Proposal preview

Popularizing Fabrics and Clothing, 17th to 20th centuries: Materiality, Value Formation and Technology.

Lighter fabrics were one of the landmark products of the early-modern consumption revolution. A move towards textiles that were lighter in weight, less durable and more patterned was associated with new combinations of fibres – whether silk, wool, linen, or cotton. It shortened consumption cycles for both fabric and clothing, and introduced organizational changes in circulation and retail. It extended across regions and continents, and was closely linked with the global acceptance of light cotton fabrics between the 17th and 19th centuries. Whether we categorize these new, lighter textiles as Jan de Vries’s “New Luxuries” or Cissie Fairchild’s “Populuxe goods”, they played a key role in the birth of the modern consumer.
A key issue that needs investigation is what the cheapness of many of these lighter fabrics meant. The 17th century alone saw reductions of about a third in the weight of established woolen and silk fabrics, while sales of new, lighter fabrics boomed. Did the evaluation hierarchies for fabrics and dress undergo a downward shift, amounting to a paradigm shift in notions of quality for the whole industry? Clarifying this process is indispensable for understanding the depreciation of cloth and clothing that subsequently accelerated.
In the historiography, making cheaper textiles and dress since the 18th century has been discussed mainly in terms of labor inputs, especially new, labour-saving technologies. Alternatively, it has been addressed as a process of substitution between silk and cotton, wool and cotton, or cotton and linen. Often evaluations of quality have been conducted in terms of a simple distinction between “fine” or “coarse”. Yet valorization of popularized fabrics or clothing was not a simple process. Nor was it a simple linear outcome of cheaper material costs. The long-term processes of technological change in textile manufacture from 1400-1800 advanced on a variety of fronts, affecting all the textile fibers – silk, cotton, wool and linen. Quality was as important a priority as cost, although techniques associated with luxury production were often adapted for the manufacture of cheaper fabrics. A shift to lighter weights in luxury silk and woolen fabrics paralleled and probably intensified competition to produce cheaper fabrics. The demand for cheaper ranges escalated, and technologies and organization for producing not only lighter but also coarser textiles advanced. Mixed and union yarns, as well as the spinning of silk waste, facilitated the production of new ranges of fabrics with new quality characteristics. In short, the valorization of textiles and clothing became both more complicated and more dynamic.
The whole process involved increased specialization in raw and semi-finished materials – more precise sorting of the wool from the sheep’s fleece, more careful grading of silk fibers, more specification of yarns according to fineness. At the same time, it introduced changes in the circulation and distribution of the end product, and alterations in pricing, with faster depreciation.
The session aims to clarify these intertwining processes by taking an object-based approach. It is important to ground analysis in the materiality of the textiles themselves if we are to assess the technologies employed in making them, their markets, and the ways they were valorized and depreciated. The relative economic value of fabrics and the considerations that determined their value are central to the session. Its object-based, microscopic approach will also facilitate inter-regional comparisons.
Although the session’s focus will be mainly on fabrics and clothing, it aims to initiate broader discussion of quality changes, depreciation and popularization across a wider range of products from the 17th to the 20th centuries.

Organizer(s)

  • Miki Sugiura Hosei University msugiura@hosei.ac.jp
  • John Styles University of Hertfordshire j.a.styles@herts.ac.uk

Session members

  • Linda Eaton , Winterthur Museum, Delaware University
  • Naoko Inoue, Josai University
  • Beverly Lemire, University of Alberta
  • Thales Pereira, Franciscan University

Discussant(s)

  • Giorgio Riello Warwick University G.Riello@warwick.ac.uk

Papers

Panel abstract

This session aims to explore the manufacture and circulation of cheaper, lighter-weight fabrics and their use in clothing from the 17th to the 20th centuries. It aims to “materialize” the subject, by examining the material composition of these textiles, as well as investigating economic value and pricing at different stages of their manufacture and circulation. The session will consider not just finished textiles, but differentiation of raw materials, production of yarns, grading of semi-finished materials, and post- consumer circulation. It embraces a variety of textile centers in Italy, the Netherlands, England, France, Japan, China and North America, linking them to each other. The session will be an interdisciplinary encounter between economic historians, cultural historians, and art and design curators.

1st half

Fibres, yarns and invention of spinning Jenny

John Styles

The spinning jenny has long been regarded as a key technical innovation of the British Industrial Revolution. For Robert Allen it represents ‘the Industrial Revolution in miniature’, its invention the result of a distinctively British High Wage Economy. This paper disagrees. It argues the jenny was embedded in material and technical divisions of labour distinctive to hand cotton spinning in Lancashire. The inducements that propelled its invention were primarily local. An equivalent invention elsewhere was most unlikely. The jenny relied on long-staple New World raw cotton, on a trend towards finer, higher quality cotton yarns, and on a high degree of specialisation by task, both for spinners and their tools. These characteristics were distinctive to Lancashire. Together they highlight the importance of materiality – fibres and yarns, tools and processes – if we are to understand the textile innovations of the Industrial Revolution.

The spinning jenny has long been regarded as a key technical innovation of the British Industrial Revolution. For Robert Allen it represents ‘the Industrial Revolution in miniature’, its invention the result of a distinctively British High Wage Economy. This paper disagrees. It argues the jenny was embedded in material and technical divisions of labour distinctive to hand cotton spinning in Lancashire. The inducements that propelled its invention were primarily local. An equivalent invention elsewhere was most unlikely. The jenny relied on long-staple New World raw cotton, on a trend towards finer, higher quality cotton yarns, and on a high degree of specialisation by task, both for spinners and their tools. These characteristics were distinctive to Lancashire. Together they highlight the importance of materiality – fibres and yarns, tools and processes – if we are to understand the textile innovations of the Industrial Revolution.

Color and quality in printed textiles, 1750 to 1800

Linda Eaton

Printed textiles were a booming business in the late 18th century. It was also a time when many scientists were publishing their research on the chemistry of dye stuffs. The written record, however, does not document trade practices which have been discovered through the analysis of printed textiles in museum collections. This paper provides evidence of little known practices in the spinning and calico printing industries, suggesting that the full story of this industrial practice has yet to be understood.

Printed textiles were a booming business in the late 18th century. It was also a time when many scientists were publishing their research on the chemistry of dye stuffs. The written record, however, does not document trade practices which have been discovered through the analysis of printed textiles in museum collections. This paper provides evidence of little known practices in the spinning and calico printing industries, suggesting that the full story of this industrial practice has yet to be understood.

The rise of Brasilian Cotton during British Industrial Revolution

Thales Pereira

When and why did Brazilian cotton become important to the Industrial Revolution in Britain? Between 1791 and 1801, Brazilian cotton represented 40 per cent of raw cotton imports in Liverpool, rivalling those from the West Indies. Using archival data between 1760 and 1808, this paper shows that Brazil benefitted from increasing British demand for a new variety of cotton staple that emerged with mechanised textile production. Previous explanations for the rise of Brazilian cotton trade attributed it to the revolutions in the Caribbean in the 1790s, and the American War of Independence, which ended in 1783. Evidence, however, suggests that these explanations are incomplete or incorrect. The United States did not export cotton to Britain before 1790, and British imports from the West Indies did not fall after the revolutions.

When and why did Brazilian cotton become important to the Industrial Revolution in Britain? Between 1791 and 1801, Brazilian cotton represented 40 per cent of raw cotton imports in Liverpool, rivalling those from the West Indies. Using archival data between 1760 and 1808, this paper shows that Brazil benefitted from increasing British demand for a new variety of cotton staple that emerged with mechanised textile production. Previous explanations for the rise of Brazilian cotton trade attributed it to the revolutions in the Caribbean in the 1790s, and the American War of Independence, which ended in 1783. Evidence, however, suggests that these explanations are incomplete or incorrect. The United States did not export cotton to Britain before 1790, and British imports from the West Indies did not fall after the revolutions.

2nd half

Threads of Empire: Native American Arts and Cosmopolitan Material Culture, c. 1780-1880

Beverly Lemire

The history of the industrialization and globalization of textiles is being re-written with attention to the new cloth ecology that emerged. Equally, fabrics themselves are being closely studied in an analysis of threads and the labour supporting these systems. The expectations of consumers and demands of western industries set new benchmarks, especially as combined with the imperial structures this age. The worldwide interactions that dispersed these wares were premised on these new power dynamics, with fabrics that bolstered imperial commercial systems. The common threads that marked these networks defined this era. I consider the material ecology of textiles and textile arts, juxtaposing hegemonic industrial products, like factory-made cotton, with goods made in other circumstances throughout the British Empire, including Native American embroideries and fashionable wares that moved along imperial pathways. This analysis acknowledges the competing power of things feeding imperial cosmopolitanism. It also problematizes fibres and their makers.

The history of the industrialization and globalization of textiles is being re-written with attention to the new cloth ecology that emerged. Equally, fabrics themselves are being closely studied in an analysis of threads and the labour supporting these systems. The expectations of consumers and demands of western industries set new benchmarks, especially as combined with the imperial structures this age. The worldwide interactions that dispersed these wares were premised on these new power dynamics, with fabrics that bolstered imperial commercial systems. The common threads that marked these networks defined this era. I consider the material ecology of textiles and textile arts, juxtaposing hegemonic industrial products, like factory-made cotton, with goods made in other circumstances throughout the British Empire, including Native American embroideries and fashionable wares that moved along imperial pathways. This analysis acknowledges the competing power of things feeding imperial cosmopolitanism. It also problematizes fibres and their makers.

Stratified Clothes, Japanese Entry to East African market and the Shaping of Cotton Fabrics & Wear, 1920-1920s

Miki Sugiura

Fierce competition evoked in penetrating the African cloth/clothing market since the end of 19th century, when Japan entered the market. It is not well-studied that Japanese textile products occupied significant place in the market by 1930s. The questions, what materiality or the attribute of the product was in focus in this process and how the stakeholders shaped and co-created those and invented the product, are even less researched. Using diplomatic and commercial investigation reports of the early Japanese initiatives, this presentation clarifies emerging product stratifications at African markets, and how British, Dutch and Japanese in particular were reacting to the market. It thereby demonstrates the essence of popularization of printed cotton products in the early 20th century.

Fierce competition evoked in penetrating the African cloth/clothing market since the end of 19th century, when Japan entered the market. It is not well-studied that Japanese textile products occupied significant place in the market by 1930s. The questions, what materiality or the attribute of the product was in focus in this process and how the stakeholders shaped and co-created those and invented the product, are even less researched. Using diplomatic and commercial investigation reports of the early Japanese initiatives, this presentation clarifies emerging product stratifications at African markets, and how British, Dutch and Japanese in particular were reacting to the market. It thereby demonstrates the essence of popularization of printed cotton products in the early 20th century.

Spun Silk to Artificial Silk: the 19th and 20th Centuries Accessible Luxury Brought by the Development of Spinning Technology and Synthetic Fibers

Naoko Inoue

After 18th century the desire for cheaper, lighter, thinner fabrics brought the capital-intensive new technologies; mechanized silk spinning and rayon manufacturing. The spinning technology itself is compatible with different fibers and made it possible to realize the cheapest resource combination. Silk was the last fiber to be spun on machines. Spun silk is cheaper than silk, suited to mass-production, enables to pursue the scale-merit, and it still looks good as silk commodities. Up-cycling the waste silk into the mass-consumer goods with a luxurious looking, such as velvet, ribbon, crepe, and Japanese Meisen kimono, the mechanized silk spinning industry brought the accessible luxury both in Europe and Japan in the latter half of 19th century, At the beginning of the 20th century, Rayon took role of spun silk. It was cheaper than spun silk, much more suited to mass-production to utilize scale-merit. More importantly, at this point, women finally freed themselves...

After 18th century the desire for cheaper, lighter, thinner fabrics brought the capital-intensive new technologies; mechanized silk spinning and rayon manufacturing. The spinning technology itself is compatible with different fibers and made it possible to realize the cheapest resource combination. Silk was the last fiber to be spun on machines. Spun silk is cheaper than silk, suited to mass-production, enables to pursue the scale-merit, and it still looks good as silk commodities. Up-cycling the waste silk into the mass-consumer goods with a luxurious looking, such as velvet, ribbon, crepe, and Japanese Meisen kimono, the mechanized silk spinning industry brought the accessible luxury both in Europe and Japan in the latter half of 19th century, At the beginning of the 20th century, Rayon took role of spun silk. It was cheaper than spun silk, much more suited to mass-production to utilize scale-merit. More importantly, at this point, women finally freed themselves from the most desired luxury fabric, silk, keeping the sparkles on them. Rayon was invented in Europe, like spun silk, but it most flourished in U.S. The key to the success of the industry was ‘rapid and ongoing price reduction’ realized by the drastic advance of technology and completion of mass production. Together with the birth of the department stores, the invention of the synthetic dyestuffs, the dissemination of the sewing machine, the development of the ready-to-wear trade, decreasing price of the shiny silk-like textile resulted in consumerism based on appearance rather than function, accelerating fashion cycle with planned obsolescence and advertising.