Cotton, industrialisation and a missing piece of the puzzle

by Alka Raman (London School of Economics)

This study was awarded the prize for the best new researcher poster at the EHS Annual Conference 2019 in Belfast. The poster can be viewed here.

 

Cotton_merchant_in_Bombay_by_Francis_Frith
Cotton merchant, taken by Francis Frith between 1850 and 1870. Available at Wikimedia Commons.

The first Industrial Revolution has long been seen as the beacon of modernity, heralding unprecedented economic growth and the biggest uplift of living standards in human history. Its prominence amid themes in economic history is such that it dwarfs all others in comparison, including the fact that the British cotton industry – the nucleus of industrialisation – was not the world’s first cotton manufacturing industry serving a global demand for cotton goods.

Handmade cotton fabrics were exported from India to the rest of the world as early as the twelfth century. Indeed every textbook on economic history, when charting the growth of the British cotton industry, precedes its achievements with a dutiful narration of the introduction of cotton goods into England by the English East India Company in 1699 and the ‘frenzy’ for these cottons within the domestic and overseas markets.

But a passing reference to imitations quickly gives way to an impressive series of mechanisations and illustrious British inventors associated with them. Any connection to the preceding handmade Indian product is effectively lost.

Consequently, a crucial piece of the puzzle – how the seat of cotton manufacturing went from the Indian subcontinent to the heart of England – has remained inadequately explained. Learning from pre-existing products has been mentioned, but what this learning contained, how it may have been transferred and with what kind of outcomes are concepts that have been under-explored.

Hence the question at the heart of my research: did the pre-existing, handmade and globally demanded Indian cottons influence the growth and technological trajectory of the nascent British cotton industry?

Central to my thesis is the idea that the pre-industrial Indian cotton textiles contained the material knowledge required for their successful imitation and reproduction. These handmade Indian cottons embodied the cloth quality, print, design and product finish that the machine-made goods sought to imitate. Did learning from these pre-existing market-approved products contribute to the growth of early British cotton manufacturing?

My research identifies learning from the benchmark product, as well as competition with it, as two simultaneous stimuli shaping the British cotton industry during its initial phase. In terms of methodology, the thesis tests these two stimuli against historical textual and material evidence.

The writings of manufacturers, traders and historians/commentators of the period show that both manufacturers and innovators recognised that there was a knowledge problem or a ‘skills gap’: British spinners could not spin cotton warp to match Indian hand-spun warp’s quality. Entrepreneurs identified matching the quality of Indian hand-spun warp as a key motivation for innovation. Their language of quality comparisons with reference to Indian cottons is crucial and highlights comparative quality-related learning from Indian cotton goods.

Does the material evidence corroborate this textual finding? To establish if cloth quality improved over time, I study the material evidence (surviving cotton textiles from the period) under a digital microscope and thread counter to chart the quality of these fabrics over the key decades of mechanisation. I use thread count to establish the comparative quality of the machine-made cotton fabrics vis-à-vis the handmade Indian cottons.

My findings show that early British ‘cottons’ were, in reality, mixed fabrics using linen warp and cotton weft. In addition, the results show a marked increase in cloth quality between 1746 and 1820.

Assessed together, the textual and material evidence demonstrate that mechanisation in the early British cotton industry was geared towards overcoming specific sequential quality-related bottlenecks, associated first with the ability to make the all-cotton cloth, followed by the ability to make the fine all-cotton cloth.

Imitation of benchmark Indian cottons steered the growth of the British cotton industry on a specific path of technological evolution – a trajectory that was shaped by the quest to match the quality of the handmade Indian cotton textiles.

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