This page consists of basic information about the textile industry; more details can be found in subsections on the left.
Textile manufreacturing consisted of mainly two industries – the woolen trade and the cotton industry.
The woolen industry of England thrived before the industrial revolution because the resources required were all present in Britain itself. Due to the nation's climate, sheep flourished in their pastures – a ready source of wool. Additionally, there had been significant developments in the woolen industry before the mechanization of the cotton industry and the first Industrial Revolution really began.
The mechanization of the cotton industry not only increased the rate of productivity but also moved the industry from households to factories. Prior to the industrial revolution, when the textile industry was mainly domestic; all the members of a household played a vital part in ensuring the completion of the process. The children of the family would clean and card the raw cotton while women spun the yarn and men wove. Weaving was often an additional occupation – with the primary source of income being a farm. While wool came from England , cotton usually was imported from the Southern United States and the West Indies .
As an inventor from the Industrial Revolution once said, “From the year 1770 to 1788 a complete change had gradually been effected in the spinning of yarns. That of wool had disappeared altogether and that of linen was also nearly gone: cotton, cotton, cotton was become the almost universal material for employment.” 1
The innovations in textiles during the industrial revolution had a very tangible effect, which comprised in itself such technological developments as the water-frame and spinning-jenny.
“Between 1780 and 1800 there was an increase of about eightfold in raw-cotton imports; and since the yarn spun grew finer on average, as well as stronger, the raw material imports understate the increase in yardage and real value” 2
Due to this now consistently flowing supply of yarn, weaving could move from domestic environments and a supplementary status with farming to factories where weavers could focus only on weaving. With excess agricultural workers attracted to these opportunities, towns started to become crowded.
The cotton industry expanded massively during the years of the industrial Revolution.
“By 1802 it probably accounted for between 4 and 5 per cent of the national income of Great Britain , and by 1812 when its share was estimated to be between 7 and 8 per cent it had outstripped the woolen industry in national importance. At this stage there were about 100,000 workers in cotton spinning factories…” 2
Before the industrial revolution, however, when numbers of workers are given in tens and hundreds of thousands, it is important to understand that each member of a family who owned a loom and spun some cotton was adding to this number. These people who were part of the cottage industry were actually essential to the growth of the industrial textile industry.
“The tens of thousands of little men who operated jennies and looms in extensions to their cottages provided the industry with buildings and machinery which would have required hundreds of wealthy capitalists to set up on a factory basis.”
Due to this quickening pace, which many attribute to the interest of a large fraction of the population in the industry to, the prices fell and the quality of products rose as had never before happened in history. “Prices of cotton yarn fell from 38s per lb. in 1786 and 1787 to under 10s. in 1800 and 6s. 9d. in 1806.” 2 Due to the increase in productivity and the steep decline in prices exports doubled and tripled during this time period leading to higher and higher profits. Profits also increased due to the fact that England was the first country in this industry. This lack of competition let them enjoy a period of sales at higher-than-average prices, which helped the economy.
The industry, however, was localized for a large period of time in Lancashire . Due to this, innovations took years to spread through the entire country but often thrived within specific counties. Expansion of the industry was also contributed to by the substitution of human labor by machines. Workers now had the opportunity to specialize and did not have to be skilled in several areas. Machines also did much of the work for people. “They were the beginning of a new era in economic organization, for they required a docile labor force working in the disciplined atmosphere of the factory.”
The creation of factories, however, did not automatically eliminate all the other sources of cotton manufacture that led to the boom of the textile industry.
“Most of it was produced by a multitude of outworkers – the domestic spinners to whom the capitalist mill-owner served out raw cotton, and the hand-loom weaver whom he supplied with the appropriate yarn.” Additionally, as Deane points out in The First Industrial Revolution , when trade was low, the domestic weavers suffered since they lost out to the factories. When, on the other hand, trade was good, new weavers and spinners were attracted to the booming textile industry. Due to this, it was always the capitalist employers who gained and profited – even despite lows. The factory owners, however, were not always eager to adopt new machinery. They reluctantly used the power loom; often they worried that the expense of power and machinery would not counterbalance the expense of the workers who were now not needed and the profits that would be gained. The novelty of the British industrial revolution lies not only in the fact that it was the first, but also because, as Deane says, “For the British industrial revolution was a spontaneous revolution, not a forced industrialization as some of its successors have been.” Similarly, the cotton industry thrived not only because it was the first mechanized one, but also because of the eager entrepreneurs that bolstered it.
W. Radcliffe, The Origin of Power Loom Weaving (1828), p. 62
Deane, Phyllis. The First Industrial Revolution. New York : Cambridge University Press, 1965.
Industrial Revolution. 11 Mar. 2006 . 21 Mar. 2006 < http://www.cottontimes.co.uk/ >.