The rise and structural change of textile production in Europe

Time Table

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The Upper Paleolithic (40.000 - 10.000 years ago) is one of the most interesting periods in the history of human kind. It is the time of homo sapiens coming to Europe, bringing new technologies and expressions of personal identity; Finds e.g. female figurines with cloth depiction recovered in various regions of Europe (a.o. "Venus" figurine from Hohle Fels cave), dated to ca. 35 thousand years ago. From that time also twisted and colored fibres of wool were found in the Dzudzuana cave in Georgia/Caucasus (Source: TF 1/2010, pp. 42-43). Later on impressions of plant-fibre braidings were found in nowadays Czech Republic on ceramic shards, pointing to the existence of a sophisticated textile culture there around 25,000 BC.
In the Bronze Age wool was processed and woven north of the Alps. Later the Romans reported about "Germania" as the centre of the cloth trade. Flemish historians date the beginning of linen processing around 2000 BC.

Time table: Early period of mankind to Bronze Age

We are accustomed to be looking outside Europe when searching for the origins of cultures; we know much more about advanced civilisations beyond the Mediterranean since they have left numerous written and architectural records. It is only due to progress in archaeological technology that we are now able to discover faint traces of perishable textile products created by early cultures in our own region.
The stream of facts does not begin to flow until the Middle Ages, the period following the decline of the Roman Empire, the turmoil of mass migration and the establishment of stable empires in the east and west of our continent. In the Middle Ages as in Roman times, wool was the most important textile commodity.

Time table: Antiquity

The First Industrial Revolution
Between 700 and 1300 Europe's population grew from 27 to 70 million. A first industrial revolution met the challenge of supplying all those people with everyday goods. Important new inventions were made, e.g. the water-powered fulling mill (1086) and the loom equipped with treadles and harnesses (12th century). Sheep husbandry was intensified and cloth production relocated from the countryside to the towns, accompanied by a change in gender: weaving was now done by men instead of women. Until well into the 13th century the European textile industry centred on the Flemish towns of Ypres, Ghent and Bruges as well as northern French towns such as Arras, Saint-Omer and Douai. Until the mid-13th century, only low-quality cloth was produced south of the Alps. Florence, for instance, was set up for dyeing and finishing fabrics imported from north western Europe. Both in the north and south the textile workers of the metropoles formed a virtual industrial proletariat. The first strikes were recorded in Douai in 1245.
At that time, sheep grazing had given way to more intensive forms of agriculture where there was good soil. Raw wool was supplied from England, making textile production prone to political fluctuations. When the English king Edward I imposed high tariffs in 1275 and even placed a wool embargo on continental Europe 21 years later, famine ensued in the traditional wool processing regions, leading to an exodus of their inhabitants, some of whom moved to England.

Time table: Middle Ages

The development of a sophisticated banking system in Italy during the latter half of the 13th century brought advantages for the local textile industry. Florentine bankers were able to finance wool supplies for one or two years in advance. High-quality cloth was produced in Florence as early as the beginning of the 14th century, and as many as 80,000 bales thereof were manufactured in 1338.
This improvement in output was accompanied by extreme exploitation of the human workforce and an increasing division of labour. As early as the 13th century the cottage industry gained general acceptance in Flanders and was gradually introduced everywhere. Technological developments also speeded up working processes. After a spinning wheel modelled on the Indian one had been introduced in 1268, only four to twelve spinners were required to work for one weaver. The next impetus for technical improvements to the spinning process was given by Leonardo da Vinci much later, around 1500. Between 1520 and 1530 the so-called Saxon spinning wheel with a flyer winding and treadle was introduced. Besides those in Flanders and Northern Italy, in the 16th century there existed important textile centres in England and Ireland, southern Germany, Bohemia and Upper Silesia, Lyon, Catalonia, Madrid and Granada, Portugal, the area around Naples and in Greece. In the 18th century additional, large industrial settlements developed around Moscow, St. Petersburg, the Polish town of Lodz and in Alsace.

Time table: The New Age

The Second Industrial Revolution
The second revolution of the textile industry commenced in England. Several conditions fostered this development - the bourgeoisie gained strength earlier than elsewhere (1689 Declaration of Rights); wide sectors of the population attained greater purchasing power; and cheap raw materials were available from the colonies. As in the early Middle Ages, demand exceeded supply, posing a challenge to the inventiveness of entrepreneurs and engineers. Around 1733 John Kay made improvements to the treadle loom: the fly-shuttle system was patented. In 1738 Lewis Paul and John Watt constructed the first spinning machine, and Hargreaves applied for a patent for his "spinning jenny" in 1770. The water-powered silk throwing machine, introduced in Italy in 1272, had by then long fallen into oblivion.
Although wool had been the most important raw material until that time, it was replaced gradually by cotton from 1760 onwards. Cotton processing marked the beginning of the true machine age. The spinning jenny had increased the output of a spinning mill three to six-fold. Entrepreneurs like Richard Arkwright (1732-1792) built their first mechanical spinning mills under the factory system in the 1770s.
Until 1750 all advanced textile production was carried out under the cottage system. Wealthy entrepreneurs supplied raw materials to a widely branching cottage industry, and organised the sale and distribution of the finished products. The developing factory system gathered workers in large buildings equipped with the latest production machines. The City of Manchester is a symbol of the heyday of the early factory system in England. The town originally produced linen-and-cotton blended fabrics. Since a law passed in 1721 banned the production of all-cotton fabrics, people resorted to producing "fustian", a weaving that consisted of a linen warp and - tolerated - cotton weft. This allowed the cotton trade to flourish for the first time. From 1753 onwards, cotton is being traded as a commodity on the London stock exchange.
With a few exceptions, horse power gave way to the use of water power from the early 18th century onwards. In the beginning of the 19th century water power was replaced increasingly by steam power. From 1785 onwards the first steam engines came into use in textile mills, which changed the conditions for locating production plants. It became more important to establish factories along railway lines and in the vicinity of coal fields than along rivers.
In the first half of the 19th century improvements were made to weaving and spinning machines existing in Europe and the USA. Jean-Marie Charles Jacquard took a pioneering step in their development when he introduced his weaving machine that was driven by punched cards and required just one weaver to operate it; it came to replace the labour-intensive drawlooms used previously. From 1825 until 1830 the Englishman Richard Roberts developed an automatic spinning machine called "self-actor" (self-acting spinning mule) that substantially improved the principle of the spinning jenny. In 1851 Isaac Merrit Singer managed to build a sewing machine suitable for industrial use in the USA, nearly a century after the first patent had been applied for in this technological field.
Electrical technology triggered a major wave of innovations in the late 19th century. In 1897 the German engineer Werner von Siemens introduced the first electrically operated weaving machine.
However, the most exciting developments during the latter half of the 19th century took place in the field of textile chemistry, with regard to both textile fabrics made from synthetic materials, and textile finishing. Artificial silk made of "liquid wood" and new synthetic dyes revolutionised the textile industry. The Frenchman A. Payen managed to obtain cellulose from wood as early as 1830. However, it took until 1905 for the first major viscose mill to be built in Coventry, England, and for the Courtauld Ltd. company to begin producing viscose yarns on a major scale. Other manufacturing processes for synthetic textile fabrics did not triumph until the 20th century, although they began to achieve results in the late 19th century. In 1843 the German chemist August Wilhelm von Hofmann discovered how to extract dyes from aniline, an agent found in coal tar that had been known since 1826. His assistant and successor at the London Royal College of Chemistry further developed this manufacturing process to make it ready for mass-production; he went on to build a dye factory in 1857 and began to produce "mauveine", the fashionable dye of the Victorian era.

Time table: The 19th Century

The Twentieth Century until Today
Since the post-war period, humanity has found itself in the middle of the third industrial revolution - again fuelled by enormous pressure of demand. Between 1900 and 1980 the world's population increased from 1.5 to 4.6 billion people. During the same period world fibre production was increased from 3.5 to 31 billion tons per year, which means that despite a rapid growth in population the per capita output of textile fibres is three times as high as it was in the early part of the century.
This increase in textile production is characterised by an optimisation of world trade; accelerating automation of production processes, from raw material production up to disposal management; and revolutionary developments in information technology.
These processes are accompanied by incisive structural changes. Old industrial plants are left to decay and labour-intensive production is relocated to low-wage countries, exacerbating the decline of the textile industry in our countries.

Time table: Modern Times

Why Maintain European Textile Routes?
Will a few ruins one day serve to remind us of our industrial history, as we now remember classic antiquity by its remnants? Or will we, after innumerable wars, reconstruct some of our industrial monuments as we rebuild medieval or modern buildings in town centres today? How can the history of our textile industry be revived peacefully, and passed on to future generations in an innovative way?
The European Textile Routes intend to keep this question alive in the consciousness of our countries' population while at the same time acquainting interested travellers with places of remembrance (architectural monuments, museum collection and archives) and institutions that help maintain the contemporary, creative production process, for example artist, crafts or designer associations, workshops or educational institutions. Perhaps some of our routes will help provide a few answers to the many questions raised by the witnesses of the past.

Beatrijs Sterk

Egytian flax processing

Domestic ram from Roman times


Earliest picture of a spinning wheel, 1480

Leonardo da Vinci with his flyer spinning device, 1516

James Hargreaves "Spinning Jenny" (model), 1767

Richard Arkwrights's "Water-frame-spinning machine", 1769

Cone winder system for mechanical looms, late 19th century

Spinning nozzle for the production of chemical fibres, 20th century

Modern automatic weaving machine driven by electricity, 20th century