The British textile industry dates back to the Middle Ages and continues to be an important part of the worldwide clothing manufacturing business. Before the Industrial Revolution, textiles made from wool, flax or cotton were a cottage industry, produced by families in their homes for sale to clothiers (traveling merchants who sold cloth). These textiles were produced by spinning, weaving ...
The British textile industry dates back to the Middle Ages and continues to be an important part of the worldwide clothing manufacturing business. Before the Industrial Revolution, textiles made from wool, flax or cotton were a cottage industry, produced by families in their homes for sale to clothiers (traveling merchants who sold cloth). These textiles were produced by spinning, weaving or knitting, depending on the fabric used.
Beginning in the Middle Ages, England became a world center for the production of woolen cloth. The concentration of sheep pastures in the Midlands and throughout England made for a ready supply of wool. Clothiers (also called drapers) usually directed the manufacture of woolens, which involved many steps often performed by different laborers. The clothier purchased raw wool and provided it to carders who prepared it for spinners, weavers and dyers.
The next major development of the English textile industry came in the 17th century with the growing importance of international trade. By that time, the industry had grown to employ more people and had begun to export some of the cloth it produced. This growth resulted in increasing centralization in the textile industry. The British cotton industry, based in Lancashire, also grew from the imports of the 17th century, primarily from India and the American colonies. In the 17th century, British textiles were also part of the "triangular trade" between Europe, the Americas and Africa. Goods, including brightly colored fabrics, were brought from Europe to Africa, where they were exchanged for slaves who were then sold in the American colonies. By 1680, the English East India Company was importing more textiles than spices. This international trade also influenced the European fashions of the period, which took advantage of the variety of fabrics that had become available. British manufacturers protested the rapid growth of textile imports, and in 1700 Parliament restricted some of the imports, which spurred the expansion of the British textile industry.
Textile production was also one of the major industries to shape the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century. Inventions such as the flying shuttle (1733), spinning jenny (1764) and power loom (1784) mechanized the industry, making it possible to produce cloth more quickly and efficiently. The British led Europe in mechanizing the production of textiles and guarded their trade secrets carefully, even preventing skilled workers from traveling abroad. Beginning in the 1740s, textile mills sprung up in Manchester and other cities. These mills used the assembly-line method and became a model for factories in other industries. The conditions of workers in the mills were very poor. Men, women and children worked as many as 68 hours per week in crowded, often unsanitary conditions for very low wages. Though conditions gradually improved in Britain, especially after reforms mandated in the early 19th century, illegal sweat shops continued to employ immigrants into the 20th century.
The cotton industry in Britain had grown significantly by the 19th century, outpacing the export of wool by 1803. It experienced a crisis that came to be known as the "Lancashire Cotton Famine" when cotton exports from the American South were blockaded during the American Civil War. The resulting unemployment changed the industry, which survived but never reached the levels of success it had enjoyed before the 1860s. The British cotton trade was further damaged by World War I, which caused exports to Axis countries to cease, and the boycott of British cotton organized by Gandhi as part of his campaign for Indian independence. The decline of the English cotton industry continued until the late 20th century when it all but ceased to exist. In addition to the loss of the industry, these events devastated the mill towns in Manchester, Lancashire and other cities that had grown up around it.
In the period following World War II, the British industry gained some momentum with its contributions to the development and production of synthetic fabrics, such as nylon. The industry also shifted toward fashion design and retail clothing sales. British retail chains such as Marks & Spencer supported local manufacturing firms and kept the industry in business, though on a much smaller scale than before.
At the beginning of the 21st century, the British textile industry maintains nearly 5,000 firms and employs more than 130,000 people. With sales of almost £8 billion, the industry specializes in industrial fabrics, though it is still known for its woolens as well. The industry continues to be concentrated in the northwest region of England.