Cloth Merchant Textile Indusry

In the 18th Century the production of textiles was the most important industry in Britain. Most of the work was carried out in the home and was often combined with farming. Most cloth was made from either wool or cotton, but other materials such as silk and flax were also used.

The woven cloth was sold to merchants called clothiers who visited the village with their trains of pack-horses. The clothiers then took the finished cloth to the nearest market town. The largest market in the England was held in Leeds. Some of the cloth was made into clothes for people living in this country. However, a large amount of cloth was exported.

Generally speaking, the spinning work is performed by the poor people who live in villages and scattered houses. The clothiers, who generally live in the towns, send out the wool weekly to the spinners. At the same time, the clothiers' servants and horses bring back the yarn that they the spinners have spun and finished.

Each clothier must keep a horse, perhaps two, to fetch and carry for the use of his manufacture, to fetch home his wool and his provisions from the market, to carry his yarn to the spinners, his manufacture to the fulling mill, and, when finished, to the market to be sold.

In the 17th century the extent of mercantile establishments, and the modes of doing business, were extremely different from what they are at present. Commercial enterprise was exceedingly limited. Owing to the bad state of the roads, and the entire absence of inland navigation, goods could only be conveyed on packhorses.

Leeds is a large, wealthy and populous town, it stands on the north bank of the River Aire, or rather on both sides of the river, for there is a large suburb or part of the town on the south side of the river, and the whole is joined by a stately and prodigiously strong stone bridge, so large, and so wide, that formerly the cloth market was on the bridge itself. The increase in the manufacturers and of the trade, soon made the market too great to be confined to the bridge, and it is now kept in the high street, beginning from the bridge, and running up north almost to the market house, where the ordinary market for provisions begin.

The market is here twice a week. At seven the market bell rings (in the summer earlier, in the depth of winter a little later). It would surprise a stranger to see in how a few minutes, without hurry or noise, and not the least disorder, the whole market is filled; all the boards upon the tressels are covered with cloth, close to one another as the pieces can lie long ways by one another, and behind every piece of cloth, the clothier standing to sell it.

Merchants in Leeds go all over England with droves of pack horses, and to all the fairs and market towns all over the whole island. Other buyers of cloth send it to London. They not only supply shopkeepers and wholesale men in London but for exportation to the English colonies in America and to merchants in Russia, Sweden, Holland and Germany.

Cloth Merchant Textile Indusry - History

Worn in this way in India, the shawl was essentially a male garment its degree of fineness was traditionally accepted as a mark of nobility. Although a garment so simple in shape and form undoubtedly has a long history in the Near East,3 the finest shawls of the modern era are synonymous with the name of Kashmir.

The origins of the industry in Kashmir are obscure. According to local legend, recorded more than a hundred years ago,4 the founder was Zain-ul-’Abidin. (A.D. 1420-70), whom historians have called the Akbar of Kashmir, in recognition of his enlightened rule and promotion of public works. Zain-ul-’Abidin was said to have introduced Turkistan weavers for the purpose. Although unproved, this suggestion is of some significance, for when we come to accounts of the industry in the early nineteenth century we find that one feature distinguishing it from traditional weaving in India proper is the technique employed. This technique has parallels in Persia and Central Asia but nowhere on the Indian sub-continent as far as evidence is available. Western textile historians have called it the twill-tapestry technique, because of its similarity in some respects to the technique traditionally employed in Europe for tapestry weaving. According to this, the wefts of the patterned part of the fabric are inserted by means of wooden spools (Kashmiri, tojli) without the use of a shuttle. Weft threads alone form the pattern these do not run the full width of the cloth, being woven back and forth round the warp thread only where each particular colour is needed. In other respects, the Kashmir technique differs from tapestry weaving, the loom being horizontal instead of vertical, and its operation more like brocading.

Applied to shawls, the twill-tapestry technique was slow and laborious and demanded a high degree of specialization. The traditional practice was for the patterned section of a shawl to be produced on a single loom (the field, if plain, being woven separately on a simple loom with shuttle). In the case of a rich design, this meant that a shawl might take eighteen months or more to complete. In the early nineteenth century, however, when designs became more elaborate and training methods more competitive, a new practice was introduced of dividing the work of a single shawl among two or more looms. In this way, a design which had formerly occupied one loom for eighteen months could now be produced by two looms in nine months, or by three looms in correspondingly less, and so on. After the various parts of a design had been separately woven, they were handed over to the needleworker (rafugar) who joined them together, the joins being executed with such subtlety and fineness that it is often impossible to detect them with a naked eye. In 1821, Moorcroft described this method of distributing work among several looms as a recent introduction.5 He mentioned as many as eight looms being engaged on a single shawl but later in the century this number was often exceeded, and there was one report of a shawl being assembled from 1,500 separate pieces.6 These are sometimes called “patchwork shawls”.

Another important innovation introduced at the beginning of the nineteenth century was the amli or needle worked shawl, which was ornamented entirely with the needle on a plain woven ground. (It must be added, however, that even the tilikar or loom-woven shawls often betray some signs of needlework because a rafugar or embroiderer was usually responsible for the final touching-up of the loom-woven pattern. This touching-up sometimes included the reinforcing of colours where needed, and occasionally even more fundamental modifications to the design). The type of shawl with an entirely needle worked pattern, however, was unknown in Kashmir before the nineteenth century. It was introduced at the instigation of an Armenian named Khwaja Yusu, who had been sent to Kashmir in 1803 as the agent of a Constantinopole trading firm. It had not previously occurred to merchants that simulation of the loom-woven patterns by the much simpler process of needle-embroidery on a plain ground required very much less time and skill, and consequently less outlay. The ingenious Khawaja Yusuf saw his chance, and with the help of a seamster by the name of Ali Baba produced the first needle-worked imitations for the market at one-third of the cost of the loom-woven shawls.7 Besides this enormous saving in production costs, the needle-worked shawls at first escaped the Government duty levied on the loom woven shawl, which in 1823 amounted to 26 per cent of the value. As a result, enormous profits were made, and this branch of the industry expanded rapidly. In 1803 there were only a few rafugars or embroiderers available with the necessary skill for the work. Twenty years later, there were estimated to be five thousand, may of them having been drawn from the ranks of former landholders,8 dispossessed of their property by Ranjit Singh in 1819, when Kashmir was invaded and annexed to the Sikh kingdom.

A cloth intended to serve as the ground of an amli or embroidered shawl was first placed on a plank and rubbed with a piece of highly-polished agate or cornelian, until perfectly smooth. After this, the design was transferred from paper to the cloth by pouncing with coloured powder or charcoal. For the needle-work, stem stitches as flat as possible against the ground (and therefore similar to the woven patterns), care was taken to nip up individual threads of the warp in the stitching. Moorcroft described the needle-work of the first amli shawls as being less perfect and having the raised or embossed appearance of traditional Indian chain-stitch work, the improved method being learned subsequently from embroiderers of Kirman province in Persia.9 Needle-worked shawls were made throughout the nineteenth century, and apart from these simulating loom-woven patterns, many were made with scenes depicting human figures, which will be discussed later in the section devoted to style. It is important to add here, however, that after about 1850 there was a marked deterioration in the technique of many ‘amli shawls-particularly those with human figures-and some of the embroiderers resorted to a comparatively coarse chain-stitch, sometimes executed on a cotton ground.10

The material traditionally used for Kashmir shawls weaving was fleece derived from a central Asian species of the mountain goat. Capra hircus. This was popularly known in the West either as pashmmina (from Persian pashm, meaning in fact any kind of wool) or cashmere, from the old spelling of Kashmir. The latter term is particularly misleading, because all shawl-wool used in Kashmir was imported from Tibet or Central Asia in the first place and was not at any time produced locally.

The fleece was grown by the animal as a natural protection against the severities of the winter climate of those regions. It appeared beneath the rough outer hair-the finest being derived from the under-belly-and was shed on the approach of summer. Although goats were the main producers of shawl-wool, a similar fleece was derived from wild Himalayan mountain sheep such as the Shapo (Ovis orientals vignei blythi), the Argali (Ovis ammon linnaeus), and the Bharal (Pseudois nayaur hogson).11 It was even claimed that Tibetan shepherds’ dogs sometimes grew the same fleece.12

Most of the fleece reaching Kashmir belonged to one of two distinct grades. The best and most renowned for its soft silkiness and warmth was known as asli tus, which was derived only from the wild animals, collected from rocks and shrubs against which the animals rubbed themselves on the approach of warm weather. The extreme fineness of this grade was probably due to the greater heights at which the animals wintered, and it was this material which gave rise to well-known stories of shawls being so fine that they could be drawn through a thumb-ring-the so-called “ring shawls” of Mughal fame.13 However, the number of shawls woven in pure asli tus was probably never more than a very small proportion of the total, owing to its comparative scarcity, the higher import duties charged upon it, and the much greater time and effort required for its cleaning and spinning. In 1821, the annual imports of asli tus wre said to constitute less than one-sixth oif the total bulk of other shawl-wool imports, and in the whole of Kashmir there were only two looms specializing exclusively in the weaving of pure asli tus. 14

The second grade of shawl-wool was derived from domesticated goats of the same species, and this provided the bulk of the raw material for Kashmir looms. Prior to 1800, most of it came from Ladakh and western Tibet. Shortly after the turn of the century, however, there was an epidemic among goats in these areas, and henceforth supplies were derived mainly from herds kept by nomadic Kirghiz tribes and imported through Yarkand and Khotan. In the second half of the century the main source was Sinkiang, and in particular Turfan.15 As supplies at this period were seldom enough to meet demand, goat- fleece became increasingly expensive in relation to other wool. This encouraged adulteration and general falling off in traditional standards, which was undoubtedly one of the factors contributing to the decline of the shawl trade in the 1860s, to be discussed later.

Organization Of The Industry

The earliest detailed account of the Kashmir shawl industry is that written by William Moorcroft between 1820 and 1823, preserved in manuscript at the Library of the old India Office (now the Commonwealth Relations Office), Whitehall, London. These reveal a situation in which division of labour was far advanced to the extent of twelve or more independent specialists being involved in the making of a single shawl.

First among these were the spinners, who were women working in their own homes.16 The raw material was given to them in a very dirty condition, their first task being to separate it into fine fleece, inferior fleece, and hair. The fine fleece constituted only about one-third of the total weight, and this had to be further divided into two grades of fineness, the second being known as phiri or seconds wool, which was reserved for inferior shawls. The yarns were spun into lengths of about 2,500 yards, then doubled and twisted, and for this work the spinners earned a maximum of about one and a half annas or three-halfpence a day.17

The Pattern-drawer (naqqash) and his implements.
Painted by a native artist, C. 1823.
Indian Office Library, Oriental Vol. 71
The dyers constituted another separate group, buying and selling yarn independently. Moorcroft quotes them as saying that in Mughal times more than three hundred tints were in regular use 18 but by the beginning of the nineteenth century when he was writing this number had been reduced to sixty-four. Most of these were vegetable dyes: blues and purples from indigo orange and yellow from carthamus and saffron reds mainly from logwood. But other sources were also used, including cochineal for crimson, and iron filings for black. Oddly enough, greens were said to have been extracted from imported English baizes or broadcloths, which were boiled for the purpose.19

Before weaving could begin at least six other specialists were involved. These were the warp-maker, warp-dresser, warp- threader, pattern-drawer, colour-caller and pattern-master.

It was the warp-maker’s job to twist the yarn into the required thickness for the warp (usually 2,000 to 3,000 double-threaded warps being required for a shawl) the warp-dresser’s to starch the warps, and the warp-threader’s to pass the yarns through the heddles of the loom.

The importance of the pattern-drawer, or naqqash, is indicated by the fact that he received the highest pay-far higher even than that of the weaver.20 Pattern-drawers were few in number, and in the second half of the century, when the industry was very much expanded, the art was still said to be confined to only five or six families. 21 The pattern-drawer sometimes coloured his own drawing, but usually choice and disposition of colour were left to the colour-caller (tarah guru). With a black-and-white drawing before him, the colour-caller, beginning at the bottom and working upwards, called out each colour, the number of warps along which it was required to extend, and so on, until the whole pattern or section pattern had been covered. This was taken down by the pattern-master (ta’lim guru) and transcribed into a kind of shorthand intelligible to the weaver.

Besides those who prepared the warps of the main part of the shawl, an entirely separate group of specialists prepared the silk warps of the narrow outer borders or edgings. The use of silk warps for these parts was intended to give them more body or stiffness so that the

Talim or coded Pattern Guide as used by Kashmir Shawl Makers.
Acquired in Kashmir in 1881
Victoria & Albert Museum, I. M. 33-1924
shawl would hang better. However, this had the disadvantage of causing uneven shrinkage and sometimes spoiling the shape of a shawl when washed.

The weavers were all men, foremost among whom were the ustads who owned the looms. The cost of a shawl-loom in the early nineteenth century varied from one and a half to five rupees (approximately 3s. to 10s.), and a ustad might own anything from three to three hundred looms, each normally employing three operators.22

There were two main systems of contract between the ustad and those who worked his looms. One was based on piecework, whereby the weavers received a fixed sum for every hundred spools passed round as many warps (allowing a maximum earning in Moorcroft’s time of about one anna or a penny a day per man, increasing to about double this sum in 1870).23 A second system was based on partnership, whereby the loom-owner advanced the loom and raw materials and took one-fifth of the net proceeds of sale.

Design from a Shawl-weaver's pattern book. Acquired in Kashmir in 1881
Victoria and Albert Museum, I. M. 32-1924
The spools or tojlis with which the weavers worked in places of shuttles were made of light smooth wood and had both ends charred to prevent their becoming rough or jagged in use. Each spool held about three grains of yarn and the number used in the weaving of a pattern varied from 400 to 1,500, according to degree of elaboration. In the process of weaving, a cloth was faced downwards and the weaver inserted his spools from the reverse side. After each line of weft had been completed to his satisfation, the comb was brought down “down” with a vigour and repetition of stroke which appear disproportionately great to the delicacy of the materials.24 One of the ways by which merchants determined the quality or standard of weaving was by counting the number of comb-strokes or wefts to the girah (one-sixteenth of a yard).

In 1821, Moorfcroft wrote that there were sometimes as many as fifty looms in a single house, though more commonly not half this number.25 Later in the century, however, a hundred or more looms were sometimes concentrated together. “I went to inspect one of the largest manufacturies in Kashmir,” wrote a traveller in the 1860s. “The proprietor, a Mohammedan, employs 300 hands. His house is a handsome, three- storied building, well aired and lighted, and the workers are seated at their looms like clerks at their desks. 󈭮

Moorcroft described the main profit-makers of the industry not as the loomowners but as the mohkuns or shawl-brokers, who were intermediaries between the producers and foreign merchants. Later, as the result of the concentration of loom-ownership into fewer hands, there arose a new class in the form of owners of large manufacturies, known as karkhanadars. The term ustad was then applied to those who worked as foremen or supervisors for the Karkhanadar.27

Plate 4 End-borders of a shawl: loom-woven, Kashmir, early eighteenth century
The weavers were the most oppressed section of the industry, the majority being depicted as ill-clothed, under-nourished, and permanently in debt. Moorcroft wrote that without the supplementary earnings of wife and children the average weaver could not even support a family.

After Kashmir had been handed over by the British to the Maharaja Gulab Singh in 1846, conditions for the weavers deteriorated even further. The Maharaja levied a poll-tax of Rs. 47-8-0 per annum on each shawl-weaver28 and in order to ensure a constant income from this course he introduced a law forbidding any weaver-whether half blind or otherwise incapacitated-to relinquish his loom without finding a substitute ( a condition almost impossible to fulfil). On top of this, an ad valorem duty of 25 per cent was charged on each shawl, and its assessment and collection was farmed out to a corrupt body of officials, whose own illegal exactions were said to have amounted to a further 25 per cent of the value.29

Plate 8 Fragment of Shawl:loom-woven, Kashmir, late eighteenth century
In face of such oppression, hundreds of weavers adopted the dangerous course of fleeing the country - an escape made difficult by the limited number of mountain passes and the fact that they were guarded. As a measure of the despair which drove weavers to this course, it must be remembered that it involved deserting their families and the knowledge that they would be victimized as hostages.30

Those who sucessfully escaped settled in Punjab towns such as Lahore, Amritsar Ludhiana, Nurpur, Gurdasput, Sialkot, Gujarat, Kangra and Simla, all of which produced their own “Kashmir” shawls. Shawl weaving had been established at Lahore (probably by Kashmiri immigrants) at least as early as Akbar’s reign (A.D. 1556-1605),31 and in the mid-seventeenth century the French traveller Bernier also mentioned Agra and Patna in this connection. He added that the shawls woven in these cities were inferior in softness and texture to genuine Kashmirs, which he attributed to the poorer quality of the water of the plains.32 A more likely reason was the difficulty of obtaining the best goat-fleece. For centuries Kashmir had monopolized the main sources of supply, and owing to the lack of suitable passes linking Central Asia with the plains of Northern India it was difficult to divert supplies.33 As a result, shawl-weavers working in the plains were often compelled to adulterate goat-fleece with Kirman sheep’s wool.34

The earliest documentary references to the Kashmir shawl industry appear in literature of Akbar’s reign (A.D. 1556-1605), but unfortunately they throw no light on style.

Plate 13 Piece of Shawl-Cloth loom-woven, Kashmir, Late eighteenth or early nineteenth century
In the Ain-i-Akbari, of Institutes of Akbar, the Emperor is revealed as a keen admirer of the shawls who not only kept his wardrobe well stocked with them but introduce the fashion of wearing them in pairs (dashala), stitched back-to-back, so that the undersides were never visible.35 From the same source we learn that Kashmirs were already at this period renowned as gifts and sent to distant countries.36

There are indications that the shawls most coveted during the early Mughal period were embellished with gold and silver thread. In 1630, Manrique described the finest examples as having “borders ornamented with fringes of gold, silver and silk thread. They (the Princes and Nobles) wear them like cloaks, either muffling themselves up in them or else carrying them under their arms. These choice cloths are of white colour when they leave the loom, but are afterwards dyed any hue desired and are ornamented with various coloured flowers and other kinds of decoration, which make them very gay and showy”.37 Shawls of this type are often mentioned in the early records of the English East India Company as being useful articles of bribery. Sometimes they were offered by native officials to the Europeans, and Sir Thomas Row, James I’s ambassador to the Mughal court, records in characteristic language how he indignantly rejected such a bribe offered by the Governor of Surat soon after his arrival in 1616: “And pressing me to take a Gold Shalh, I answered we were but newly friends: when I saw any constancy in his carriage and the money paid, I would be more free with him, yet I would receive no obligation. ” 38

Plate 15 Detail of a shawl
In 1866, Bernier wrote that shawls measured about 5 ft. by 2 1/2 ft. and had plain fields, decoration being limited to the end-borders or heads, which were less than one foot in depth. 39 This shallowness of the end- borders appears to have been characteristic until the beginning of the neneteenth century when , as will be shown, they were suddenly enlarged. Thevenot Bernier’s contemporary mentions that the ground colour varied, but that Hindus favoured follimort or deaf-leaf (de feuille-morte).40

The earliest surviving shawl-piece in a public collection is a fragment preserved in the Calico Museum of Textiles, Ahmedabad (Plate 1). It consists of part of an end-border with a repeat of delicate, freely-spaced flowering plants, rendered in the semi-naturalistic style of the late seventeenth century. Shawls with similar end-borders are often depicted in portraits of the Golconda School of painting, a typical example being the portrait of Qutb-Shah at Illus. No. 1, facing p. 6.

At this period the characteristic motive of Kashmir shawl-design was a slender flowering plant with roots (Fig. 1).41 It combined the grace and delicacy of Persian floral ornament (from which it was ultimately derived) with the naturalism characteristic of seventeenth-century Mughal art. In the early eighteenth century, this simple floral motive was treated more formally, and the number of flowers stemming from a single plant increased (Fig. 2). At about the same time it ceased to be depicted as a flower with roots and merged with another well-known Indo Persian decorative motive-the conventional vase-of flowers. Many of the eighteenth century forms betray their dual origin by retaining both the vase and the appearance of root-growth. The name given to these floral motives was buta, meaning literally ‘flower’, and it was not until the middle of the eighteenth centrury that the outline of the motive began to harden into the rigid formal shape which later come to be known in the West as the cone or pine (but still unknown in Kashmir as buta). Although this motive had antecedents in Near Eastern textile patterns of the seventh or eighth centuries A.D. the cone in the varied forms in which it became associated with shawls was clearly the product of separate development.

Plate 14 Shawl: loom woven, Kashmir early nineteenth century
Independently of the Kashmir buta, another type of cone based on the leaf-form appeared more or less simultaneoulsly in Persian decorative art. This Persian form had an important influence on the subsequent development of the Kashmir cone, giving rise to a variety of cone forms which were common to Indo-Persian art of the period.

A further stage was reached in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, when the Kashmir cone began to lose trace of its naturalistic, floral origin and became a purely conventional form (Fig. 6). This prepared the way for a final stage of abstraction when the cone became elongated and transformed into a scroll-like unit as part of a complicated over-all patterrn (Fig. 8).

As guides to dating, the different stages in the development of the cone must be regarded with caution. Because a certain form came into vogue at a certain period, it did not necessarily follow that earlier types were supeseded. In fact, it often happened that the older well-tried motives and patterns outlived new.

Kashmir shawls were first worn in fashionable circles in the West in the third quarter of the eighteenth century, and by 1800 the shawl trade between Kashmir and the West was well established. The appearance of European agents in Kashmir added fresh colour to an already cosmopolitan scene. “At this city”, wrote Moorcroft from the capital, Srinagar, in 1822. “I find merchants from Gela and from other cities of Chinese Turkestan, from Uzbek, Tartary, from Kabul, from Persia, from Turkey, and from the provinces of British India engaged in purchasing and in waiting for the getting up of shawl goods differing as to quality and pattern in conformity to the taste of the markets for which they are intended in a degree probably not suspected in Europe.󈭾 Some indication of the diversity of taste for which the Kashmiri weaver catered is indicated by the descriptions of shawl-goods given Appendix II, compiled by Moorcroft during his three-year investigation into the shawl industry. In the preparation of designs for the Western market, one merchant in particular-an Armenian named Khwaja Yusuf (already mentioned as the originator of the ‘amli or needle-worked shawl, p. 3)- appears to have had an important influence. He had been sent to Kashmir in 1803 by a trading firm at Constantinople, in order to have shawls made according to patterns that he took with him.43

Plate 18 Girdle: loom woven, Kashmir, early nineteenth century
Khwaja Yusuf’s original idea in introducing the needle-worked shawl was to simulate and undersell the loom-woven patterns. About 1830, however, the needle-workers began producing a distinct style of design with human figures, usually illustrating one of the well-known poetical romances of Indo-Persian literature, such as the Khamsa (“Five Poems”) of Nazami (See Plate 23), and the “Iyar-i danish (“Criterion of Knowledge”) of Abu’l Fazal. It was said that Tanjit Singh (who held dominion over Kashmir from 1819 to 1839) especially admired scenes illustrating his victories (only one of which was completed).44 Later in the century ‘amli shawls were sometimes embroidered in the form of a map of the capital, Srinagar. 45

The nineteenth-century popularity of the Kashmir shawl in Europe undoubtedly owed much to romantic associations with the ‘mysterious and unchanging East’. The new popular journalism of the period was always ready to foster such associations, and this led to the publication of innumerable articles by unqualified authorities setting out to explain the alleged antiquity of Kashmir motives and patterns and even ascribing to them an elaborate symbolism. Typical of them is an article which appeared in the magazine Household Words, founded by Charles Dickens: “If an article of dress could be immutable, it would be the (Kashmir) shawl designed for eternity in the unchanging East copied from patterns which are the heirlooms of caste and woven by fatalists, to be worn by adorers of the ancient garment, who resent the idea of the smallest change. 46 Repetition of such nonsense over a long period had its effect. On the one hand, it belied the true character of the Kashmir industry as a living and developing tradition adaptable to changing conditions and on the other, it obscured the important influence exercised upon those changes by European taste.

One way of tracing the development of Kashmir designs in the nineteenth century is by examining shawls depicted in contemporary European portrait painting and costume engravings. These show that the shawl most popular in the first two decades was of rectangular shape with a plain field and large seminaturalistic floral cones in the borders. 47 Examples are often depicted in French portraits of the period, particularly in the works of Ingres whose portrait of Mme. Riviera, painted in 1805, is reproduced at Illus. No. 6, facing p. 26. Similar shawls feature in his protraits of Mme. la Comtesse de Touron (1812), Mme. de Senonnes (1814), Baronne Popenheim (1818), and the Stamaty Family (1818).48

A distinctive feature of the cone at this period was its streamer-like bending tip, reminiscent of the earlier cypress-and-almond-tree motive of Persian art 49. By 1815, the semi-naturalistic floral cone had begun to give way to a more formal, abstract type (Figs. 6 and 7). Shawls with a diapered or trellised field were also coming into favour, and among these was the square shawl with a medallion in the centre and quarter medallions at each corner, known as the chand-dar or ‘moon-shawl’. In 1823, Moorcroft remarked that Persian taste favoured shawls in which the pattern ‘almost completely covers and conceals the colour of the ground’ and this probably refers to shawls of the type shown at Plates 20 and 21.

The mid-nineteenth century was a period of great prosperity for the merchants and dealers, and also one of artistic decline, when foreign taste increasingly dominated shawl design. The French were the main instigators, and it was in the year 1850 that the first French agents arrived in Kashmir with a mission to improve the traditional designs.50 In the following decade, many visitors to Kashmir reported-sometimes with approval but more often with alarm-that “French patterns and new colours, such as magnenta, are beginning to prevail over the genuine Indian designs.51 One of these accounts is perhaps worth quoting in full:

Plate 22 Scarf or girdle: embroidered with a needle, Kashmir, c. 1830
“The great estimation in which Cashmere shawls are held in France, and the consequent demand for them, have induced some of the large houses in that country to keep agents in Srinagar (Srinagar, captial of Kashmir). One result of this is that the French design patterns in Paris and send them out to Cashmere for execution. Although these designs are all in the oriental style, they are no improvement upon the old work of the native. “The French patterns”, says Mr. Simpson, who brought to the country an experienced artistic eye, “ were perhaps purer than the old they contained more free and sweeping lines, but they wanted the mediaeval richness of the native taste. It may be described as the difference between a piece of Rococo ornament and what an artist of the thirteenth centruy would have produced. There was a distinguishing character about the original style which is being rubbed out by this foreign influence”.52

From other accounts we learn that the weavers themselves resented this foreign interference. “At first (and in fact until within a few years) much difficulty was experienced in persuading the native designers to alter or amend their patterns. They were attached to their old style and would not accept alteration but now this difficulty has been overcome and the weavers are willing to adopt hints, in fact they now seldom begin to work till the pattern has been inspected or approved by the agent for whom they work.53

Although Simpson’s explanation of the French contribution to Kashmir design is not very clear in expression or terminology, it nevertheless gives important clues. In referring to the ‘mediaeval richness’ of the traditional as opposed to the French patterns he probably had in mind the marginal ornament of mediaeval European illuminated manuscripts, before which the eye is made to wander restlessly, in convolutions, in marked contrast to what he calls ‘free and sweeping lines’ of the French or ‘rococco’ style, so characteristic of the late designs of both Kashmir and European shawls.

Plate 23 Scarf or girdle: embroidered with a needle, Kashmir, c. 1840
European intervention in the preparation of designs was so general at this period that when Kashmir shawls were shown at the contemporary international exhibitions of ‘art and manufactures’, the European agent who commissioned a shawl was given full credit for the design. At the Exhibition of Punjab manufactures held at Lahore in 1873, first prize was awarded to an Amritsar shawl designed by an Englishman, Mr. R. Chapman.54

Between 1850 and 1860, shawl exports to Europe more than doubled, far exceeding the total estimated output of the whole industry at the beginning of the century,55 In the following decade, however, there was a sudden contraction in the market. The average Kashmir shawl of that time (such as the example shown at Plate 52) was no longer equal to the best products of the Jacquard looms of Lyons and Paisley (Plates 48, 49 and 51), and yet were more expensive to buy. On top of this decline came the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, resulting in the closure of the French market for Kashmirs, and the simultaneous and quite sudden eclipse of the shawl as an article of fashion. From being the pride of every girl at ther marriage and coming-of-age, the shawl was relegated to the grandmother’s wardrobe. As a result, the Kashmir industry, so long geared to Western demands, was doomed. Collapse of trade was followed by the severe famine of 1877-79, when shawl-weavers were said to have ‘died like flies’. Most of the survivors, having hands so refined and delicately adjusted to the technigue of shawl-weaving that they were useless for most other occupations, subsequently died in destitution.56 Only the needle-workers experienced temporary respite, adapting themselves to the embroidering of coverlets, table-cloths and similar goods for the tourist market. Within a generation of its final phase of prosperity the shawl industry was dead, and the art of its weavers irrecoverably lost.

Fragment of a Shawl-cloth, Loom-woven, Kashmir
Sometimes, when a merchant was dissatisfied with a finished shawl, he cut out certain sections of the patterns and ordered others to be substituted. In this way, the whole appearance of a shawl was sometimes changed while in the merchant’s hands.57

In the 1860s Kashmir produce the reversible shawl, the pattern being identical on both sides of the cloth. This did not reflect any significant departure in the technique, but was achieved by skilful trimming of the loose weft threads on the reverse side, and the outlining of all the main details in the pattern by needlework. The example at Plate 33 was shown at the Paris Exhibition of 1867 and bears its original exhibition label which reads: “Scarf of quite a new fabric. Shows the same on both sides. Sent by Diwan Kirpa ram,58 Kashmir. Price: 37 12s Od.”

From about the second quarter of the nineteenth century, Kashmir had to face competition from Persia59 but lacking the former’s longer experience of patterned shawl-weaving, the Persians were never able to produce shawls of comparable quality. There were two types of Persian shawls which have to be mentioned. The first is woven in the same twill-tapestry technique, the patterns being influenced by those of Kashmir but at the same time distinguished by bolder floral treatment and more architectural emphasis in design. Moreover, the predominant colour is a rather deep red not at all characteristic of Kashmir. A few specimens of this type survive in museum collections, usually in the form of coverlets or prayermats.60

The second type of Persian shawl which competed with Kashmir in the nineteenth century was known as the Hussain Quili Khan. These are even more easily distinguishable by the fact that they were woven in silk on harness-looms, the unused sections of the wefts on the underside being left floating. In pattern, they are often copies of Kashmir fabrics, and the Victoria and Albert Museum possesses two pieces-a Hussain Quil Khan and a Kashmir piece-which are identical in pattern.61

Besides woven imitations Persia also produced embroidered shawls in the Kashmir style. The fact that such shawls bear Persian inscriptions is not in itself an indication of Persian origin, because the Persian script was in common use in Kashmir.

1Pietro della Valle, II p. 248

2This definition applies for the purposes of this study. Shawls made entirely of silk cotton or materials other than wool are therefore excluded.

3Heredotus, in the fifth century B.C., described Egyptians as wearing a woolen garment in terms which indicate a shawl (Book II, 81).

4Baron Charles Hugel, p. 118.

6 Colonel J.A. Grant, quoted in Kashmir and its shawls (Anonymous) , p. 48.

7 Moorcroft, MSS. Sur. 113 pp. 33ff.

8 MSS. Eur. D. 260 p. 4. See Also MSS. Eur. E. 113, and D. 264.

9 The fact of the matter is that late ‘amli shawls’ are very variable in quality. A possible explanation is that the coarser kinds were made in the Punjab by less skilled hands.

10 To add to the confusion over the use of the term cashmere, the Birth textile trade has now adopted a new definition unrelated to the raw material. According to the Director of the Shirley Institute, Manchester “the term is used to describe, a certain type of cloth formerly woven from yarns spun from goat fibres”, and he includes cloth woven with any high-quality wool yarn. “The weave must be 2/1 weft twill with a larger number of picks that ends per inch, giving what is also known as the “cashmere twill” or “plain back” (From a letter to the author dated 19-3-1954).

11 Moorcroft, MSS. Eur. E. 113.

12 G.T. Vigne, II, 124, and C.E. Bates, p. 55.

14 Moorcroft, MSS. Eur. D. 260, pp. 1-2.

17 Moorcroft, MSS. Eur, E. 113, p. 7.

18 Ibid., Eur.F. 38, letter dated 21-5-1820.

19 Vigne, II, p. 127 and Moorcroft, MSS. Eur. E. 113,p. 10.

20 According to Moorcroft, pattern-drawers earned from 2 to 8 annas a day according to skill, compared with the weaver’s maximum of 1 anna a day ( one penny).

22 Only two operators when a very simple pattern was involved.

24 Moorcroft, MSS, Eur. E. 113, p. 17.

26 Colonel Grant quoted in Kashmeer and its shawls (Anonymous) p. 48.

28 A reduction of Rs. 2/- was made in 1867.

29 C.E. Bates, pp. 54-7. and R. Thorp.passim.

31 Ain-i-Akbari,I,32. See also Palsaert, p. 36. and Manrique, I.p. 429.

37 Marique, I, 428-9. These of course bear no relation to the comparatively coarse shawl-goods embroidered with gold thread in the Kashmir style, and produced in the Punjab in the late nineteenth century.

41O. Falke, fig. 35 and A.C. Weibel, fi1.

42 Moorcroft, MSS. Eur. G. 28, letter dated 12th November 1822.

45 A map-shawl, embroidered in 1870, was published in the Magazine of Art, London, Vol. 25, 1901, pp. 452-3.

46 Household Words, 28th August, 1852.

47 The Frenchman, Rey, writing in 1823, stated that prior to this period the cone was neer more thatn nine inches in height. J. Rey, p. 146.

48Textiles historians usually refer to this motive as the cypress ‘bent by the wind’ in fact it represents the natural form of the treek, the topmost shoots of which always bend.

51 Colonel J.A. Grant, quoted in Kashmeer and its shawls (Anonymous), p. 48.

52 William Simpson, India ancient and modern, p. 5.

53 Letter from an Amritsar shawl agent, quoted by B.H. Powell, p.41

54 B.H. Baden Powell, p. 45. The particular shawl is reproduced in the forementioned work, facing p. 45.

55 The export figures were 171,000 in 1850-1, and 351,000 in 1860. Estimates of the earlier output are based on Moorcroft MSS. Eur. E. 113, p. 29.

56 According to evidence handed down verbally, Kashmir shawl weavers ere recruited for carpet- knitting.

58 This was the name of the Prime Minister of Kashmir at that time.

59 Describing Kirman province, the French traveller Debeux remarked. on y voit un grand nombre de manufactures de chales qui imitent ceux du Caschmir’ La Perse p. 57.

60 Examples in the Victoria and Albert Museum (Textile Dept. ) are T. 41-1942, 1061-75 1061-a-75, and 346-1880.

Very often, Africans are depicted on old pictures as naked people, walking around without any clothing. This seems to be quite at odd with the fact that the Dutch textile company VLISCO has been installed in Africa, more precisely in Togo, since 1846 . So how could pictures from the 1800s and early 1900s only show naked Africans? The BBC recently ran a story on VLISCO and African textile tradition actually being European. The New York Times claimed that Africa’s fabric was entirely Dutch. I find this quite appalling, and I call this a falsification of history .

For starters, before VLISCO, Africa had a very rich textile industry as noted by Kankan Moussa‘s entire delegation being clothed from cotton woven with golden threads in 1300s during his pilgrimage to the Mecca (this will be a story for another day), or the Kanembu clothing tradition which dates as far back as the 800s . It is misleading to believe that the Wax hollandais is the only fabric worn by Africans, when we know that the Bogolan rises from a long tradition of weavers in Mali, or the Kente cloth of Ghana.

So what is the history of African fabric? Is there an African history of textile?

As pointed earlier, the African fabric industry is very old, and dates as far back as 5,000BC when ancient Egyptians began cultivating flax and weaving it into linen . An ancient pottery found at Badari shows an ancient depiction of a loom dating back to this period, while a 12th dynasty image from the tomb of Khnumhotep shows weavers using a horizontal loom (ca 2400 BC ). Moreover, pyramids, sculptures, and hieroglyphs clearly show all Egyptians clothed. Even their neighbors to the south, the Nubians, had a flourishing textile industry, as can be seen on images on pyramids at Meroë, and images of the great queen Amanishakheto, as well as those of pharaoh Piye. Later on, as several civilizations flourished throughout Africa, cotton became a more commonly used fabric. The explorer Ibn Battuta does mention the presence of weavers in the Mali empire, and in Timbuktu, in the 1300s . As Islam was introduced in West Africa, many began wearing today’s version of the boubou. Kente cloth

Today, one can find a full tradition of textile flourishing throughout Africa. The Bogolan or ‘mud cloth’ is hand-woven fabric hailing from Mali. Kente cloth , is Ghana’s national fabric, with the most expensive ones made with golden threads for kings only (in the olden days). It is said that the British explorers were amazed by the beauty of the Ashanti king’s attire. Cameroon has a long history of cloth made from the bark of trees, with some fabric particularly made from the obom. Fibers from the raffia are still commonly used to make bags, and clothing. Moreover, in West Cameroon, Kings are dressed with finely woven clothing made by the best weavers of the kingdom embellished with beads . The Pygmies use bark cloth made from tropical fig trees , while people from Chad and the Central African Republic weave cotton strips on horizontal looms they use a variety of natural dyes .

The Kuba people of the Democratic Republic of Congo, use raffia and make some of the most beautiful hand-woven blankets, clothing, and sculptures. The Ndebele of South Africa and Zimbabwe have a rich tradition of gorgeous colorful quilts and blankets entirely hand-made. Many would envy the elegance, color, and presentation of well-dressed Ndebele women.

So why are the New York Times and the BBC trying to falsify history? Even VLISCO patterns are not Europeans, as they are inspired by Africans, and made to address the needs of the African population. Yes, Africans wear have worn VLISCO textiles and many Nana Benz have prospered from it, but that doesn’t mean that they do not have their own rich tradition of textile. Africans have their textile industry which dates back millennia, and has probably inspired many in the world. So today as you wear a wax hollandais, remember that there are Kente cloth, Bogolan, and many other beautiful garments made by local artists well-deserving of praise. I am leaving you with a documentary video on Kente cloth weaving. Enjoy!

Cloth Merchant Textile Indusry - History

Clothing and Garment Manufacturing

Clothing, traditionally made at home or by custom tailors, began to be commercially produced in the early nineteenth century. In Chicago this industry developed rapidly after the Great Fire of 1871 and remained one of the most dynamic sectors until the Great Depression.

Garment Industry Sweatshop, 1905
Starting from the 1860s, the city&aposs men&aposs clothing merchants employed tailors and had ready-to-wear clothes made at their shop. The industry expanded in the next decade, as merchant-manufacturers like Harry Hart and Bernard Kuppenheimer produced suits as well as work clothes and marketed them in the Midwestern and Southern states. Those years also saw women&aposs clothing production added to the industry, when manufacturers like Joseph Beifeld began producing ready-made cloaks. Chicago was increasingly involved in nationwide competition, which led to the sweating system in the 1880s. Manufacturers sent out work to be done by contractors and subcontractors, who often opened tiny shops in poor districts, the Near West Side in particular, and hired immigrants for long hours at low wages. In the early 1890s, urban reformers engaged in an anti-sweatshop campaign in Chicago and across the country.

Women&aposs Garment Factories, 1925 (Map)
By that time, however, Chicago was already turning to the factory system. Trying to secure an edge against their New York and Philadelphia competitors, manufacturers began producing better grades of garment with fine material and workmanship. They established large factories, where each worker took up only one segment of the whole production process and dexterously performed it. They also endeavored to improve the public image of ready-made garments through national advertising. The pioneer in this arena was Joseph Schaffner of Hart, Schaffner & Marx, a Chicago firm that was to grow into a giant, employing 8,000 workers and leading the U.S. clothing industry in the early twentieth century. These efforts, aimed at the emerging urban middle classes, led to industrial expansion. By the end of the century, Chicago became the second largest production center for men&aposs clothing, with its output roughly amounting to 15 percent of the national total. New York as the center of fashion dominated women&aposs clothing, attracting numerous small shops and producing four-fifths of the national output. With only 4 percent of the women&aposs market, Chicago concentrated on cloaks and suits and attempted to establish only a relatively few small factories.

Robbins with Garment Strikers, 1915
Although the factory system never entirely replaced sweating, it led to modern labor relations. Ethnic diversity particularly characterized Chicago&aposs workforce, which included a significant number of Swedes, Czechs, Poles, and Lithuanians, in addition to Jews and Italians. The workforce remained further fragmented by gender and skill. Women constituted the majority on the shop floor but had little access to high-paying jobs. Cutters, mostly of German or Irish descent, despised tailors. Yet factories, mainly located close to immigrant settlements in the Northwest, Near West, or Southwest districts in addition to the Loop, helped workers cultivate close social networks and resort to collective action. In men&aposs clothing, a general strike involving over 40,000 workers and lasting for 14 weeks in 1910–11 prompted the formation of a local union of immigrant workers. This organization, chartered by the United Garment Workers, helped launch the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA) in 1914. Under the leadership of Sidney Hillman, the ACWA completely organized Chicago in 1919 and claimed a membership of 41,000 in the following year. The International Ladies&apos Garment Workers&apos Union (ILGWU) helped the small and unstable local women&aposs clothing unions of the city to form a joint board in 1914. The joint board conducted unionization campaigns and soon secured a citywide agreement with employers. By 1920, the ILGWU claimed a membership of 6,000, two-thirds of Chicago&aposs women&aposs clothing workforce.

The mid-1920s turned out to be a high point. With a larger share of the national market than before and with labor relations stabilized through collective bargaining, Chicago&aposs clothing industry was faced with new challenges. Men looked for lower-priced garments, spending more money on automobiles, radios, and other modern conveniences women preferred the dress and waist to the coat and skirt, often wearing the suit. Manufacturers were less interested in technological innovations than in concessions to be made by the unions. When the ILGWU lost a major strike in 1924, the ACWA retreated without completely giving up high wage rates. Consequently, large men&aposs clothing firms tried to maintain sales by integrating retail outlets, but small ones began to leave for nonunion towns in the Midwestern countryside.

By the late 1920s, Chicago&aposs clothing industry was already on the decline, a tendency greatly accelerated by the Great Depression. The New Deal revived women&aposs clothing government contracts for military uniforms boosted men&aposs and postwar prosperity temporarily benefited both. Soon, however, manufacturers began to leave Chicago, many settling in the South, where labor expenses were lower. Lower production costs fit American preferences for spending less on clothing than on homes, home appliances, and automobiles, and for informal wear that accommodated increasing leisure time and the suburban lifestyle. Lower costs also made it easier to compete with imports, particularly those made in low-wage countries in Northeast Asia, which were taking an expanding share of the American market. By the mid-1970s, Chicago had only 7,000 workers engaged in the clothing industry. The few manufacturers still remaining in the city have attempted to integrate the making of men&aposs and women&aposs clothing and to experiment with new technologies like laser cutting or programmed sewing.

History of Sweatshops: 1820-1880

Work-work-work! Till the brain begins to swim Work-work-work! Till the eyes are heavy and dim! Seam and gusset, and band Band, and gusset, and seam, Till over the buttons I fall asleep And sew them on in a dream." — “Song of the Shirt” by Thomas Hood, 1843

Desperate and Destitute

Seamstresses were the daughters, wives, and widows of the working poor from impoverished New England farms and urban working-class communities as well as recent immigrants from Great Britain, Ireland, and Northern Europe. For poor women, employment opportunities were few. Garment sewing was often an act of desperation rather than an occupation of choice.

The manner in which these women lived, the squalidness and unhealthy location and nature of their habitations, the impossibility of providing for any of the slightest recreations or moral or intellectual culture or of educating their children can be easily imagined but we assure the public that it would require an extremely active imagination to conceive the reality.” — New York Daily Tribune, March 7, 1845

When reformers compared the working conditions of some Northern workers to those of slaves, they often had seamstresses in mind. “If I am less troubled concerning the slavery prevalent in Charleston or New Orleans,” wrote New York newspaper editor Horace Greeley in 1845, “it is because I see so much slavery in New York, which appears to claim my first efforts.”

Ready-to-Wear Industry

Most clothing in pre-industrial America was custom-made for a particular individual, either at home or by a tailor or dressmaker. An exception was the so-called slop shop, which produced and sold cheap, ready-made garments for unmarried laborers, sailors on long voyages, and, increasingly after the 1810s, for Southern slaves.

To broaden their markets and keep their workers and equipment busy during slow periods, both slop shops and tailor shops in the 1800s began to produce a full range of ready-to-wear garments for men. This expansion was aided by new technology, a shift in popular taste to looser-fitting fashions that required less precision tailoring, and the growing social acceptability of ready-made clothing.

Although a few articles such as cloaks, corsets, and hoop skirts were commercially produced, most women’s clothing in the mid-19th century was still custom-made at home or by paid dressmakers.

As demand for ready-made clothing increased in the 1820s, shop owners found they could reduce their labor costs by cutting the cloth themselves, farming out the simple sewing tasks to women working at home, and paying them 25 to 50 percent less than male journeymen tailors. This innovation led to the rise of the garment industry sweatshop.

Edward Hazen's The Tailor, 1836

From Panorama of Professions and Trades, 1836. Courtesy SI Library

Advertisement for Weed Sewing Machine Company, 1850s

Courtesy New York Public Library

Slave Clothing

Hauling the Whole Week's Picking" by William Henry Brown

Historic New Orleans Collection

The availability of cheap textiles from New England mills and the Tariff Act of 1816, which taxed imported cotton goods, enabled merchants in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore to seize the profitable “Southern Trade” in slave clothing from British manufacturers. By 1860, two thirds of the ready-to-wear garments made in New York went south.

New inventions and new ways of designing clothing helped the ready-to-wear industry grow. In the early 19th century, tailors began to adopt proportional drafting and sizing systems. These made it possible to standardize the cutting of garment parts, a crucial step in creating mass-produced clothing.

Courtesy Library of Congress

Isaac Singer sewing machine patent model, 1855

The ready-made clothing industry quickly embraced sewing machines in the 1850s, claiming tremendous time savings over hand sewing. Concerned that the machines would put seamstresses out of work, several reformers urged manufacturers not to use them. It soon became clear, however, that the rapidly expanding industry still required the labor of tens of thousands of workers.

Sewing machine companies offered payment plans to help make their products affordable to seamstresses working at home. Although the machines dramatically enhanced productivity and lowered the price of clothing, they did not greatly increase the earnings of these women.

The ready-to-wear industry expanded during the Civil War. To meet the demand for uniforms, garment manufacturers increased production by building factories and networks of seamstresses. They also developed more efficient production methods and a better understanding of sizing as they prepared to meet consumer demand at war’s end.

Jackets like this were produced in mass quantities during the Civil War. This particular service jacket was worn by Rear Admiral David G. Farragut while directing the fire of the flagship Hartford during the Battle of Mobile Bay on August 5, 1864.

Early Reform Efforts

“You can see them in those shops seated in long rows, crowded together in a hot close atmosphere, working at piecework, 30, 40, 60, or 100 girls crowded together, working at 20 and 25 cents a day.” — Aurora Phelps, seamstress and labor organizer, 1869

Although clothing factories rose in importance during the mid-19th century, most seamstresses worked at home or in very small groups. Sewing in isolation, seamstresses did not establish lasting organizations to advocate for better pay and working conditions, as workers in other industries had started to do.

Social reformers, early labor leaders, and charitable organizations called for higher wages and better working conditions for seamstresses. Several newspapers took up their cause, exposing the harsh conditions in the needle trades. Reformers’ attempts at establishing cooperatives in several cities aided some workers but achieved little permanent effect.

Working Women’s Protective Union — Hearing Complaint Against Sewing-Machine Dealer,” Harper’s Weekly, February 21, 1874

Groups such as the Working Women’s Protective Union arbitrated disputes and provided limited charity.

Their numbers and their wants are so great, and the competition so urgent, that they are wholly at the mercy of their employers.” — Matthew Carey, social reformer, 1830

Ah! Beautiful girls, when you fold away Your garments fair, do you ever think Of women haggard and wan and gray Who toil for the barest of meat and drink Of women slender and young like you Who wearily toil the long days through?

Poem and illustration from "Dresses - Those Who Make and Those Who Wear Them," Harper's Bazaar, March 17, 1877

Harper's Bazaar encouraged consumers to take responsibility for the working conditions of the women who made their clothes.

What Makes a Madras Shirt So Madras?

The madras shirt hanging in your closet is the genuine article, so long as it meets a few important criteria, to wit:

  • It must come from India’s Chennai (Madras), says the U.S. Federal Trade Commission,
  • Both sides of the cloth must bear the same pattern, else it’s a fake, and
  • It must be handwoven the small flaws in the fabric will betray it as such.

Cotton madras is woven from a fragile, short-staple cotton fiber that can’t be combed, only carded. This results in “bumps” or slubs—thick spots in the yarn that give madras its unique texture. The cotton is hand-dyed after being spun into yarn, woven and finished in some 200 small villages in the Madras area. Madras cotton weave also may be pieced, resulting in a “patch” madras shirt, pant, or jacket.

Many weavers have learned from generations of weavers who have gone before them, resulting in a textile rich with cultural DNA and so revered it is protected by the Indian government. Ironically, Indians themselves eschew madras for much of anything except pajamas because of its somewhat negative association with the madras sarongs worn by the working class. In America cotton madras plaids enjoy continued appeal among the well-heeled—the proverbial “another man’s treasure” wisdom in action.

That’s quite a story for one little shirt. Next time you reach for your madras plaids, you’ll know you’re wearing something special.

Cloth Merchant Textile Indusry - History

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2020 | Volume 41

Slave Cloth and Clothing Slaves: Craftsmanship, Commerce, and Industry
Madelyn Shaw

“I have a vivid recollection of the linsey-woolsey dress given me every winter by Mrs. Flint. How I hated it! It was one of the badges of slavery.”

— Harriet Jacobs (1813-1897) recalling her years as a slave in North Carolina [1]

In 1860 the federal census counted nearly four million enslaved men, women, and children across the American South, most of them born in the United States, and the majority working in the cotton fields of the lower South. Clothing that enormous population was an industry in itself—indeed, several industries—connecting many segments of the American economy with the institution of slavery. In the absence of an authoritative, period account describing these industries, our understanding of the complex processes and systems required to clothe enslaved individuals in the early South must be gleaned from surviving letters, memoirs, extant objects, and other documentation.

Enslaved workers usually received most, if not all, of their clothing as an allowance from their owners. Some owners issued fabric, expecting the slaves to cut and sew their own clothing some plantation mistresses cut out or supervised the cutting out of garments from plantation-made or purchased cloth, to be made up by slave seamstresses or by the mistress and her daughters and sometimes ready-made garments or pre-cut garment pieces were imported from northern manufacturers. Mississippi slaveholder Stephen Duncan Jr. allowed the slaves on his Carlisle plantation what one historian has called a “comparatively generous” annual allotment in the 1850s: Men and boys were given eight yards of cotton cloth to make three shirts five and one-half yards of Lowells or osnaburg for two pair of summer pants and two and three-quarters yards of jeans for winter pants plus a coat made from blanket cloth and two pairs of shoes. Girls and women received thirteen yards of shirting for three shifts and a gown two and one-half yards of Lowells or osnaburg for a petticoat five yards of linsey for a winter gown and, if she was a field worker, a blanket coat and two pair of shoes. Women who worked inside received only one pair of shoes and no coat. All children regardless of gender were given one linsey and three cotton “slips” made of about a yard and a half of fabric. [2]

Former slave Louis Hughes recalled in his memoir that the male field workers held on the Mississippi plantation owned by his master Edmund McGee were given two shirts, two pair each of summer and winter pants, plus a coat, hat, and pair of shoes in the winter. The women were given two summer dresses and chemises and at least one winter dress (although the text is unclear on this point). Women also received a pair of winter shoes and cloth for a turban, and enterprising women made pantalets from cast off men’s trousers, tied on above the knee to protect their legs. Once, McGee purchased red and yellow checked gingham in Memphis that was doled out to make “Sunday only” turbans for the women workers. Hughes himself, as a house servant, wore pants and a coat made from his master’s cast-off clothing until McGee built a new mansion in Memphis, when Hughes was given a white stiff-bosomed shirt, a white linen apron, and a new wool broadcloth suit in which to wait at table. Hughes remembered that “this little change” in his appearance heartened him, looming large in a life that had “known no comforts.” [3] One observer reported that in Louisiana, “they are very particular about feeding and clothing their negroes among the French generally—they generally have changes of clothes and dress neatly on Hollydays, Sundays… .” [4]

Descriptions of lesser quantities may be closer to the norm: In South Carolina, for example, rice planter John Potter distributed 1800 yards of cloth per year among his 400 workers—an average of four and one-half yards per person, “beside blankets every three years.” An enslaved coachman in the Sea Islands told Laura Towne that he was doled out two suits of clothes a year. [5] Pierce Butler’s Sea Island slaves received “a certain number of yards of flannel, and as much more of what they call plains—an extremely stout, thick, heavy woolen cloth, of a dark gray or blue color, which resembles the species of carpet we call drugget. This, and two pair of shoes, is the regular ration of clothing.” That “regular ration” however, may not have been evenly supplied: Butler’s wife Fanny Kemble described the slave workers of St. Annie’s village on St. Simon’s Island as neglected and half-naked, perhaps because their cotton crops had been decreasing with the exhaustion of the soil. [6] Kemble also wrote that the “plains” cloth was intolerably hot and uncomfortable even in the island’s winter climate and that flannel for winter and dark chintz for summer would have been better choices. Hard agricultural labor in an unforgiving climate is likely to have taken a serious toll on the integrity of a field hand’s clothing. Just as men’s worn out trousers became women’s leggings, other remnants of previous allotments must have been re-used. Photographer Timothy O’ Sullivan provided evidence of the motley nature of field hands’ clothing in images taken just after the Union capture of the cotton-raising islands off the coast of South Carolina in 1862 (Figs. 1 and 2). [7]

House servants, particularly in elite households, might be better clothed than field hands, but that was not universally true. Charleston’s Mary Pringle, whose rice planter husband owned more than 300 slaves spread across four plantations, gave her male house servants a livery coat and vest, four cravats, and two pocket handkerchiefs, in addition to four shirts, two or three pair of pants, three vests, and two coats, in two allotments, one summer and the other winter. The livery may have been worn only for the most formal or public occasions. [8] South Carolinian Mary Chesnut described the housemaids’ uniform at her father-in-law’s Mulberry Plantation:

The maids here dress in linsey-woolsey gowns and white aprons in the winter—and in summer, blue homespun. These deep blue dresses and white turbans and aprons are picturesque and nice looking. On Sundays their finery is excessive and grotesque. I mean their holiday, church, and outdoor getup. Whenever they come about us they go back to the white apron uniform. [9]

A photograph in the Valentine Richmond History Center collection, inscribed on the reverse “Aunt Lizzie,” depicts a neatly and fashionably dressed and groomed young African American woman holding a white infant in elaborate white long clothes (Fig. 3). “Lizzie” wears a dress, probably of cotton, printed with a small repeating figure on a dark ground. The dress has long full sleeves gathered to a cuff, dropped shoulders, and a high round neckline with a white collar and a bar pin at the throat. Her hair is pulled back and tied or braided, with a neat flat-bowed ribbon hairband to keep it off her face. The outfit may in fact reflect her everyday appearance as a child’s nurse in a well-to-do Richmond household, and not merely finery adopted only for the photograph. In a similar photograph at the Kentucky Historical Society, marked “Kate & Violet,” both the child and the nurse are more plainly dressed: the child in an ankle length A-shaped cotton dress and the nurse in a printed cotton dress with dropped shoulders and fitted sleeves, a high round neckline finished with a narrow white band, a white headcloth or turban, and drop earrings (Fig. 4). Both the child’s and the nurse’s dresses in the photograph are wrinkled—it does not appear that they dressed up at all for the event, but the nurse’s calico is a step up in the fabric hierarchy from linsey or osnaburg. A printed calico dress may not always have been a marker of house-servant status, however. In his 1981 essay on slave cloth and northern capital, historian Myron Stachiw quoted from a letter written by a plantation owner’s wife to a dry goods merchant in New Orleans in 1835, “I must request the favor of you to add 28 yards of cheap calico… Please let it be gay. I have always given a dress of such to every woman after…she has a young child…They do much better being encouraged a little.” [10] The thoughts and feelings of the women who received perhaps a dollar’s worth of calico for bearing a child into slavery are not recorded.

Slave owners who lived away from towns and close neighbors may have felt less social pressure to dress their house servants any better than their field workers. The young enslaved servant on an upriver South Carolina rice plantation who brought English journalist William Howard Russell his shaving water and clean boots in the morning was clad in a “sort of sack, without any particular waist, barefooted.” Russell was surprised to find the child was a girl of about fourteen. [11] Although some photographs taken during the Civil War show recently freed children dressed in shirts and trousers or dresses, most descriptions of enslaved children describe them as being dressed in a shirt or shift regardless of gender. Mary Chesnut described the young enslaved servant who “minded” the children of an acquaintance as a “Topsy,” after the character in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Chesnut added, “Topsy is clad as Topsy is always on the stage—one straight homespun garment.” [12] A few sleeveless jackets and a pair of trousers that survive at Shadows on the Têche in Louisiana were handed down in the family as examples of clothing made entirely by slaves, who spun the yarn, wove the fabric, and stitched the garments. The garments, sized for a boy perhaps 10-15 years of age, are unusual—perhaps unique—survivals (Fig. 5). [13]

Mary Chesnut’s reference to the enslaved house servants’ Sunday “finery” suggests that these garments were acquired outside the normal allowance. Hand-me-downs from their white owners or goods purchased with cash or by barter may have comprised the house servant’s Sunday best—attracting many comments in Charleston’s class-conscious society about its unsuitability. Slaves who hired out as artisans, or who earned some money on the side, may not have received a clothing allowance at all. John Judah, a Virginia slave who escaped in 1855, paid his owner $110 a year out of his earnings, and “as he was fond of nice clothing, he was careful to earn a balance sufficient to gratify this love. By similar means, many slaves were seen in southern cities elegantly dressed, and strangers and travelers from the North gave all the credit to ‘indulgent masters,’ not knowing the facts in the case.” [14] On several Louisiana plantations, the “negroes rear domestic birds of all kinds, and sell eggs and poultry to their masters. The money is spent in purchasing tobacco, molasses, clothes, and flour.” [15] Those items were small luxuries in a spare life.

Cloth sold for distribution to slaves might be all cotton, cotton and wool, or all wool, depending on the season. Goods sold to slave owners designated as “Slave cloth,” “Negro cloth,” or “Plantation cloth” were always inexpensive and durable rather than comfortable or fashionable. The common descriptors for these fabrics were “coarse” and “stout.” One common slave cloth was osnaburg (also “osnabrig” or “ozenbrig”), a plain weave cotton sold in solid colors (natural unbleached or white, brown, or blue) and in stripe or check combinations of those shades. Linsey (also “lincey” or “linsey-woolsey”) originally had a linen warp and a woolen weft but in the nineteenth century the warps were most often cotton. Kersey was a twill weave fabric made from short staple wool fibers. Satinet used cotton warps and a woolen weft in a broken twill weave with long floats, giving a smoother surface without a sharply defined diagonal ridge. Jean or jean cloth was occasionally supplied to slaves. Rhode Island manufacturer William Dean Davis began his business selling kerseys and linseys, for example, but in 1839 added all-wool jeans and plains. [16] Jean was most commonly all cotton or cotton warp with a woolen weft, in a twill (diagonal rib) weave, and categorized with other durable fabrics meant for working clothes, such as fustian and denim. [17]

Clothing was an important and immediately visible mark of social status, and osnaburg, jean, and kersey were considered suitable for the lower ranks of society. All of the available cloths came in several qualities, ranging from the cheapest sold to slave owners to better grades purchased by laborers, farm workers, craftsmen, and mechanics—both white and black—who also required durable but inexpensive cloth. William Davis, for example, sold nine bales of assorted linseys from his Rhode Island mill to Baltimore merchant William E. Mayhew in 1838. They ranged in quality from 18 to 24 cents per yard, and came in black and white, red and blue, “mixed”, and plaid, “heavy and even for linseys and well calculated for the Southern trade.” [18] Southern trade was not necessarily restricted to slaves. Isaac P. Hazard found that in South Carolina, “Many of the country small planters dress in just such Walnut Linseys as we make except that the warp is coarser being spun by hand,” suggesting that below the elite levels of Southern society, sturdy cloth was as important to the white population for their own consumption as for their slaves. [19] For the higher end of the social scale, merchants carried higher quality cloth, such as the “Indigo Blue Jeans, a very fine article manufactured in Baltimore for planters suits” sold by a Natchez dry goods firm in 1861—this jeans cloth, probably all wool, is not comparable to the ubiquitous blue jeans of our time. [20]

In the 1820s, Rhode Island slave cloth manufacturer Isaac Peace Hazard spent much time in the South selling cloth and investigating the needs of the market. His letters to his brother Rowland indicate that the enslaved sometimes had a say in what they wore. In 1824 some of his southern customers said their linsey cloth “would not suit servants unless it was blue,” and a few years later Isaac reported that “Grey goods answer only for the interior.” One planter near Beaufort, South Carolina, told him that his enslaved workers refused to wear cloth made of cotton and wool, such as the Hazard’s linsey. [21] At the time, the Hazard mill was not yet supplying all the cloth the firm sold. Complaints from plantation owners about the variation in the contents of the bales of cloth they received were common, and Isaac wrote home that one of their contract weavers, John D. Williams (who by 1845 owned two mills making slave cloth), “does not twist enough or let the wool lie long enough in the die [sic]” and that the slaves held by rice planter John Potter “did not complain much but exhibited their clothes to him, some were as thin as baize, threads not beat close together, others split all to pieces… .” [22]

The commerce of slave cloth held many ironies. Enslaved cotton plantation workers raised, harvested, ginned, and baled raw cotton to send to local, northern, and European spinning, knitting, and weaving mills. They then received back the finished cloth and clothing that marked them as slaves. Many individuals ignored or suppressed their consciences or principles in the pursuit of profit. Rowland G. Hazard, owner with his brother Isaac of the Peace Dale Manufacturing Co. in Rhode Island, for example, was educated at the Friends Academy in Westtown, Pennsylvania, and in the 1840s provided legal assistance to free men of color who had been seized in New Orleans and held as runaway slaves. [23] The Peace Dale Manufacturing Co. employed (at least in the 1810s) free African American labor for carding and spinning. Hazard’s business records and correspondence reveal the contradiction between his personal values and his business practices. The woolen mill in Peace Dale churned out thousands of yards of kerseys specifically for clothing slaves (Fig. 6). Stephen Duncan, the Mississippi planter mentioned previously, wrote the firm in 1835 to say, “I find the ‘Double Kerseys’ of excellent quality—but to be candid—do not think them equal to an article made in Kentuckey [sic] called ‘Jeans’… .” A year later, Rowland Hazard wrote his brother that another customer, “R C Nicholas…was much pleased with the goods. His negroes he says are delighted with it & call it the iron cloth & say it will never wear out.” An inquiry from a tailor seeking a position to work in the firm’s “southern trade” indicated that the company was also engaged in producing ready-made or pre-cut slave clothing. [24]

A dozen years later, in 1850, Rowland Hazard made a fervent anti-slavery speech to the Rhode Island House of Representatives, indicating that he may have wished to dissociate himself from profiting by slavery. In 1855, when the Hazard kersey mill burnt down, the brothers changed their production to finer goods such as cassimeres and shawls. [25] Few of Rowland Hazard’s textile colleagues followed his lead: Americans raised few fine-fleeced sheep such as merino in the antebellum years, which in part accounted for the fact that most American woolen mills produced the coarser fabrics. [26] The first domestic manufacturer of slave cloth on an industrial scale may have been the Matteawan Company of Fishkill, New York, (Peter Schenck & Co., agents), which began operations in 1814 and was well established in the southern market by 1823. Isaac P. Hazard commented from Charleston, “the Matewan goods are very celebrated here—Schenk has taken much pains to make goods to suit this market and they have paid him well for it.” [27] In 1845, seventeen of the forty Rhode Island textile manufactories listed in one directory specialized in Negro cloth. This was more than any other state and more than all the southern states combined. [28] The 1860 census of American manufactures still placed Rhode Island first in production of mixed cotton and woolen “satinets, linseys, kerseys, jeans, and negro cloths.” [29]

British mills exported large quantities of blankets and slave cloth to the American South. On 9 March 1764, Georgia planter and merchant James Habersham wrote his London agent William Knox requesting to have some slave clothing made up for his slaves as well as for the slaves of Georgia Royal Governor James Wright and Francis Harris, Habersham’s merchant partner. Habersham expressed that he hoped that importing the clothing would be cheaper but that they would be “a little better than common.” They needed 120 men’s jackets and breeches and eighty women’s gowns, with half of them sized medium, a quarter sized large, and the remaining quarter sized small. Habersham continued to outline his order:

You know that 5 yds of Plains usually makes a mans jacket & Breeches or a womans gown, and cost of the best bought here with making is about 10 S and for this sum I suppose they may be had in London of Cloth at least stronger and more durable and consequently warmer and more comfortable— You see we dont purpose any saving or rather that is not our motive tho’ the more saved the better, as the charges landed here will at least come to 10 or 12 pCt[.] Mr Mc Gillivray has imported Sailor Pea Jacket and I believe Breeches made of the same Cloth for his Men and the former cost in London 7s and the latter 3-6[s] but this cloth must be too heavy and clumsy for womens wear. However something of the kind may answer for men. If I remember, I think the west Country Barge Men have their Jackets made of a very strong, cheap cloth, I believe called Foul Weather and the Color being Drab or something like it I should think wou’d suit our dusty Barns as well as their dusty flour sacks. Upon the whole there is no directing from this Distance. In London you may have anything the Nation may furnish… you know we have sometimes some very sharp days the beginning of October, when the Negroes unless fresh supplyed, are usually in rags. [30]

In a post-script, Habersham added that “Mr. Mc Gillivray” had purchased the clothing for his workers from a “Mr Jesser who I think lives near Billings gate, and were charged as Under…”:

Boys Ditto 2/3 But I suppose what were called Boys for lads from 15-17 which will agreeably do for some small men, Since writing the foregoing, I am told, what are called Short Gowns or wrappers with petticoats are best for women… . [31]

Habersham’s concerns about the quality of clothing he wished to purchase from England would continue for many planters into the nineteenth century, when the woolen mills of Yorkshire made much use of “shoddy,” or recycled wool, in the weft or filling of blankets and other cloths meant for the slave market. Incorporating shoddy in these cloths decreased their cost and made them cheap enough to enter America at the lowest tariff rates. According to Robert Maxwell, a South Carolina planter consulted by Rhode Island slave cloth manufacturer Isaac P. Hazard in 1823, he preferred to buy Welsh Plains:

made by the farmers of Wales and purchased by merchants or dealers in the town of—where they are bleached or cleaned, folded in pieces of 90 or 100 yds each—Five pieces put in a bale and sent to this country and are superior to any thing made in England for Negro Clothing. Manufacturers he says there have tried to imitate them but have not succeeded. [32]

Another planter, John Potter of South Carolina, imported blankets from England for use on his plantations. He showed Isaac Hazard some samples that surprised Hazard by their quality. “We have little idea how particular such persons are in purchasing for their Negroes,” Isaac wrote home. Of course Potter knew that Hazard was collecting information on the southern market for use in his manufacturing business, and may have been showing him better quality goods than he actually distributed. Hazard continued that Potter was “in favor of using Domestics [northern-made cloth] if they can be made as well as imported and as low a price.” [33]

Imports of slave cloth and clothing from the American North or from Britain were only a part of the total slave cloth industry. Plantation diaries and letters and the memoirs of freed or escaped slaves are full of references to the skilled labor of enslaved artisans who spun, dyed, and wove cloth or stitched bedding and clothing for themselves and their owners. The term “homespun” was often applied indiscriminately in the South (especially just before and during the Civil War) to describe cloth woven:

• in plantation weave rooms by slave artisans
• in homes or small workshops by skilled weavers supplementing their income from farming or another
• in southern factories and mills by a mix of wage-earning and enslaved, skilled and unskilled men,
women, and children and
• during the Civil War, in homes by white inhabitants who either re-learned forgotten skills or learned to
weave for the emergency.

In its broadest sense, “homespun” meant simply not imported. [34]

It was not unusual for plantations to have facilities and equipment for spinning and weaving. George Washington had a weave shed at Mount Vernon. During the American Revolution, Eliza Yonge Wilkinson of South Carolina recounted in a letter that when a troop of British soldiers came by her family’s plantation, one of the officers kept chatting with her while his men rounded up some pigs. She described the scene:

We had a great deal of chit chat but were interrupted by a little girl of mine, who came to tell me that the soldiers had cut my homespun out of the loom, and were bundling it up. “Why, Capt. Sanford,” said I, “you command a gang of them. Pray make them deliver the cloth. Your countrymen will not let us have Negro cloth from town, for fear the rebels should be supplied so we are obliged to weave.” [35]

On the eve of the Civil War, small carding and spinning mills that sold prepared fibers or finished yarns to local consumers dotted the southern landscape in fact, the South’s spinning mills produced about 30 percent of the nation’s yarn in 1860 (although less than five percent of the cloth). [36] Enslaved workers also spun yarn for knitting and weaving, both for plantation use and for their white owners—and some of this prepared yarn was bartered to local weaving mills for cloth. Other planters chose to have their cotton spun at a local mill and taken back to the plantation for enslaved workers to knit and weave for their own use. Because of this pattern of use, the quality of the yarn is an uncertain gauge of where a fabric was made. While some home weavers were novices and unskilled—or simply careless—so too were some factory hands. Handspun yarns and uneven selvages may not indicate home- or plantation-made cloth, and, conversely, factory-spun yarns and a tight, even weave are not always hallmarks of mill production.

Sarah Anne DeSellum, who lived with her bachelor brother on a plantation outside Gaithersburg, Maryland, happily showed off her long-functioning spinning room of three wheels to the Union officers who came to evaluate damages done to her property by the northern army. Her slaves spun, Sarah Anne did the weaving, and the cloth was used for slave clothing. [37] “Aunt Liza,” the woman who wove cloth for the 160 enslaved workers on the McGee family’s Bolivar, Mississippi, plantation, was expected to weave nine or ten yards of cloth a day. Her mistress warped the loom, assisted by a boy house servant, and had also taught Aunt Liza to weave. This one enslaved woman is said to have woven about half of the cloth needed to keep the plantation workers clothed, primarily in summer weight goods. The heavier winter fabrics were purchased. [38]

Mills operating in the American South also competed for the slave cloth market. Columbus, Georgia, had several factories, including the Grant Factory, which opened in 1844 originally as the Coweta Manufacturing Co., producing mainly spun yarns and osnaburgs, with smaller quantities of rope, thread, and linseys. That mill preferred to hire poor white women and girls, who, working in family groups, “secured adequate means for their support, and with proper economy, may gradually accumulate a competency.” [39] The Mississippi Manufacturing Company in Choctaw County, Mississippi, sold cotton thread locally in 1850, and was just that year installing looms for osnaburgs and linseys, along with wool carding machinery. Within five years, the owner added all-woolen kerseys to his line, which “did not meet as much competition from plantation loom houses” as the all-cotton or mixed wool and cotton goods. By 1860 the company, which originally employed primarily white workers, made a full line of yarns, as well as osnaburg, jean, linsey, and kersey. [40] Another Mississippi firm, the Woodville Manufacturing Company, opened in April 1851. Its first reported product, appropriately enough, was a “bolt of lowell,” the plain cotton cloth so useful for sheeting, shirting, and other domestic uses that rolled by the mile off the looms of Lowell, Massachusetts. “Woodville cottons for negro clothing and cotton sacking” were advertised and priced against Lowell’s northern products across the state. Woodville also made linseys and yarns, and expanded to include kerseys shortly after the owner dismissed his white employees in 1852 and ran the factory with slave labor. [41] Atlanta merchant J.L. Cutting advertised “A superior lot of Georgia Plaines, Quilled Kerseys and Blankets” among the plantation goods he carried in 1859. [42] As the secession crisis deepened during the 1860 presidential election cycle, more planters looked to buy southern-made products. Chamberlin & Smith of Natchez offered “Louisiana, Alabama, Maryland, and Virginia osnaburgs brown domestics linseys, kerseys jeans long cloths bleached domestics bed ticks Kentucky Jeans and Linseys Tennessee Truck, for Trousers…” in early 1861. [43]

Several southern penitentiaries used inmate labor to compete in the coarse cloth market, first to clothe the inmates and then to make money by selling surpluses locally. During the Civil War they supplied yarn and cloth to locals and to the Confederate army. The state prison in Jackson, Mississippi, switched to steam powered equipment in about 1848, and by 1850 could make 6,000 yards of cloth per week. [44] Gideon Lincecum, a planter in Long Point, Texas, tried repeatedly to no avail in 1862 to trade the Huntsville, Texas, penitentiary a supply of raw cotton and wool raised by the hundred slaves on his plantation for the cloth to make their summer clothing. Although the penitentiary manufactured 6,000 yards of cloth a week, it was trying to serve a vast area, and demand far outstripped supply. [45] In December 1863, the prison’s directors authorized hiring slaves to bolster the labor supply priced out of this market, the prison engaged in holding runaways and captured black Union soldiers—who were treated as runaways no matter what their background. [46]

Ready-made slave clothing was imported from northern or European makers, but for every example of this, such as the Natchez, Mississippi merchant Meyer, Deutsch’s January 1861 offering of “Plantation Negro Clothing. Notice the Prices. Kentucky jean coats–lined all through with good Lowell $3 00, Kentucky Jean pants 1 75 Kersey coats–lines all through with good Lowell 2 00 Kersey pants 1 00 Kentucky linsey joseys–lined 2 00 twill lowell pants 85 Kentucky linsey dresses 3 00” there were dozens more advertisements for plantation or slave cloth. [47] Enslaved women and their mistresses probably cut and stitched far more clothing than was imported. Some plantation mistresses, like Mary Jeffreys Bethel of Rockingham County, North Carolina, did the work themselves. Mary wrote in her diary one autumn day: “The weather is cold and unpleasant, I am sitting by a good fire sewing for the negroes, making their winter clothing.” [48] Others no doubt did as John Blackford did in the late 1830s, when he hired a local seamstress, Mrs. Nafe, to stitch not only the clothing for his 25 slaves but family garments cut out by the local tailor. His diary doesn’t make it clear whether the local weaver making cloth from yarn spun by Blackford’s slaves was also making cloth for the family. [49]

Still others relied on the skills of their slaves. Two women on the Butler family plantations in South Carolina asked Fanny Kemble to cut out new dresses for them, which she did “as they…declared themselves able to stitch them.” [50] When Harriet Jacobs’s North Carolina mistress punished her by sending her away from town (Edenton) to a family plantation, she was given the task of clothing the other slaves. [51] Former Virginia slave Elizabeth Keckley, whose upper-class, white dressmaking clients lent her the money to purchase her own and her son’s freedom in St. Louis, wrote of learning her sewing skills as a child to help her mother, who made clothing for her master’s family and his slaves. [52]

Louis Hughes recalled that as an enslaved house servant in Memphis for the owners of a Mississippi cotton plantation of 160 slaves, he helped “the madam” to cut out the slaves’ clothing and often was left to supervise the construction, running the sewing machine to stitch the seams while his wife worked buttonholes and secured buttons. The finished goods were shipped to the farm. [53] Two Atlanta firms selling sewing machines in 1858 listed Negro cloth or Negro goods among the types of fabrics for which the machines were suited. Plantation mistresses faced with endless yards of long straight seams probably welcomed the sewing machine as a labor-saver. [54] Out in South Carolina’s Sea Islands, a woman named Susannah told northerner Laura Towne, who had come to teach the freed slaves after the Union army captured the islands, that her master had wanted her to flee with the family, as she was the “the seamstress of the family, but she refused.” [55] Diarist Kate Stone recorded that even field hands on her mother’s Louisiana plantation were expected to be able stitchers. In early 1862, Kate’s mother “had several of the women from the quarter sewing. Nothing to be done in the fields—too muddy. They put in and finished quilting a comfort made of two of my cashmere dresses.” [56] Such skills increased the value of an enslaved worker a “fine seamstress” was noted as such in auction broadsides or newspaper ads, while the [pre-surrender] 1865 Georgia tax laws specified that “Fifty per cent is to be added to [the taxable value of] any slave…who is a mechanic following his trade, or who is a body servant, a coachman, or a seamstress… .” [57]

Importation of cloth and clothing for slaves decreased radically during the Civil War, and factory production of textiles was earmarked for the armies. Plantation manufacture for and by the slaves increasingly became a necessity. Mary Jane Curry, managing her husband’s Curry Hill plantation in Georgia while he was at war, utilized all the women slaves to spin and weave. She recorded 264 yards of finished cloth over six months, with only twenty yards of that woven for use in uniforms—the rest was for plantation (and possibly family) consumption. [58] W.W. Lenoir complained to his mother that two of his female slaves, Maria and Delia, had “done vary [sic] badly about spinning, not having spun filling [weft yarns] enough during the year to make a comfortable allowance of clothing for the negroes… .” [59] T. J. Moore, serving in the Confederate army, wrote to the overseer of his upcountry South Carolina farm, “…You wrote to me about clothes for the negroes. You had better let things go on for you know that it will make a fuss if anyone should object. If you cannot clothe them by Lou’s and Lindy’s work and you say you must hire someone to weave, you are in a bad fix but I hope that you may make the best of it.” [60] Lou and Lindy were both slaves Lou’s husband Elihu had accompanied Moore to the war as his personal servant. Men as well as women wove. A male South Carolina slave named Bram was a weaver for Susan Jervey’s Aunt Nenna—his departure in February 1865 warranted a note in Susan’s diary. [61] Later that year, Kate Stone and her brother learned to “make the harness” for a loom her mother had ordered for weaving slave cloth, but the weaving was probably done by the slaves themselves. [62]

Sewing was one skill that kept many of those who escaped from slavery from starving during the war. Before slavery was abolished in Washington, D.C., in April 1862, African Americans suspected of being fugitive slaves were imprisoned in city jails. In January 1862, Eliza Woolsey Howland of New York (who with her sister Georgeanna later nursed wounded soldiers in Union hospitals) visited more than twenty escaped slaves in prison, bringing shirts, drawers, and socks for the men and boys and sewing work for the women. [63] Illinois infantry Lieutenant Charles Wight Wills wrote home that his contraband servant, Dave, had slipped away to bring his wife into camp, and that she “has been a sewing girl all her life, and I think would be worth something to a family that has much plain sewing to do…This woman mended my pants (I have two pairs) as neatly as any tailor could.” The couple later left him to go further north with a larger group of “contrabands,” as the escaped slaves were dubbed by Union General Benjamin F. Butler—who came from the mill town of Lowell, Massachusetts. [64]

Making choices about everyday apparel was an important freedom in the life of the newly emancipated slave. Laura Towne, engaged by the Freedmen’s Society of Pennsylvania to teach in South Carolina’s Sea Islands after the Union capture of Beaufort in November 1861, found that the freedpeople on the area’s plantations were willing to spend hours waiting their turn for the distribution of clothing sent from the North—usually cast-off clothing that was sold to the islanders, not simply given to them as charity. The Freedmen’s Journal, published beginning in January 1865 for the New England Freedmen’s Aid Society (established in 1862 to aid the destitute freedmen and women of Port Royal, South Carolina) reported on the boxes, barrels, parcels, and bundles of new and used clothing and blankets received from branches at the Boston Headquarters for distribution. This was in addition to the supplies sent by branch societies directly to teachers they had “adopted” in various locations from Washington, D.C., southward. According to diarist Susan Walker, who was working for the Freedmen’s Society in Port Royal, South Carolina, such charity was not always from the heart. She wrote, “Yesterday I was all day assorting old clothes sent from New York for the negroes. Such old shoes and men’s clothing filled with dust and dirt! Women’s soiled gowns, etc. and rags I would not give to a street beggar, have been sent at Government expense, to be handled and assorted by ladies! Some new but more old. Could not the large charity of New York furnish new materials?” [65] The former slaves, however, were eager to discard the osnaburg and linsey that had been the badge of slavery, giving whatever they had to remove that physical mark of their former status. Laura Towne reported that, “After the buyers have been to the cotton-house where the goods are stored, they often come and ask for me at the mansion house, so as to get a needle and a little skein of thread—great treasures in this region. They will give two or three eggs—which the soldiers buy at two cents apiece here—for a needle and a little wisp of tangled cotton.” [66] Frances Perkins, teaching in Washington, D.C., thanked the Freedmen’s Society for sending not only a box filled with toys, candy, and ornaments so she could give her students a Christmas party, but also for a second box, which arrived late but was filled with calico and thread, “which I know very well are worth almost their weight in gold in these times.” [67] Perkins’s students would craft new identities as free people as they crafted new dresses. All levels of nineteenth century American society understood how appearance influenced status.

Slave-made objects rarely come with the name or names of the maker/s attached. The Museum of the Confederacy, in Richmond, Virginia, holds several examples of yarn, stockings, and cloth said by the donors to have been the product of slave labor in the spinning, the weaving, or both. Among them is a length of cotton cloth identified by the donor as osnaburg, spun and woven about 1860 by unidentified slaves held by Mitchell King of Witherspoon Island, South Carolina (Fig. 7). Also in the Museum of the Confederacy are nearly twenty samples of cotton stripes, checks, and plaids that remain from the goods woven by an unknown number of the forty-six slaves owned by J. J. McIver according to the 1860 census, most of them probably to work the cotton he grew on his plantation in Darlington County, South Carolina (Fig. 8). Situated away from the coast, and unaffected by the fighting until late in the war, the plantation undoubtedly continued to raise cotton along with the food crops it needed to sustain itself. Textile production was very likely established on the McIver farm before the war, but it was the wartime cloth that the McIver family felt was worth saving. Many of the extant fragments display a quality the white family would have been happy to wear by the middle of the war, when the Union blockade of Confederate ports had sharply decreased available supplies of imported cloth. [68]

The quilt made in part by well-to-do Eliza Ann Raney in Lebanon, Kentucky, has a similar, and very common story (Fig. 9). As a young girl, Eliza Ann attended the “delightful and healthy” Female Academy of St. Catherine of Siena, which in 1853 enrolled about a hundred girls (of many denominations). A tuition of $40 per session paid for “board and washing, including bed and bedding, with tuition in the common branches, viz—Reading, Writing, Arithmetic, English Grammar, Geography, Plain Sewing, Marking, and Needlework.” For an additional $6 per session, “Embroidery, Drawing and Painting in water colors, History, Rhetoric, Botany, Natural Philosophy and Chemistry” were added to the curriculum. [69] Back home, Eliza was putting her needlework skills to use piecing a quilt when her family offered hospitality for the night to a couple traveling from Tennessee. Her work was admired and the wife promised to send the girl a new pattern—the Rose of Sharon. The pattern duly arrived, and according to the family history Eliza cut and stitched the appliqué work herself. The backing and quilting, however, was done “by slaves at night by candlelight.” [70] Quilting after dark suggests that the slaves had daytime duties, either in the field or around the house, which took precedence over fancy work but did not preclude it—sewing was not their only occupation. These quilters stitched fine and even rows this was not the haphazard work of unskilled laborers for basic utilitarian needs but of accomplished needleworkers for a showpiece. Their names, however, were not recorded. The makers of the quilt made by the slaves of the Bushong family in Tennessee, however, did hold a place in the family memory (Fig. 10). Philip and Mary Elizabeth Bushong owned three female slaves in the 1860 census. One of them, Rosey, died in her teens in 1864. Sarah (dates unknown) and Martha (1832–1867) pieced this quilt for their own use, but it passed into the Bushong family after their deaths. (The two women chose to stay on the Bushong farm after emancipation.) The fabric scraps they used were probably of their own spinning and weaving, as they were known to have produced cloth for the family, but they may not have worn these fabrics themselves. [71]

Not much more is known of Sarah and Martha, and nothing at all is known of the anonymous enslaved women and men who crafted many of the other textiles and clothing illustrated here. Their textile legacies, however, link us to their daily activities, skills, and pursuits. If the features of those anonymous workers were not captured in paintings or photographs, the surviving objects do at least suggest the hands that made them.

The cursory survey of surviving memoirs, correspondences, and other documents presented in this article reveals a rich and complex system of the production of and trade in slave cloth and clothing. More comprehensive research of surviving antebellum plantation and manufacturing records may illuminate in even greater detail the interactions among producers and consumers, as well as the hidden world of the enslaved artisans whose skills with the spindle, loom, and sewing needle were an integral part of the antebellum South.

Madelyn Shaw has written and lectured extensively on American textiles and clothing, and is the principal of Madelyn Shaw Museum Consulting ( She may be contacted at [email protected] . This article combines and expands on several catalogue entries in her most recent book, Homefront & Battlefield: Quilts & Context in the Civil War, written with Lynne Z. Bassett and published in June 2012 by the American Textile History Museum, Lowell, MA (

[1] Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Written by Herself, ed. Lydia Maria Child (Boston: Published for the Author, 1861), 20. Available online: (accessed 23 August 2012).

[2] William Kaufmann Scarborough, Masters of the Big House: Elite Slaveholders of the Mid-Nineteenth-Century South (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 2003), 179. The clothing allotment list is fully transcribed in Michael Wayne, Death of an Overseer (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 81.

[3] Louis Hughes, Thirty Years a Slave: From Bondage to Freedom (Milwaukee, WI: South Side Printing Co., 1897), 41-43, 63-64. Available online: (accessed 23 August 2012).

[4] I.P. Hazard to R.G. Hazard, 13 January 1828, Rowland G. and Caroline Hazard Papers, Rhode Island Historical Society, MSS 483, SG 5, Box 1, Folder 5. Isaac reported on comments made by a Major Thomas, a New Englander by birth who owned a plantation near New Orleans.

[5] I.P. Hazard to R.G. Hazard, 27 February 1824, Rowland G. and Caroline Hazard Papers, Rhode Island Historical Society, MSS 483, SG 5, Box 1, Folder 2 Diary entry, 1 May 1862, in Letters and Diary of Laura M. Towne: Written from the Sea Islands of South Carolina, 1862-1884, ed. Rupert Sargent Holland (New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969), 31.

[6] Fanny Kemble, Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838–1839 (London: Jonathan Cape, 1961), 52-53, 187-88.

[7] Timothy H. O’Sullivan began his photography career as an apprentice to Mathew Brady, but he left the Brady gallery to photograph American Civil War battlefields on his own. Available online: (accessed 20 June 2012).

[8] Richard N. Côté, Mary’s World: Love, War and Family Ties in Nineteenth Century Charleston (Mt. Pleasant, SC: Corinthian Books, 2001), 189.

[9] Diary entry, 30 November 1861, Mary Chesnut’s Civil War, ed. C. Vann Woodward (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1981), 250.

[10] Myron Stachiw, Negro Cloth: Northern Industry and Southern Slavery (Boston: Boston National Historical Park), 1981, 3.

[11] Diary entry, 28 April 1861, in William Howard Russell, My Diary North and South (Boston: T.O.H.P. Burnham, 1863), 146.

[12] Diary entry, 5 August 1861, in Mary Chesnut’s Civil War, 131.

[13] It is of course possible that the garments were not stitched for enslaved children but as rough play clothing for a white child, which may be why they survived among the household effects.

[14] William Still, The Underground Rail Road: a Record of Facts, Authentic Narratives, Letters, &c: Narrating the Hardships, Hair-breadth Escapes, and Death Struggles of the Slaves in Their Efforts for Freedom (Philadelphia, PA: Porter & Coates, 1872), 306-7.

[15] Diary entry, May 1861, William Howard Russell, My Diary North and South, 258.

[16] Letter Book, 1837-1849, William Dean Davis Papers, Rhode Island Historical Society, MSS 629, SG 11, Box 1, Folder 38.

[17] For textile definitions, see Florence Montgomery, Textiles in America (New York: Norton for the Henry Francis duPont Winterthur Museum, 2007) and Richard Hopwood Thornton, An American Glossary (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1912). Pennsylvania weaver Charles Noska noted in his 1861-1867 weave draft book that “the jeans in country places are nearly all woven a bedtick twill.” His draft for bedticking is a 2/2 twill (each weft yarn goes over two and under two warp yarns). The draft for Kentucky Jean, however, shows a 2/1 twill (each weft yarn going over 2 and under 1 warp yarns) (Charles Noska, Manayunk, PA. Draft book, 1860-1867, The Chace Catalogue, acc. 0022.423, American Textile History Museum, Lowell, MA). “Dry Goods, Chamberlin & Smith,” Natchez Daily Courier, 3 January 1861, 2. Available online: (accessed 15 August 2010).

[18] Wm. D. Davis to Wm. E. Mayhew, 26 March 1838, Letter Book 1837-1849, Wm. Dean Davis Papers, Rhode Island Historical Society, MSS 629, SG 11, Box 1, Folder 38.

[19] I.P. Hazard to R.G. Hazard, 27 February 1824, Rowland G. and Caroline Hazard Papers, Rhode Island Historical Society, MSS 483, SG 5, Box 1, Folder 2.

[20] “Dry Goods, Chamberlin & Smith,” Natchez Daily Courier, 3 January 1861, 2. Available online: (accessed 15 August 2010).

[21] I.P. Hazard to R.G. Hazard, 27 February 1824, Rowland G. and Caroline Hazard Papers, Rhode Island Historical Society, MSS 483, SG 5, Box 1, Folder 2 I.P. Hazard to R.G. Hazard, 13 January 1828, Rowland G. and Caroline Hazard Papers, Rhode Island Historical Society, MSS 483, SG 5, Box 1, Folder 5 I.P. Hazard to R.G. Hazard, 7 December 1825, Rowland G. and Caroline Hazard Papers, Rhode Island Historical Society, MSS 483, SG 5, Box 1, Folder 2.

[22] I. P. Hazard to R.G. Hazard, 12 January 1828, Rowland G. and Caroline Hazard Papers, Rhode Island Historical Society, MSS 483, SG 5, Box 1, Folder 12.

[23] William Bagnall, The Textile Industries of the United States (New York: A.M. Kelley, 1971), 297, 301.

[24] See Isaac P. Hazard Papers, 1813-1879, Rhode Island Historical Society, MSS 483, SG 12, Account Books and Ledgers, Series 2, Box 4, Folders, 1, 7, 14 Correspondence, Series 1, Box 1, 2, Cooke & Grant, loom makers, 1837, orders for kersey looms Stephen Duncan, Natchez, MS Letter, double kerseys, 11 July 1835 R.G. Hazard, Letter re: R.C. Nicholas, 13 January 1836 Charles Dayton, Tailor, 23 March 1837.

[25] For a fuller discussion of the Hazard connection see Myron O. Stachiw, “For the Sake of Commerce,” in David R. Roediger and Martin Henry Blatt, eds., The Meaning of Slavery in the North (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), 39-40.

[26] American farmers did not raise enough wool to supply American industry, so raw wool was imported from South America, Germany, and the Turkish cities of Smyrna and Adrianople—all producers of the lesser grades of wool. Several letters in the R.G. and Caroline Hazard Papers, Rhode Island Historical Society, MSS 483, SG 5, Box 1, Folder 3 the letter dated to 1828 mentions the origins of the wool the Peace Dale mill processed.

[27] I.P. Hazard to R.G. Hazard, 4 March 1824, R.G. and Caroline Hazard Papers, Rhode Island Historical Society, MSS 483, SG 5, Box 1, Folder 2.

[28] Statistics of the Woolen Manufactories in the United States (New York: Wm. H. Graham, 1845), 33-39. Production is differentiated by the following adjectives throughout the volume: coarse, fine, superior, heavy, plain, good, common, home market, neighborhood, family, country, and fancy. Seventeen of the forty Rhode Island mills specifically mention Negro cloth or Negro kerseys, but several others simply say “various qualities” or “great varieties,” leaving open the question of the ultimate consumer.

[29] Manufactures of the United States in 1860, Compiled from the Original Returns of the Eighth Census (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1865), 30.

[31] Ibid “Mr Mc Gillivray” was Lachlan McGillivray, a noted Indian trader and Georgia planter.

[32] I.P. Hazard to R.G. Hazard, 3 December 1823, R.G. and Caroline Hazard Papers, Rhode Island Historical Society, MSS 483, SG 5, Box 1, Folder 2.

[33] I.P. Hazard to R.G. Hazard, 27 February 1824, R.G. and Caroline Hazard Papers, Rhode Island Historical Society, MSS 483, SG 5, Box 1, Folder 2.

[34] This usage has a long and honorable history, dating back at least to the 1760s and the colonial boycott of imported British cloth in favor of that made in the colonies. The suit of “homespun” that George Washington is said to have worn to his first inauguration in 1789 was actually a fine brown broadcloth woven at the Hartford Woolen Manufactory, incorporated in 1788 in Hartford, Connecticut. Vice President John Adams and Connecticut’s senators and representatives also wore Hartford broadcloth. Bagnall, The Textile Industries of the United States, 102-103.

[35] Letter from Eliza Yonge Wilkinson, 1782, in Letters of Eliza Wilkinson, during the Invasion and Possession of Charleston, SC, by the British in the Revolutionary War, ed. Caroline Gilman (New York, NY: S. Colman, 1839), 105.

[36] Manufactures of the United States in 1860, xiv. See also Mark V. Wetherington, Plain Folks Fight: The Civil War and Reconstruction in Piney Woods Georgia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005), 108-109.

[37] Wilder Dwight to Mrs. William Dwight, 9 October 1861, in Life and Letters of Wilder Dwight: Lieut.-Col. Second Mass. Inf. Vols. (Boston, MA: Ticknor & Co., 1891), 113.

[38] Hughes, Thirty Years a Slave, 40-42. Available online: (accessed 23 August 2012).

[39] “The Grant Factory,” The Southern Confederacy (Atlanta, GA), 18 March 1861, 2. Available online: (accessed 22 August 2012).

[40] John Hebron Moore, The Emergence of the Cotton Kingdom in the Old Southwest: Mississippi, 1770-1860 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988), 221-222.

[41] Moore, Cotton Kingdom, 227-28.

[42] “Plantation Goods,” Weekly Intelligencer (Atlanta, GA), 24 February 1859, 3. Available online: (accessed 22 August 2012).

[43] “Dry Goods, Chamberlin & Smith,” Natchez Daily Courier, 3 January 1861, 2. Available online: (accessed 15 August 2010).

[44] Moore, The Emergence of the Cotton Kingdom, 226.

[45] Lois Wood Burkhalter, Gideon Lincecum, 1793-1874: A Biography (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1965), 147-149.

[46] Robert Perkinson, Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 2010), 80-81.

[47] “Meyer, Deutsch & co.,” Natchez Daily Courier, 3 January 1861, 2. Available online: (accessed 15 August 2010).

[48] Diary entry, 27 November 1861, Mary Jeffreys Bethel. Available online: (accessed 22 August 2012).

[49] Fletcher M. Green, ed., Ferry Hill Plantation Journal: January 4, 1838-January 15, 1839. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1961), xvii-xviii, 8, 12, 15, 19, 25. Available online: (accessed 22 August 2012). Blackford also distributed clothing to his workers as needed instead of seasonally.

[50] Kemble, Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation, 108.

[51] Jacobs, Life of a Slave Girl, 135. Available online: (accessed 23 August 2012).

[52] Elizabeth Keckley, Behind the Scenes or Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House (New York: G.W. Carleton & Co., 1868), 21-22, 45.

[53] Hughes, Thirty Years a Slave, 107. Available online: (accessed 22 August 2012). Hughes also recalled stitching up hundreds of sacks each winter to be used for picking cotton.

[54] “Wheeler & Wilson’s Sewing Machines,” Weekly Intelligencer (Atlanta, GA), 28 October 1858, 2 “Sewing Machines!” Weekly Intelligencer (Atlanta, GA), 14 October 1858, 3. Both newspapers available online: (accessed 23 August 2012).

[55] Diary entry, 28 April 1862, Laura M. Towne, 27.

[56] Journal entry, 4 February1862, Kate Stone, in Brokenburn The Journal of Kate Stone, 1861-1868 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1972), 88.

[57] “Of Interest to Tax-Payers,” Weekly Intelligencer (Atlanta, GA), 19 April 1865, 4 (reprinted from the Columbus Enquirer [Columbus, GA]). For sales of slave seamstresses see, for example, Southern Confederacy (Atlanta, GA), 21 August 1862, 2, and 2 November 1862, 1.

[58] Curry Hill Plantation Records, Georgia Dept. of Archives and History, cited in Susan Eva O’Donovan, Becoming Free in the Cotton South (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007), 102-103.

[59] W.W. Lenoir to Dear Mother, 15 January 1864, Lenoir Family Papers, Personal Correspondence, 1861-1865, Inventory # 426, Manuscripts Dept., Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Available online: (accessed 22 August 2012).

[60] T.J. Moore to Thos. W. Hill, 9 April 1863, in Upcountry South Carolina Goes to War: Letters of the Anderson, Brockman, and Moore Families, 1853-65, Tom Moore Craig, ed., (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2009), 114.

[61] Journal entry, 27 February 1865, Susan Ravenel Jervey, in Two Diaries from Middle St. John’s, Berkeley, South Carolina, February-May 1865: Journals kept by Miss Susan R. Jervey and Miss Charlotte St. J. Ravenel, at Northampton and Pooshe Plantations, and Reminiscences of Mrs. (Waring) Henagan. (Pinopolis, SC: St. John’s Hunting Club, 1921), 7.

[62] Journal entries, 3 October 1862 and 31 October 1862, Kate Stone, in Brokenburn, 146-147 and 152-153. The harness was comprised of a frame and heddles (of wood or string) through which the warp yarns were drawn individually to set up a loom for weaving.

[63] Letter from Eliza Newton Woolsey Howland to Joseph Howland, January 1862, in Letters of a Family during the War for the Union 1861-1865, vol. 1, Georgeanna Woolsey Bacon and Eliza Woolsey Howland, eds. (privately published, 1899), 249-250.

[64] Diary entry, 21 November 1862, Charles Wright Wills, in Army Life of an Illinois Soldier: Including a Day by Day Record of Sherman’s March to the Sea, Mary E. Kellogg, comp. (Washington, DC: Globe Print Co., 1906), 141. Available online: (accessed 22 August 2012).

[65] Diary entry, 14 March 1862, in The Journal of Miss Susan Walker, March 3rd to June 6th, 1862, ed. Henry Noble Sherwood (Cincinnati, OH: Historical and Philosophical Society of Ohio, 1912), 15.

[66] Letter, 27 April 1862, in Letters and Diary of Laura M. Towne, 19.

[67] “Letter from Miss. F.W. Perkins,” 4 January 1865, in The Freedmen’s Record, vol. 1, no. 2 (February 1865), 20.

[68] Darlington County slaveholder census records transcribed by Tom Blake. Available online:

[69] The Metropolitan Catholic Almanac and Laity’s Directory: For the year of Our Lord 1853 (Baltimore, MD: Fielding Lucas, Jr., 1853), 95-96 Veronica Weidig, “St. Catherine Dominican Sisters,” in The Kentucky Encyclopedia, ed. John E. Kleber, (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1992), 792.

[70] Quote taken from donors’ comments recorded in the quilt’s accession files, Kentucky Historical Society, acc. 1983.23.

[71] I am grateful to Kathleen Curtis Wilson for sharing her original research on the Bushong family and their textiles.

How did the textile industry begin?

The large-scale factory production of textiles began in the late 1700s, becoming established first in Great Britain, where a cotton-spinning machine was invented in 1783 by Richard Arkwright (1732–1792). Spinning mills were introduced to the United States in 1790 by English-born mechanist and businessman Samuel Slater (1768–1835). The 21-year-old had worked as a textile laborer for more than six years in an English mill where he learned the workings of Arkwright’s machine, which the British considered the cornerstone of their booming textiles industry laws prevented anyone with knowledge of the mill from leaving the country. In 1789 Slater, determined he could recreate the spinning mill and eager to seek his own fortune, disguised himself to evade the authorities and leave the country, sailing from England for American shores. Arriving in Providence, Rhode Island, he formed a partnership with the textiles firm Almy and Brown. Slater began building a spinning mill based on the Arkwright machine. This he did from memory. The spinning mill was debuted December 20, 1790, in the village of Pawtucket, Rhode Island, where the wheels of the mill were turned by the waters of the Blackstone River. The machine was a success and soon revolutionized the American textiles industry, which previously relied on cottage workers (the putting-out system) to manufacture thread and yarn.

Slater’s innovation, which would earn him the title Father of the American Textiles Industry, spawned the factory system in the United States. By 1815 there were 165 cotton mills in New England, all working to capacity. The early mills were not large-scale, however, and for a time after Slaters’s introductions, New England mills and merchants continued to rely on homeworkers to weave threads (now produced by the mills) into cloth.

In 1813 the Boston Manufacturing Company opened the first textile factory, where laborers ran spinning and weaving machines to produce woven cloth from start to finish. The advent of machinery had given rise to the factory system. And laborers were shifted from working in their homes to working in factories. While native New Englanders continued to provide the labor for the textile industry for the next two decades, an influx of immigrants in the mid-1800s provided the hungry manufacturers with a steady supply of laborers who were willing to work for less money and longer hours. Within the first three decades of the 1800s, New England became the center of the nation’s textiles industry. The region’s ample rivers and streams provided the necessary water power, and the commercial centers of Boston and New York City readily received the finished products. Labor proved to be in ample supply as well: Since the mill machinery was not complicated, children could operate it and did. Slater hired children ages 7 to 14 to run the mill, a practice that other New England textile factories also adopted. The Jefferson Embargo of 1807, which prohibited importing textiles, also aided the industry. New England’s mills provided the model for the American factory system. Slater had brought the Industrial Revolution to America.

New Bedford is rich in

Around 1780, William Rotch, Jr., a Nantucket Quaker moved to Bedford Village. Rotch was the owner of the first whale oil ship, the Dartmouth, to be launched in Bedford Village. She was one of the vessels boarded by the Boston Tea Party in 1773, when Francis, son of Joseph Rotch, as managing owner, protested the loss of his cargo.

In the 19th Century New Bedford gained worldwide reputation as the greatest whaling port and the richest city per capita in the world. Portuguese and Cape Verdean immigrants formed the backbone of the whaling industry, on the wharves and on the high seas. Herman Melville shipped out aboard the whale ship, Acushnet, in 1841. His experiences inspired him to write “Moby-Dick”.

Textile Industry

New Bedford’s first mill for the manufacture of cotton cloth was opened in 1846. After the turn of the century New Bedford became one of the largest producers of cotton yarns and textiles in the country, and led all centers in quality and quantity output of fine goods. Around 1920, at the height of prosperity, there were twenty-eight cotton establishments, operating seventy mills and employing 41,380 workers. The mills attracted immigrant populations from countries included but not limited to Poland, French Canada and Portugal.

The Underground Railroad and Frederick Douglass

In the days of anti-slavery agitation, the people of New Bedford showed a practical sympathy for fugitive slaves. The town was noted as one of the major “stations” of the “Underground Railroad,” which was not a railroad at all, but merely an undercover system, to provide refuge for fugitives. The most famous fugitive to settle in New Bedford was Frederick Douglass, noted abolitionist orator and leader, who lived here from 1838 to 1841. Abolitionist, Lewis Temple, opened a blacksmithing shop, which primarily serviced the whaling fleet. In 1848, Temple invented the toggle-head harpoon, which revolutionized the whaling industry.

Some Notable residents of New Bedford:

James Arnold: Whaling merchant, whose estate is now known as the Wamsutta Club in New Bedford. Donated his fortune to create the Arnold Arboretum in Boston.

Clifford Warren Ashley: Author, sailor, and artist, most famous for “The Ashley Book of Knots”, an encyclopedic reference manual, copiously illustrated, on the tying of thousands of knots. He invented Ashley’s stopper knot.

Albert Bierstadt: 19th century German-born artist whose depictions of the American West were well known throughout the country.

Paul Cuffee: merchant, and philanthropist and civil rights activist.

William Greenleaf Eliot: Co-founder and benefactor of Washington University of St. Louis. Grandfather of T. S. Eliot.

Henrietta Howland “Hetty” Green: the “Witch of Wall Street”, was the wealthiest woman in the world.

Henry Grinnell: Successful businessman who financed the outfitting of two vessels, the Advance and the Rescue, to search the Arctic for the lost Franklin Expedition.

Captain Henry M. Robert: Wrote Robert’s Rules of Order in New Bedford, the standard rules for conducting meetings.

Benjamin Russell: Artist best known for his accurate watercolors of whaling ships.

Albert Pinkham Ryder: 19th century painter best known for his poetic and moody allegorical works and seascapes, as well as his eccentric personality.

Global Leader

After 1840, Britain abandoned mercantilism and committed its economy to free trade with few barriers or tariffs. This was most evident in the repeal in 1846 of the Corn Laws, which imposed stiff tariffs on imported grain. The end of these laws opened the British market to unfettered competition, grain prices fell, and food became more plentiful.

From 1815 to 1870 Britain reaped the benefits of being the world’s first modern, industrialized nation. The British readily described their country as “the workshop of the world,” meaning that its finished goods were produced so efficiently and cheaply that they could often undersell comparable locally manufactured goods in almost any other market. If political conditions in a particular overseas market were stable enough, Britain could dominate its economy through free trade alone without resorting to formal rule or mercantilism. By 1820, 30% of Britain’s exports went to its Empire, rising slowly to 35% by 1910. Apart from coal and iron, most raw materials had to be imported so in the 1830s, the main imports were (in order): raw cotton (from the American South), sugar (from the West Indies), wool, silk, tea (from China), timber (from Canada), wine, flax, hides, and tallow. By 1900, Britain’s global share soared to 22.8% of total imports. By 1922, its global share soared to 14.9% of total exports and 28.8% of manufactured export

Watch the video: 15 Things You Didnt Know About The Textile Industry (January 2022).