As mills and factories grew bigger, so their internal organisation evolved. Different parts of a mill might concentrate on a particular process, like spinning or weaving. Others concentrated on a single process or product. For instance, mills in Great Harwood, Lancashire, produced only turbans and loincloths for India. Gradually, this specialisation spread outwards into towns, counties, and nations. The factory became the centre of a trade ‘web’.
For example, a textiles factory town might serve a very specific market. In Lancashire, Burnley wove for China, while Blackburn wove for India. Although textiles manufacture spread across the UK, the real powerhouse was Lancashire. By 1841, 70% of Britain’s entire cotton workforce resided there.
The factory system relied heavily on international trade. The USA provided 78% of the 1,391,000,000lbs (630,000 metric tons) of raw cotton used in Britain in 1860. When the American Civil War closed the supply lines to Britain, raw cotton was imported from India, Egypt and Brazil instead. Finished cotton cloth became a major export success for Britain. As a mill manager in Burnley recalled:
The factory system became a highly organised ‘machine’ at local, national and international levels. However, overseas competition placed the system under increasing pressure. As early as the 1840s the USA had 1240 cotton factories, only half the number in Britain but catching up fast. Britain could not expect to remain the centre of a trade web forever.