Britain endured a period of enormous economic change in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Developments occurred in so many different areas of the economy that the period has been called the Industrial Revolution. At the centre of these changes lay a series of technological inventions that allowed goods to be made in ever growing quantities and at ever cheaper prices. This led to Britain becoming known for a time in the nineteenth century as the ‘Workshop of the World’.
Dramatic changes were particularly evident in the cotton industry, which started from a much lower base and then experienced rapid growth as a result of technological innovations. It was the coming together of a whole series of changes that produced the Industrial Revolution in the textile industry, and with it, the shift from domestic to factory production. Looking at this industry gives us a valuable opportunity to study the Industrial Revolution where its impact was the most obvious.
But why the textile industry? People have always needed clothes. Evidence of cloth manufacture has been found during archaeological excavations of sites from prehistoric times onwards. In the late fourteenth and fifteenth century England had emerged as a major exporter of woollen cloth throughout Europe.
SCENE: A fashion revolution
As the scene above shows, fashion and demand fuelled a new domestic market for cotton goods and Britain became a dominant part of a world trade. Raw cotton was brought from America and the manufactured cloth was then marketed around the world.
SCENE: The trade web
Even though Britain lost ground against other European competitors, there were still major areas of cloth production in the early eighteenth century. These survived in the West Country, East Anglia and Yorkshire together with an area of growing importance for cotton cloth in Lancashire.