e-book Cotton: The Fabric that Made the Modern World

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Yet the story of cotton textiles is not a recent one. But while the histories of silk, silver and spices are relatively well known, the same cannot be said of cotton, which is often seen as a product of the English Industrial Revolution, a commodity strongly intertwined with the history of European economic growth since the 18th century. To continue reading this article you will need to purchase access to the online archive.

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Google Tag Manager. Cotton, the Social Fabric. In fact Europeans were late-comers and failed miserably several times. Private collection. My response here whilst acknowledging the role of technology, pays attention to other factors as well. Unlike other world areas, the European system did not cultivate its own raw cotton. Climate simply did not allow that. The commodity chain had to be geographically broken as all raw materials had to be imported from another continent.

Cotton for the first time disconnected the agrarian and the manufacturing economies. It allowed an expansion of the manufacturing economies of European countries on a scale that would have been either impossible or disastrous if resources were to be found only internally in England or Europe.

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In my book I consider an industrial revolution in England and in Europe with no cotton—therefore with the same quantity of cloth made of wool or linen. The result is that there would have not been any industrial revolution as we know it. Essentially the elasticity of supply of a vegetable fibre was far superior to an animal fibre like wool or to another vegetable but labour-intensive fibre as flax was.

Even more interesting is to imagine a world in which all the cotton was produced by peasants or slaves in Europe, something that I claim would have changed European agrarian organisation beyond recognition. Yet, any sensible economic historian could point out that at the end of the day machines made the difference.

Steven Johnson

Cotton textile production increased tenfold between and and tenfold again in the following dozen years. Economic historians see this incredible growth as the result of the application of new technologies, something that is hard to dismiss and an opinion I do not contend with.

Yet as to why British and later European producers embraced machinery is hard to explain. My explanation is that technological innovation was sought after but that there was no overall plan or even understanding that it might lead to massive increases in productivity. If there was really an overall rationale in increasing productivity, why not look for technological innovation in woollen production—the major European textile sector? Why instead focus on a small—and one might say insignificant—sector such as cotton manufacturing? She claimsthat the quality of products was key both for governments and entrepreneurs as competitiveness was a function of excellence in manufacturing.

The interpretation is that technologies were sought after in order to produce a product that was as good as the Indian imported cloth. This is why in the French government under the coordination of the intendant du commerce Jacques-Marie-Jerome Michau de Montaran, organised for fifty skilled artisans from the Coromandel coast to relocate to France.

Results were disastrous, to say the least. The sickly and insubordinate Indians managed to produce cloth worth 12, livres against a cost of 41, livres spent to support them. None of the apprentices completed their term and the Indian artisans were sent back to the Coromandel at the end of Sven Beckert, in his recent book, sees it as a capitalist world dominated by force violence and exploitation and power especially of the US as the prime producer of raw cotton. My work is more interested in understanding the world of manufacturing and consumers.

Whilst not denying the evils of slavery and the profits of raw cotton production, my interest is in understanding how and why cotton textiles continued to be such prized commodities worldwide. This was done materially and by selling at low prices. But here the more nuanced forms of cultural power are also important. But most of all it was a system whose prosperity was based on forms of intense global exploitation of natural resources and markets.

And in this sense formal or informal colonialism might be seen as the political face of this.

History of clothing and textiles - Wikipedia

Figure 5. Spinning was portrayed as an activity based on skills, thus visualising the gesture of a hand next to a machine for reeling.


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Beckert, Sven. Empire of Cotton : A Global History. London: Vintage, Blaut, M. New York: Guilford Press, DuPlessis, Robert. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, Ferguson, Niall. Civilization : The West and the Rest. London: Allen Lane, Ghosh, Shami. Hobsbawm, Eric. Industry and Empire : From to the Present Day.


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London: Penguin, Jones, E. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 3rd ed. Landes, S. New York: W. Norton, Morris, Ian. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Parthasarathi, Prasannan. Pomeranz, Kenneth. Princeton: Princeton University Press, Riello, Giorgio and Prasannan Parthasarathi. Oxford: Oxford University Press, Riello, Giorgio and Tirthankar Roy. Leiden: Brill, Riello, Giorgio. Rosenthal, Jean-Laurent and R. Bin Wong. Among the results of this network were two volumes, both published in On the critique of divergence see: P. Kenneth Pomeranz and the Great Divergence.

For critical assessments, see: Joseph M. Norton, ; E. Contents - Next document. Section 2. Global History and Geography. Giorgio Riello. Outline Cotton and the Industrial Revolution. Cotton and Industrialisation Revised.

Full text PDF 2. Private collection Zoom Original png, 1. Bibliography Beckert, Sven.