If modern textile manufacturers wanted to examine the history of textiles, they would learn it began with the handcraft production of cloth, and moved to the industrial revolution in Britain, which was driven by cotton and wool yarn and cloth factories. Ultimately textile manufacturing spread throughout Europe and to America, Japan, China and India.
During the handcraft era, modern textiles came to the west by way of the Middle East during the Middle Ages, as Muslims started cultivating cotton in India. Early textiles containing cotton in Europe were made of cotton fibers called fustian, a combination of cotton and linen. This was used to make clothing and bedding.
The demand for Indian cotton textiles, like the 100 percent cotton calico fabric, increased in the 16th century. European textile makers capitalized on this by making substitutions and having Indian textiles banned.
For centuries spinning yard and weaving cloth remained a manual operation. In England, women and children worked from home, combing cotton with wire brushes and spun it by hand, while the father would weave the cotton on a hand loom. Most of the cloth in England was homemade from wool in Yorkshire and Lancashire. In 1702, a silk mill powered by a water wheel was established in Derby. This was a turning point, as the mill was likely Britain’s first factory, with machinery, a source of power and room for workers.
With the industrial revolution, Britain went to machine production. This was faster, cheaper and yielded textiles that were more uniform in quality. Textile machines made large scale marketing possible and increased the speed of spinning and weaving.
In 1761, England built a spinning machine that could turn fiber into yarn, replacing the hand-operated jersey wheel. In 1769 the water frame was invented to pass the carded cotton between successive pairs of rollers, revolving with greater speed, so a great number of threads, of any degree of fineness and hardness, could be drawn. This made spun thread strong. Running the machines moved from water power to steam engine power.
Textile mills across Britain employed over 5,000 workers by 1782. In 1779, several patents were combined into a “muslin machine” that could spin yarn for making muslin, which was then imported from India.
In 1794, American inventor Eli Whitney patented the cotton gin, which separated the cotton fibers from the seeds. This made short-fiber cotton grown in America the major raw material for the first stage of the industrial revolution. By 1800, the cloth for cheaper and better quality clothing was in demand in Europe and worldwide.
Britain declined as a major textile manufacturer during the mid 20th century because mill owners and union members in the Lancashire cotton industry were pessimistic over the increased international competition from Japan and the Far East. This prevented factory modernization and changes in labor practices. In the end, Britain conceded the superiority of Japanese textile manufacturing.
The United States also had textile mills in Rhode Island using American cotton-spinning technology with machinery. Entrepreneurs determined the operating and gearing ratios necessary to use water power. By 1850, the U.S. had an industrial revolution centered on textiles and use of abundant water power in new England.
In Japan, the development of light industry – cotton spinning and other textiles – was the prototype for the large, modern corporate Japanese enterprises. The market demand and threat of competition from Western enterprises forced Japanese companies to develop efficient organizations and product diversification that led to successful prewar growth.
In China, the first cotton textile factory was opened in1890, which started textile modernization. From 1890 to1937, China was not able to gain control the industry because of foreign investment control. At the time, China lacked the capital, management know-how and techniques, to run a textile factory because they were supplied by Japan and Great Britain. However, the industry managed to expand and had a major impact on the Chinese economy. The new factory system resulted in a move from small-scale family production to mass production. It also accelerated urbanization because the factories required a concentration of workers. The Chinese improved their cotton seed with imports from America. The textile industry was the basis for labor movements and collective bargaining and strikes in China.
In India, the “deindustrialization” of India’s textile industries, is the subject of debate. Some believe colonial rule permanently undermined indigenous production, while others say that handloom weavers were able to adjust to colonial conditions and carved out a new niche for themselves. While handloom weavers as a group faced great competition in the mid-19th century from imported cloths, some producers coped better than others because of specialized product production. The real challenge came in the 20th century when India’s mills subordinated weavers to middlemen as they became dependent on mill-spun yarns.
When the British left India in 1947, the economy was only slightly more industrialized than when they had taken control 100 years earlier. By the end of the 19th century, domestic wool production in India went through a transformation attributable to colonial rule. Arable land needed for sheep was less available, and thus, wool production was limited to areas where sheep could graze. Railways were important in helping to transform weaving from a small-scale household-centered activity to larger factory production. Competition from imported wool led to greater specialization in weaving and spinning, and encouraged the production of finer cloth. These transformations, continued in postcolonial India. In textiles, the most important industry, new recruits were chiefly lower-caste, landless agricultural laborers and handloom weavers – men, women, and children. Despite strikes against long hours and low wages, caste identity remains strong and trade unions were never very effective.