Lancashire cotton industry

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Last updated: April 15, 2019

Textiles have long since been synonymous with early industrialisation, and come the arrival of the mid nineteenth century the cotton factory had become synonymous with Lancashire.

As far back as the 17th and early 18th century the textile tradition of the North East had already been firmly established as the primary exponent of wool and linen, a crucial foundation to the subsequent industrial development of cotton. Writing as early as 1835, commentator and observer, Edward Baines remarked;1″the woollen and linen manufacturers have existed in this county from a very early period, and both were carried on in Lancashire before the cotton manufacture, for which they prepared the way”.By this time a growth in domestic and later overseas demands combined with the industrial traditions, social structures integral to parts of Lancashire, and a suitable natural climate injected a general stimulus into the British cotton industry.A point of view advanced by Sydney Chapman, Professor of Political Economy at the University of Manchester and academic defender of the cotton trade is that there coexists an inextricable link between technological advancement and the booming success of the cotton industry. This relationship of demand and innovation created new products that promised to penetrate ever widening markets.Owing to a comparatively small domestic market in the UK, the Lancashire Cotton Industry would never have enjoyed such acclaim, had there not been such a rapid expansion of exports.

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This prolific rise in exportation stemmed from the increasing price competitiveness and quality of British cotton goods. Lancashire producers, thriving from a wealth of specialised and skilled handloom weavers as well as the break through of spinning innovations, for the majority of the nineteenth century enjoyed monopolising the overseas market. The development of power-driven 2carding and spinning machinery as well as the introduction and modification of the 3mule around the turn of the nineteenth century meant that Britain was at the forefront of attaining optimum labour productivity and cost effectiveness as well as rivalling the fineness of Indian hand produced yarns.From the 1790s onwards the ability to export so extensively became facilitated through the development of networks of commercial agents operating abroad, thus precipitating in a broadened export base for British cotton goods. Exports especially to imperial conquest countries such as West Africa and predominantly India were of the greatest lucrative significance and dependence to the British cotton industry. These exports rose from 4two per cent in 1815 to forty per cent by the mid 1850s and had ultimately and remarkably reversed the trade process of the previous two centuries whereby India had had impregnable control of exports to Europe.

Britain’s success in dominating Asian markets was largely aided by the establishment of ‘agency houses’, in such places as Calcutta, Bombay, and Madras where permanent staff were installed. This opening for commission agents to infiltrate the rapidly growing market enforced a division of trade between producers and agents, as lacking the resources to challenge these established firms, Lancashire manufactures had to concede to the role of the client.It should be mentioned however, that according to Stanley Chapman, this division could often be somewhat precarious as agents were not always efficient at meeting their debts to the manufacturers and on account of irregular communication with Britain information about profitable lines reached their connections at the same time. Other factors also proved to be of negative influence on the market, such as outbreaks of civil war and the subsequent slump of exchange rates often compelling British manufacturers to accept payment in kind. A letter from Hodgson and Robinson in 1840 from Buenos Aires further suggests that political instability was also connected with local fashions;5’there are some pieces (of printed cottons) which have the colours of Light Blue and Green very prominent and which would be unsaleable under the present regime here’Naomi Tarrant sites in the Scottish Textile History that a lack of quality advanced dyes was the major lacking element in the eighteenth century that delayed Britain’s breakthrough into the international market.

In the mid 1780s it was the arrival of three French pioneers; the Borelle brothers in Manchester and Pierre Jacques Papillon in Glasgow who unveiled and introduced the secrets of fusing many complicated ingredients to create a revolutionary new red which had thus far alluded all British attempts.Turkey Red dyeing was a method of producing a bright red on cotton that was very fast to light, washing and bleaching. Turkey Red fabric and yarn was exported from Britain all over the world, especially to India and the Far East. Despite the process having originated in China, the textiles produced in Britain tended to be of higher quality and lower price due to the advent of the industrial revolution.

The technique reached the Middle East at an early date. And after being discovered in Turkey, hence its name, finally arrived in Europe by the late eighteenth century.The industry began in Britain in about 1785 when David Dale and George Mackintosh acquired the technique from Frenchman Papillon. In the early nineteenth century the Turkey Red industry became concentrated in the Vale of Leven in Dumbartonshire. From 1850 until 1920 these factories dominated the world market, ultimately to be made obsolete by the introduction of new synthetic dyes that were cheaper to use.Turkey Red dyeing was a long and complex process that depended on specialised knowledge and skill.The process involved thoroughly cleansing the yarn or cloth by boiling with alkali; steeping in rancid olive or castor oil, soda and cow or sheep dung, mordanting with alum and sumac; dyeing in a batch of madder, ox blood and chalk; finally, washing to brighten the colour. In the early nineteenth century the process could take three weeks or more.

It has often been cited as the most complicated dyeing process ever invented by man. All this was done in the constant stench of the process:”I always remember the water side from Bonhill Bridge to the Craft (Mill), It was a seething mass of humanity. People walking four and five across, to and from work. You could smell the Craft when it closed at night, off the workers walking by.”Numerous improvements were introduced which made the process cheaper. These included the introduction of machinery, the use of heated stoves to dry the cloth and a reduction of the amount of ingredients used. Rancid olive or castor oil was replaced by ‘Turkey Red oil’, a mixture of oils treated with sulphuric acid. In the early 1870s synthetic alizarin replaced madder as the red dye.

This made the process much cheaper.Life for those employed in the Turkey Red factories involved long and hard hours. Twelve hour days were worked, often in high temperatures and among clouds of steam beside open vessels containing boiling liquors. About half of those employed in the industry were women and children often as young as ten.

The children worked at supervising machinery, carting cloth around or helping in numerous other ways.”I was doing short hand-typing in school but my father took ill and I had to leave. I knew I had to earn a wage and the nearest and best I could do was start at the United Turkey Red. I started when I was fourteen at a time when they died yarn and cloth.”Until 1810 the Turkey Red process could only be used to produce plain red fabric or yarn.

After this date a method was available for producing patterned fabric. These patterns were made by destroying the red colour where the design was to be and printing other colours in these areas. Two methods were developed for doing this.Patterns could be produced by printing the cloth with a paste containing citric or tartaric acid.

The fabric was then passed through a bleach batch where the acid and bleach combined to destroy the red colour where the pattern lay. Other colours could be produced by incorporating them in the discharge paste or by overprinting. The colours used were very limited: yellow (chrome yellow or Persian berries), blue (Prussian blue), black (logwood), green (formed by printing blue on yellow). Again, This process was complicated, requiring highly skilled teams to make it work well:”Often, we would be struggling at the end of the day, especially if we were dyeing blacks. If the dyers were really desperate and they couldn’t get it done, they would wash it off and start again the next day. A dyer can have a tough day. He could have a dozen dyes on at one time.

Each dyer would have two girls because the dyes had to be stirred by hand and they wanted 15 and 16 year olds to do it. They just sat there stirring and would get instructions to add to it from whoever was in charge of them.”A pattern could also be made by the ‘lead plate process’. In this several layers of cloth were tightly clamped in a giant press between lead plates which had the design cut into them. A bleach liquor to which acid had been added was then forced through the cloth to destroy the colour where the pattern lay. This process was only used for very simple designs such as spotted handkerchiefs.

Often the design was overprinted with black.The factories of three companies: John Orr Ewing and Company; Archibald Orr Ewing and Company and William Stirling and Sons located in the Vale of Leven in Dumbartonshire together dominated the world market for Turkey Red cloth and yarn.The firms were all well established in the early nineteenth century and within a few decades had become the dominant forces. By 1859 one of the factories of William Stirling’s was producing 18 million yards of Turkey Red fabric and three quarters of a million pounds of Turkey Red yarn annually. In 1898, as a result of a crisis in the industry caused by tariffs on exports to India, the three companies merged in protest, to form the United Turkey Red Company.The Turkey Red factories were the largest employers in Dumbartonshire and they dominated the lives of the local community. The factory owners became heavily involved in local politics and contributed to a number of philanthropic projects.”We have sent samples of SOAP to the Eastern market.

We have heard there is a prospect of doing good business. Considered whether we should go into this business and send regular supplies to different markets. It was agreed to manufacture 5 tons of soap a week for shipment to the East” – UTR Co. minutes; 1910Turkey Red cloth and yarn was produced both for the home market and for export all over the world. In Britain the yarn was used to label household and personal linen and a limited amount of printed fabric was used for shawls and handkerchiefs.However most Turkey Red goods were sold abroad.

Mainly to Asian markets such as India and Malaysia. Large amounts were also exported to Java, China and South America. The cloth was used for saris, sarongs, shawls, shirtings and handkerchiefs. Fabric or yarn exported was always marked with one or more colourful labels bearing the manufacturers or merchant’s name. These often illustrated mythological scenes, important buildings, plants or animals. The labels served as a trademark and there was a strong brand loyalty among those buying the goods.Great care was taken to produce patterned fabric suitable for different markets, taking into account traditional designs and local tastes.

Religious preferences also had to be observed since in some markets no prints showing the human figure could be sold.These labels represented the battle for supremacy in the Turkey Red trade, which took place in the 19th century. The major fore-runners being the Lancashire and Vale of Leven ‘Turkey Red’ dyers.From the early 19th century companies identified their product by attaching black and white labels, bearing the company name, to each bale of fabric, as well as introducing their own individualised trade mark that distinguished three separate qualities of red, buyers and consumers were very much aware of the difference between the high quality fabric of Turkey Red and the inferior Alizarin red colours, which were more susceptible to fading. These soon evolved into larger, coloured pictures, often measuring 7 x 10 inches. The company name appeared in three or four Indian languages, as well as English, with a space left at the bottom for the length of material to be entered.

Initially the pictures were non-committal, avoiding caste or creed allegiances in order to appeal to as many people as possible in a country rigidly divided in terms of race, faith and caste. By the end of the century Hindu themes dominated. This made economic sense as Hindus formed the largest and wealthiest sector of the population, as well as being the initial brokers for the cloth and the major sellers in the bazaars.

As printing techniques improved, a larger number of colours could be used on a picture and it became cheaper to produce popular designs in different sizes. The larger labels were made of fine, tough paper and covered with a glossy sheen.Several Turkey Red manufacturers produced a collectable sequence of pictures on their labels, for example Steiner and Co. of Manchester, produced a series illustrating the Ramayana, the most popular of the Hindu epics. These labels required a detailed knowledge of the scriptures and accepted iconography, therefore, they would most probably have had to have been designed in India and then sent to Britain for the plates to be cut and the labels printed. The printed labels would then be returned to India and attached to the material as it was sold.In 1898 the United Turkey Red Company was formed by the amalgamation of several dyers in response to the growing competition from Indian and Japanese mills.

Although labels were still produced this marked the end of the classic era.In the 1900s the Turkey Red industry was still thriving. It exported increasing quantities of yarn and fabric to many areas of the world.

The decline of the industry was, however, already on the horizon.By 1900 synthetic dyes had been developed which produced just as bright a red as the Turkey Red process. Although dyes such as paranitraniline were cheaper to use they were not as fast to light. After two days in the Indian sun fabrics dyed with this dye had faded to a dull brick red colour. Goods produced with these dyes were sold at the cheaper end of the market. In 1914 a new type of synthetic dye known as Naphthol became available. This could produce just as brilliant and colourfast a red as the Turkey Red process.

The First World War prevented the introduction of this dye, but by the 1920s its use had made the Turkey Red process obsolete. Production finally ceased in the 1930s.Directing attention elsewhere, to other modes and fabrics of production to emerge from Europe as an export commodity, it is as significant to look at the impact of a trade that has lasted equally as long as that with India. West Africa has relied on European imported cloth of two kinds, predominantly manufactured in Manchester and the Netherlands: Firstly, Wax batik, produced by printing a resin paste on both faces of the cloth so as to match exactly by mechanical application in order to produce its characteristic cracking effect and secondly, Fancy prints; manufactured in a similar fashion, but on one side only. Often experimenting with the effects obtained by the discharge of colour.Colonials were very much supportive of the import of cheaper European imitations in favour of the local hand-production, in an obvious ploy to transfer wealth from Africa to Europe.

From a more cultural perspective, according to 6David Howe’s notion of a ‘Consumer Revolution’, there was a western emphasis on clothing African nakedness and bringing them to a level of perceived Europeanised civilization as 7Jean Camaroff also points out clothing was considered to represent, ‘the fabric of civilization’ Also, as was the case with Asian loyalty with brand names of Turkey Red, a strong degree of patronage developed between the African consumer and the European manufacturer. Factors such as African interest in proverbs as a form of discourse about social relationships, the image and idea of the hand as a means of self-empowerment, and the fact that the late nineteenth century was a period in which a literate education emerged in colonial Africa to serve and subvert the pretensions of Empire.Techniques developed by the Belgian printers Previnaire & Co. and the Scotsman Thomas Bell engineered a means to replicate cheaper Indonesian batiks1.

Indian and Netherlands textile producers had also been experimenting with the possibilities of hand-blocking imitation batiks. The products of these innovations that were introduced to Indonesia in the middle of the nineteenth century were less than successful on account of the local distaste for the subsequent cracking and bubbling effects that occurred during the process.However this proved to be a much more successful venture when introduced to the West Africans, particularly when adapted to the chintz fabric particularly as its traditional floral motifs had already gained vast popularity.

The local interest in imported cloths was grounded by the perception that such artefacts carried with them notions of luxury and hence became an important indicator of wealth, status and prestige, being utilised in various ritual and ceremonious forms and so consequently rare and expensive cloth of non-African origin acquired an elitist status. In fact dating back from the fourteenth century it has been reported and rumoured that native Africans have traded commodities such as vast sums of gold and even their own children for imported cloth.2Cloth came to represent to the West-African what money represented to the westerner, hence appropriately phrased as ‘cloth money’3 by B.W. Hodder. Perhaps it was for this great necessity and appreciation for the value and importance of cloth that the indigenous cloth production still continued to enjoy a large local market in the face of such great external competition.Apart from the Arthur Brunnschweiler & Co. at the Newton Bank Printworks in Manchester it was the Haarlem Cotton Company founded by Ebenezer Brown Flemming that produced imitated designs of west African culture such as proverbial and educational interest, ancient Eygptian visual sources and landscapes of the Dutch countryside all rendered in a style derived from Indonesian batiks.

Eygptian and Dutch landscape motifs did not survive long into the twentieth century although West African and Indonesian designs such as ‘Night and Day’, ‘The Bunch of Bananas’ , ‘The Mask’ and ‘The Back of the Tortoise’ are still in production. Further experimentations were added to the repertoire of design such as ‘The Staircase’ and ‘The Alphabet’.From 1884 onwards the 4Vlisco archives,(the company that succeeded Haarlem in 1917) showed that cloths were being printed in the Netherlands to the orders of German traders working in Mombasa, Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar creating designs with larger scale motifs in brighter colours. Africa too, however, would embrace this proliferate level of textile design and manufacture. With the construction of textile factories in almost every country in West Africa, and the aim of being independent and self-sufficient, the demand for European cloth would hit a decline. However, it’s a credit to an African patronage that was quick to recognise the advantage of other sources doing its work, whilst at the same time determining exactly what it wanted to see in its imported cloth.

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