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story:Rise of the factory system

scene:A fashion revolution


Printed cotton dress, English, c.1828 picture zoom © V&A Images

The eighteenth century brought a fashion revolution. Wool, the traditional textile, was replaced by cotton. Cotton clothes were lighter, cooler to wear in summer, and easy to wash, dye and print. Cotton was at first the sole preserve of the wealthy. This ‘upmarket’ image appealed to many people, and companies began producing cheap cotton goods for the mass market. For a few pence per yard, colourful printed cotton material brought choice and fashion to everyone.


Coloured-cloth hall at Leeds. The hall became the hub of a thriving cloth trade. picture zoom © Knight

Cotton consumption rose steadily. In 1771, 4,760,000lbs (over two thousand metric tons) of cotton were imported to satisfy demand. By 1802 that figure had grown to 60,500,000lbs. By 1792 almost one million pieces of white cotton cloth were produced in Britain every year.


Replica of Samuel Crompton’s mule spinning machine, c.1779. The mule was made entirely mechanised by Richard Roberts in 1830. picture zoom © Science Museum/Science and Society Picture Library

Rising demand for coarse cotton ‘fustians’ (cloth with a short pile which was worn by working men) provided the incentive for major advances in spinning technology – in particular, Crompton’s mule. By 1811, only 3.1% of Lancashire’s cotton capacity was accounted for by small workshops using the spinning jenny. The mule accounted for almost 90%.


A silk merchant and his wares. picture zoom © Science Museum/Science and Society Picture Library

Elsewhere, manufacture of brightly printed cotton cloth, or ‘calico’, accounted for 60% of cotton cloth output. Keeping up with demand required laborious hand printing to be replaced by roller-printing. By 1816 a single company could produce 2.5 million yards of printed cloth per year using this new method.


Coventry ribbons. Coventry specialised in the mass-production of these colourful items. picture zoom © Science Museum/Science and Society Picture Library

The need to keep up with massive public demand for cotton was a major stimulus to the development of a mechanised factory-based textile industry.

Mass produced cotton cloth drove down prices, making cotton clothes affordable for everyone. This was described in MacPherson’s Annals of Commerce in 1785:


A handsome cotton gown was not attainable by women in humble circumstances, and thence the cottons were mixed with linen yarns to reduce their price. But now cotton yarn is cheaper than linen yarn, and cotton goods are very much used in place of cambrics, lawns and other expensive fabrics of flax; and they have almost totally superseded the silks. Women of all ranks, from the highest to the lowest, are clothed in British manufactures of cotton … the ingenuity of the calico printers has kept pace with the ingenuity of the weavers and others concerned in the preceding stages of the manufacture, and produced patterns of printed goods which, for elegance of drawing, far exceed anything that ever was imported; and for durability of colour, for generally they stand the washing as well as to appear fresh and new every time they are washed, and give an air of neatness and cleanliness to the wearer beyond the elegance of silk in the first freshness of its transitory lustre.

MacPherson’s Annals of Commerce in 1785

Resource Descriptions

Printed cotton dress, English, c.1828
Coloured-cloth hall at Leeds. The hall became the hub of a thriving cloth trade.
Replica of Samuel Crompton’s mule spinning machine, c.1779. The mule was made entirely mechanised by Richard Roberts in 1830.
A silk merchant and his wares.
Coventry ribbons. Coventry specialised in the mass-production of these colourful items.