History in the details: Materials - cotton (part 3)

History in the details: Materials - cotton (part 3)

A brief history by costume and picture expert Jayne Shrimpton

Jayne Shrimpton, Professional dress historian and picture specialist

Jayne Shrimpton

Professional dress historian and picture specialist


As we saw in the February issue, the sale and use of many Indian cottons were prohibited 1721–1780, but calicoes and colourful printed chintzes for garments and furnishings remained fashionable in Georgian Britain, especially among the expanding middle classes. Many were smuggled in, but markets were shifting and by the mid-1700s demand favoured plain Indian cloth finished (printed) in Europe. English manufacturers began to produce printed fustians (fabrics with a cotton weft and linen warp), and by the late 1700s pure cotton textiles.

The efficient British production of large quantities of desirable cotton goods from the mid-18th century onwards, particularly after 1770, was a driving force in what we now term the Industrial Revolution. This was facilitated by well-documented carding, spinning and weaving inventions aimed at streamlining and accelerating output, including John Kay’s flying shuttle (1733), James Hargreaves’ spinning jenny (patented 1770), Richard Arkwright’s water frame (patented 1769), Samuel Crompton’s spinning mule (1779) and Edmund Cartwright’s power loom (1785). With such advanced technology mass production became a reality: when pioneering manufacturers like Richard Arkwright, who established Cromford Mill (1771/2) and Masson Mills (1784) in Derbyshire, first brought machinery and workers together all in one place, they were instigating a revolutionary new factory system.

The successful processing of imported raw cotton required certain conditions, above all a damp atmosphere for binding the fibres and reducing the strain placed on them by machinery. The climate of parts of the Midlands and north-west England (where linen cloth production was already established) proved ideal, hence early water-powered cotton mills were sited in Derbyshire, Lancashire and adjoining districts of Yorkshire and Cheshire – regions where land was also cheap, coal and water plentiful and well connected to the markets and ports of Manchester and Liverpool. In 1770 English cotton exports totalled £200,000 – just 4% of woollen exports; but over the next 30 years all aspects of cotton production became mechanised and by 1802 cotton exports surpassed the value of woollens, becoming essential to the economy while hastening the demise of the centuries-old British woollen industry.

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Cotton had long been a global commodity and its rapid rise in late-Georgian England would not have succeeded were it not also fuelled by a growing population and soaring demand for the convenient, washable fabric that came in many grades at different prices to suit most pockets. As we shall see, not only would the new factory methods of manufacturing cloth transform how past generations worked (and lived); cotton also improved hygiene, changed how many dressed and enabled ordinary working people to engage more closely with fashion.

Robe à l’Anglaise
Printed cotton garments like this surviving chintz ‘Robe à l’Anglaise’ gown c.1780s from MoMu (The Fashion Museum of Antwerp) were fashionable throughout Europe
Cromford Mill in Derbyshire
Richard Arkwright’s water-powered cotton-spinning mill, Cromford Mill in Derbyshire, established 1771/2, was effectively the birthplace of the modern factory system
power loom
The first cotton-weaving mills were fitted with early machinery like this power loom, 1798

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