[March 4, 2016] Transcending Fibers and Regions

Transcending Fibers and Regions: Global Manufacture and Circulation of “Cheaper” Cloth-Clothing, 17th-20th Centuries

Friday, March 4, romm 8, 105 bd Raspail, Paris, 3:00-7:00 pm


1. Miki Sugiura (Hosei University, Japan, GHC Member )
2. Naoko Inoue (Tokyo International University, Japan, GHC junior- member)
3. Izumi Takeda (Wako University, Japan, GHC Member)
4. John Styles (University of Hertfordshire)


This workshop aims to describe the global manufacture of “cheaper” cloth and clothing in the 18th and 20th centuries. It takes an object-based approach, and repositions the research on the long-term development of three items: cotton-linen, slave cloth/clothing, and silk spun cloth/clothing. The manufacture and development of these items requires a trans-regional/transnational as well as what we term a “trans-fiber” contextualization. Although recently scholars have increasingly succeeded in considering textile circulation beyond national frameworks, many studies continue to be divided according to the type of fiber used, for example, wool, cotton, linen, or silk. However, simultaneously, we concede that English term “cotton” meant certain fabrics made of wool before the arrival of Indian “cotton” fiber, while the label “linen” involves fabrics made of both linen and cotton fiber throughout the 18th-19th centuries. We argue that thinking not in terms of fibers but in terms of how the specific uses and functions of cloth-clothing were replaced, transferred, and developed using new forms and fiber mixes opens the doors to new interpretations.

Presentations in this workshop focus in particular on how “cheaper” ranges of cloth–clothing were manufactured. The first presentation considers how slave clothing was made in the 18th century in the context of Dutch trading posts, where various ranges of imported products were mingled. The second presentation will demonstrate how the so called consumer revolution in Northwestern Europe can be positioned differently when considered from the perspective of multiple fibers, while the third presentation considers the multifaceted context in which mechanized spun silk was bought, focusing on late 19th and early 20th century Japan. Finally, the forth presentation bridges over three other presentations and repositions check cotton linens of Lancashire in global contexts.

All presentations assume as their starting point the situation whereby wool, cotton, linen, and silk were mingled and then expand to consider long-term global contextualization, taking North Western Europe, Italy, India, and Japan as reference points.

Presentation 1: Miki Sugiura: Slave Clothing and Early Modern Dutch Textile Circulations in the Indian Ocean World

The production and circulation of slave clothing in the 18th century were challenging in two respects: First, they had to meet the constant and collective demand for cloth and clothing in remote areas, and second, the clothing had to be cheap. Clarifying this process is also very challenging as the records are often scarce and, moreover, the contexts of slave cloth and clothing varied entirely according to region. Therefore, even when the same labels of, for example, “Guineas” or “Negro Cloth” were used and applied to slave wares inter-regionally, we should be very careful in connecting them. Nevertheless, their manufacture is a crucial aspect of the global history of clothing.

By examining how slave cloth and clothing were created and circulated in different Dutch trade posts of the Indian Ocean, this presentation clarifies how textiles were circulated and used for dressing in the global context. The presentation focuses on two rather isolated fringe points of circulation, namely Cape Town and Japan. First, by examining the epistemology of labels used for the imported textiles in Japan from the late 15th century onwards, it will be revealed how the cloth, originally intended for slaves in a Portuguese context, had turned into a major populuxe good by the 17th century in other locations. The paper will then demonstrate how slave clothing was actually manufactured to meet the growing demand in Cape Town colonies, using imported cheap textiles from both India and Europe. Finally, the British takeover of the colony will then clarify how the disconnected slave clothing in Dutch circulation came from British circulations.

Presentation 2: Izumi Takeda: Positioning Irish coarse linens in an eighteenth-century global context (tentative)

The purpose of this paper is to present a framework for discussing textile industries and apply it to the eighteenth-century Irish linen industry. Though it is common in the field of economic history to study textile industries according to their fibers, this paper tries to remove the walls between fibers and focuses on textile names. What consumers/users of textiles value most is their characteristics rather than what they are made of. As names of textiles usually correspond to their characteristics, the consumers/users immediately identify the textile from its name and decide what to buy or what to use.

In addition, we must be aware that each textile name works as a category and often includes more than one fiber The term “linen”, for example, which is generally defined as a fabric made of flax fiber has a broad meaning including not only flax-cotton mixed fabrics but also pure cotton ones at times. Therefore, the framework applied here automatically requires a “trans-fiber” perspective.

Bearing the above in mind, this paper deals with the term “Irish linen” as a composition of many different kinds of fabrics and discusses how the specific kinds of coarse linens were produced under the mercantile policy of Britain, which was then preparing itself for the Industrial Revolution and producing flax-cotton mixed fabrics such as fustian.

Presentation 3: Naoko Inoue: Silk waste, Spun Silk Cloth, and Meisen Kimono: Technological Transfer and Emergence of New Industry and Products in Japan from the late 19th century to the 1930s

Although cotton is considered as king of fibers on the field of the global economic history, the technological transfer in Japan’s silk reeling industries in the latter half of the 19th century has distinctive meaning in Asia’s ‘catch-up’ to the West. Where there is sericulture /silk production, there is its by-product; silk waste. Shedding lights on the emergence of the silk-spinning industry, the most efficient way to recycle the silk waste, we can still break new ground in the global history.

The silk waste industry, from the very beginning, was able to use cotton-spinning machinery and develop as a factory-based large-scale industry, and this makes it different from the silk reeling. From the consumer point of view, people of the period sensed spun silk as something between cotton and raw silk and the industry eventually gave way to rayon. Relatively cheap spun-silk kimono, meisen, with vivid colors and global motifs expanded the market in the 1920s.

Japan, even when sales for cotton products weren’t growing. That means people of that time didn’t only seek cheap prices, but they were, actually, in need of ‘silk-like’ cheap and flamboyant kimono. The success of meisen induced the weavers to produce ‘cotton /rayon meisen’ in the later period.

In other words, from the establishing process, spun silk has trans-fiber attributes in the context of quality, price and use, and it aroused the desire for the Japanese trans-fiber ‘fast fashion’ through the modern retailing system of department stores and local wholesalers.

Presentation: John Styles, ‘Cotton-linen checks and their markets in the eighteenth-century British Atlantic’

Check fabrics (toiles et siamoises à carreaux) were one of the principal products of the Lancashire cotton industry in the mid-eighteenth century, on the eve of the Industrial Revolution. Indeed, Joseph Inikori, in his Africans and the Industrial Revolution in England (2002), has argued that it was the exchange of Lancashire checks for slaves in West Africa that was the crucial stimulus to mechanical innovation in cotton manufacture in the 1760s and 1770s. Yet checks were a novelty in eighteenth-century Britain. Before 1700, they were neither widely manufactured, nor widely used.

The paper identifies the rise of linen and cotton checks in Britain as one element in a much broader trend towards lighter fabrics across early-modern western Europe. Many of these lighter fabrics combined different fibres in new, or unfamiliar mixes. Sometimes they employed cheaper variants of familiar materials. Textiles originating in India were especially prominent here, whether in their own right, or in the form of European copies. The checks woven in Lancashire were imitations of the Indian all-cotton check fabrics, such as chelloes, imported to Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, principally to be traded for slaves in Africa. Like their Indian equivalents, they were exported to Africa, though at a lower price point, yet they differed from the Indian originals not only in their price, but also in their fibre content. The Lancashire checks sold in large quantities in Britain and its American colonies, where Indian checks were in less demand than in West Africa. The paper assesses the shape of the market for Lancashire linen and cotton checks in Britain and its American territories – who used them, slave or free, and how they were used. Finally it argues that, contrary to Joseph Inikori’s view, it is unlikely Lancashire checks were a key stimulus to mechanical innovation in the British cotton industry, due to the way they combined different fibres.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.