of Britain’s exports, and in 1804–1806 grew to 42.3%.

The British commercial empire grew the cotton industry enormously. British cotton products were successful in European markets, constituting 40.5% of exports in 1784–1786. Britain’s success was also due to its trade with its own colonies, whose settlers maintained British identities, and thus, fashions. With the growth of the cotton industry, manufacturers had to find new sources of raw cotton, and cultivation was expanded to West India. High tariffs against Indian textile workshops, British power in India through the East India Company,[9] and British restrictions on Indian cotton imports[10] transformed India from a source of textiles to a source of raw cotton.[9] Cultivation was also attempted in the Caribbean and West Africa, but these attempts failed due to bad weather and poor soil. The Indian subcontinent was looked to as a possible source of raw cotton, but intra-imperial conflicts and economic rivalries prevented the area from producing the necessary supply.

The Lancashire textile mills were major parts of the British industrial revolution. Their workers had poor working conditions: low wages, child labour, and 18-hour work days. Richard Arkwright created a textile empire by building a factory system powered by water, which was occasionally raided by the Luddites, weavers put out of business by the mechanization of textile production. In the 1790s, James Watt’s steam power was applied to textile production, and by 1839 200,000 children worked in Manchester’s cotton mills. Karl Marx, who frequently visited Lancashire, may have been influenced by the conditions of workers in these mills in writing Das Kapital.

Spinning Cotton in America

cotton spinning american history

After the American Revolution, several founding fathers felt cotton manufacturing and the mills should remain in England. Alexander Hamilton did not agree and wanted to establish a model mill village in Paterson, New Jersey. However, his ideas were ahead of their time. The “National Manufactory” went out of business in 1796.  Samuel Slater of Rhode Island visited several mills owned by Arkwright and associates and returned to the US to open a yarn spinning mill in Pawtucket, Rhode Island in 1792, the first successful automated yarn spinning in the US. In 1814, James Lowell of Boston built a factory in Waltham, up the Charles River from Boston. Later, the Boston Associates built an entire mill town on the Merrimack River, and later named it “Lowell” in memory of James Cabot Lowell.

In 1793 Eli Whitney and Hogden Holmes developed a simplified method of removing the cotton lint from cotton seeds. Whitney’s, and especially Holmes’ saw tooth gin, revolutionized the cotton industry by dramatically increasing the productivity of cotton ginning.

In the early 1800s, cotton was raised in the southern United States and exported to mills in England and the North. Leaders such as William Gregg of South Carolina advocated a home-based textile industry for the
South but the time was not right. Northern mills resisted the growth of mills outside New England. Textile machinery was built in New England and New Jersey and imported from Europe.

After the Civil War, the South slowly replaced slaves with free workers. The industry remained largely in the north until after the 1880s. Leaders such as Edwin Michael Holt and the family of Alamance County, North Carolina built mills in large numbers throughout the South as the 19th century closed. Glencoe Cotton Mill and Mill Village are preserved today. www.textileheritagemuseum.org Cotton mills in New England began to decline in importance.

Merchants contracted for goods through agents. The Cone family moved from Baltimore to Greensboro and brokered sales. The Belk family bought goods from Cone to sell in the dry goods stores. Merchants such as Marshall Fields of Chicago bought goods from mills through intermediaries. Later, in order to better control supply, the Cones and the Fields built mills of their own, e.g., Cone Mills and Fieldcrest Mills. Machinery was imported from the north and from Europe.

World War I the naval blockade imposed by England on German shipping, and the use of U-boats by Germany to harass English vessels brought the realization that the United States must be independent of England and Germany for machinery and dyestuffs. New companies emerged to satisfy the war effort and remained strong for several decades following the war. World War II once again emphasized the need for self-sufficiency. Following the war, however, imported machinery and dyes, especially from Germany and
Switzerland, once again supplemented and eventually replaced domestic supply. American textile companies thrived with the use of imported machinery and dyestuffs. A dyes and colorants website developed by Dr. Robert Baptista explains these developments.

In the 1990s, a new world order began to replace the Made in the USA ideas. Buying from the lowest-cost producer drove many textile manufacturers out of the production side and into imports. Manufacturing companies changed to marketing companies.