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Sunday, 13 November 2011

The new craze for cotton

 This is a slightly expanded version of a guest blog I posted on 'Prinny's Tailor' a couple of months ago

 Up to the 1790’s the way to show off wealth had always been with sumptuous silks and beautiful brocades, the stiffer and more covered with brocading, embroidery, gold threads and so on the better.
Then along came the French Revolution and a sudden craze for neo-classicism.  Portraits of the likes of Madame Recamier showed women in skimpy lawn and muslin looking sexy; and gone were panniers and brocades.

Mme Recamier 1800 by J. L. David

The centre of the cotton industry was to beManchester, which had been the northern centre of the textile trade since Tudor times.  However cotton had hitherto been an import, Indian chintz and printed calico being brought by the Honourable East India Company [also know as the ‘John Company’].  Over the century from 1701 to 1801 cotton went from being largely imported to being a major export, this revolution in production taking place dramatically from the mid 1790’s.

Cotton prices were also falling dramatically: Cuenca Esteban [quoted in C. Knick Harley ‘Cotton Textile Prices and the Industrial Revolution’ JSTOR] claims that prices fell by  one third  between 1770 and 1801 and by a further 50% before 1815.  This was due in great measure to increases in technology that permitted greater amounts of very fine cotton to be woven that rivalled the fine Indian muslins and therefore permitted the production of the same at home without import costs.
Lawn had always been a fine, sheer fabric woven from linen, but over the last years of  the 18th century there was a gradual shift from linen as the lightweight yarn of choice to cotton, at first in union, calico for example being made with a warp of linen, woven with a weft of cotton; but gradually all cotton lawn and calico appeared. 

Muslin, the finest of plain weave cottons was king; it could be sheer enough to see through as a gauze through which silk petticoats could be viewed in an ever shifting cloud of fabric; or even worn by the more daring, perhaps wetted to be even more transparent, over the knitted pink undergarments that were totally shocking to the older generation and too daring even for many of the younger.  It could be woven with stripes or checks of heavier yarn in the weave, or spots, or patterns figured in floating picks to appear on the surface; or it could be embroidered.  It could even have metallic threads woven in or be embroidered with metallic threads, and an Indian technique could apply patterns of gold or silver foil. 

These are all modern fabrics but show some of the woven effects that were extant including one with metallic threads included.

These are all modern Indian embroidered muslins but again of similar nature to what would be found in the regency including the one with gold embroidery.

Wherein lay the hidden conspicuous consumption?
In the laundering – or rather in the difficulty of laundering.
Linen could be boiled to get rid of stains, but the delicate muslins, before deodorants, would pick up in a hot ballroom all those unpleasant stains under the arms that would turn them yellow.  Could this be why the colours Primrose, Straw, Jonquil and canary yellow were popular, because they did not show the stains as badly? 
White muslin does not stay white for long.  It does not wash white easily without modern washing powders; and there wasn’t even Reckitt’s bluebag until 1850.  So to be able to afford to wear a fine white fabric was of itself a status symbol.

Cotton also came as calicos, which could be readily dyed and printed.  The printing techniques using rollers meant that the ‘Regency stripes’ we associate with the period were readily available, often with  stems of leaves in stripes; there were also diagonal stripes.  One technique I find particularly fascinating is the printing of the cloth with different mordants [a mordant helps a dye cling to the cloth, different mordants can change the colour of a dye] that was then dyed as a piece with quercitron, from oak bark, to make a pattern of different shades of drab.  Hard wearing calico was less high status than muslin but both practical and pretty with the varieties of patterns becoming available and justly never lost popularity. 


  1. This was extremely interesting! Two questions: where was the raw cotton coming from?? India (which was on its way to becoming a British colony), the American south, or both??? Second: aside from the interest in yellow, which you have shown could be popular for an entirely practical reason, how were fabric designs being developed?? Were these conscious and deliberate imitations of Indian models?? or were there any original designs being developed in Manchester?? and if so, by whom??


  2. The raw cotton came from both India and the American South, though the latter became increasingly important, causing a great deal of economic upheaval later with the War Between the States. Egyptian cotton became important then as well as Indian cotton having an increase in production.

    As I understand it, designs for printed cottons started out as copies of brocades, but there were independant designs with the ability to print stripes, both along the cloth and diagonally across the cloth for a different effect. There were certainly dedicated fabric designers! Joseph Davy of Lyon was designing for Napoleon as a silk weaver for example, and I cannot see that designers for prints would not be equally readily available in Manchester and elsewhere. This was an age when Ackermann made prints of desirable interiors; half a century since Chippendale had published a trade catalogue to show designs that might be copied [more on that at the Georgian Gentleman's blog by the way] and there was a widespread interest in art and design.
    Online the earliest samples I can readily find are 1837, see
    Paisley designs had been introduced to Western Europe in the mid 17th century [hence the pattern bearing the name of a Scottish town renowned for printing not weaving the patterns rather than some Indian name] and remained a popular basis for many designs, but by the early 19th century a long way removed from their Iranian/Indian roots. The famous paisley silk shawls of Norwich too are definitely English paisleys.
    There may have been independant designers, some working within factories and, I suspect, a number of firms who designed for printing. Now I have to go and find out for certain, but it may take me a while.

  3. Very interesting...I knew something about the history of you know this blog site:

    I would be interested to hear more about designers, particularly if they were influenced by Indian or Middle Eastern prototypes...

    But my additional question is: what about the origin of the cotton from the American south?? Was there any talk, ever, of boycotting American southern cotton from abolitionists??? Did Abolitionists wear wool, to make a point??

    As usual, this irritating reader is curious about the intersection between consumerism and ideology??


  4. I suspect that most people didn't associate cotton with slavery - because cotton had always come from India, the majority source. I've never heard of anyone boycotting cotton. I shouldn't be surprised though, if anyone out there knows enough to inform me of people like the Society of Friends doing so. I'll tweet to ask.
    I've added that excellent blog to my list of places I like, thanks for that!