A History Of Fabric In The UK

How were fabrics first introduced to the UK: A brief history…….


The history of fabric imports into the UK is synonymous with one industrial powerhouse city: Manchester. In fact, Manchester’s fortunes were driven on the back of the textile industry, which became a huge economic driver for 19th-century Britain as a whole. But how did one country become so synonymous with fabric importing and exporting?


A rich textile history


Britain had long been a manufacturer of textiles thanks to the naturally damp and mild climate which allowed sheep farming to flourish. Fine woollen products were long popular, as was the production of linen’s raw flax material, which needs rain to thrive. Even silk was produced in the 17th century – primarily in London – by French protestant artisans who had fled religious persecution.

However, until industrialisation, textile production had largely happened on a small scale to supplement agricultural lifestyles. Production was kept small due to traditional technologies, and to meet the availability of wool. But by 1733, John Kay in Bury had created the flying shuttle and Britain’s colonies were being organised for the import of raw cotton from the world’s most in-demand fabric.


Shaping a nation


At this point, and driven by the allure of high demand and profits, cotton was the fabric of focus for Britain’s mill owners. When the spinning jenny was introduced by Thomas Highs of Lancashire in 1764, traditional spinsters were rapidly put out of work as mechanisation took over. This was rapidly followed by water frames – developed by Richard Arkwright of Lancashire, and Samuel Crompton’s revolutionary dual-roller system that created even, soft and fine cotton filaments. As a result of these innovations, just one operator in a mill was needed to manage over 1,000 spindles at any time.


The centre of the cotton world


Bolton in Lancashire suddenly became the global epicentre of fine cotton production, produced in large factories that used mules and cheap labour. The first power loom followed in 1785 and by the 1790s, cotton demand was being met from slave-worked American plantations. When the first cotton gin was created by Eli Whitney of New England, raw cotton could be cleaned rapidly, and Britain’s industrial revolution had the ingredients that it needed to launch into action. At the same time, the raw materials needed to meet this demand were being imported into the country by a vast network of ships, and Britain’s ports teemed with activity.


A cotton powerhouse


By the 1850s, and thanks to this vast influx of cotton from Britain’s colonies in India, Egypt and from slave plantations in the USA, the country was responsible for producing over half of the world’s total cotton from its huge mills that dominated the Northern landscape. Styal’s Quarry Bank Mill in Cheshire was solely responsible for producing 0.6% of global cotton demand. Colony-driven imports meant that Britain’s mills could produce increasingly fashionable calico, muslin and chintz that clothed the growing middle-classes and furnished stylish homes.

Steam engines were used to drive water and machinery, and Lancashire, Nottinghamshire, Yorkshire and Derbyshire became powerhouses of the world’s cotton production. This period was synonymous with social and economic change. While today the thought of young children working in mills seems unthinkable, in 1784, records show that nearly half of the mill’s workers were aged between 7 and 21 and apprenticed over 7 years without pay, or for extremely low wages. Why children? Because their small sizes made them able to scramble under the fast-moving and dangerous looms to re-tie broken threads and to clean them.

And so continued a thriving period of prosperity for Britain’s cotton industry, with thousands of workers employed across hundreds of mills, and countless numbers of unpaid, low-paid or slave labour used across the colonies to produce raw cotton for import. This continued until the late 1800s when the effects of economic fluctuation, the American Civil War and the effects of unemployment and uncertain imports really made their mark.

Today, Quarry Bank Mill is still a fantastic visitor attraction that has been preserved by the National Trust. It tells a rich story of British innovation at its best, combined with an often shocking social history – and a trade which helped to change the world. Cities such as Manchester still bear the marks of an economy shaped by the cotton industry, and today fabric imports from Asia are flowing back into the UK’s factories to produce quality clothes with fine designs. The story of Britain’s love affair with fabrics continues, and cotton is still one of the most popular materials in use today.


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