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.
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.
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%.
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.
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:
MacPherson’s Annals of Commerce in 1785