Hard at Work in Factories and Mines: The Economics of Child Labor during the British Industrial Revolution

By Carolyn Tuttle | Go to book overview

4
The Textile Industry

The importance of the textile industry in defining, describing and determining the nature of the British Industrial Revolution has been established by contemporaries and modern historians alike.1 The term "revolutionary" is appropriately applied to characterize the machinery, the techniques of production, the organization of workers and the levels of output associated with the silk, cotton, and later, worsted and woollen industries. The woollen industry had its roots in the twelfth century and woollen goods were Britain's main export until the nineteenth century. In 1742 the English woollen goods were described by Daniel Defoe as "the richest and most valuable manufacture in the world" ( 1742:Letter 3). The worsted industry, which utilizes the longer staple wool fibers, was particularly successful because "the rich pastures of England and of Belgium seem to be more favourable to the growth of long combing wool than any other country of the world hitherto tried" ( Ure 1835:130). The exports of the cotton, woollen and worsted, and silk manufactures for the first half of the nineteenth century are given in Appendix 4. The export of woollen and worsted goods was highest in 1815 and then fluctuates, peaking again in 1822 and 1836 but never regaining the levels exported in 1815. The export of woollen yarn, however, steadily increased from 1819 to 1845 and remained high through 1850. The silk industry, which had been given statutory protection in the fifteenth century, made its mark in 1721 when Thomas Lombe designed and built the first water powered mill for throwing silk. The new machines in his factories produced organzine, a high twist yarn, which up to this point, had been imported from Italy at considerable expense ( Bush 1987:5). The export of silk thread more than quadrupled from 1815 to 1850, despite a significant drop in the 1840s. The production of flax thread made from the bark covering of the linum plant, began using the Saxony wheel in the late Middle Ages. The Saxony or flax wheel was used to spin flax until spinning machinery was invented in 1787. Although the industry's output pales in comparison to that of cotton and wool, it became quite profitable by the 1820s with the application of automated machinery ( Clapham 1964:242). The production of flax increased with the application of steam.

Cotton's dominance is obvious even in 1815, where the export of cotton piece goods was 253 million yards and that of wool and worsted was only 12,173 yards. By 1850 the export of cotton thread was 300 times the export of woollen yarn. Subsequently,

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