Karolina Hutkova – University of Copenhagen

Seventeenth and Eighteenth-Century Asian Textiles in Europe and North America

By Karolina Hutkova


Textiles, cotton especially, have long been perceived as the driver of the historical as
well as more contemporary processes of industrialization (Farnie, Jeremy, 2004). Less researched are the pre-modern roots of these developments. Recent scholarship contends the importance of factors originating in the pre-modern era, such as favorable institutional environment (North, 1990, Acemoglu et al. 2005), international trade (Riello, 2009), adoption of new technological processes and materials (Souza, 2009), and alteration of material culture (de Vries, 1994), for enabling expansion of the European textile industry as well as for the subsequent industrialization and technological divergence. Hence, adopting a broader approach, encompassing a longer time period and focusing on events on the global scale questioning their significance, should bring a more comprehensive perspective on the proceedings uniquely shaping the European path of industrialization and modernization.

Although, the role of textiles has been examined thoroughly, some questions, as what
underpinned their central position, remain. Most often studies focus on the part played by the textile industry in steering the Industrial Revolution, emphasizing the significance of factor prices for the rise of the cotton industry in Lancashire (Broadberry, Gupta, 2009).
However, the explanations of high capital labour ratios crucial for the adoption of capital-intensive technology and thereby for triggering Schumpeterian economic growth, tend to focus on factors indigenous to Britain and hardly takes into account the significant happenings of the pre-modern and early modern periods in which the foundations of the facilitating factors had been established. The global historical context of the pre-modern era seems decisive in this respect. Historical evidence suggests that intercontinental trade with Asia, in particular with India, enabled accumulation of
experience in trading and information on commodities and consumers (Riello, 2009).

Likewise, trade in the pre-industrial era was propelled by Asian textiles (Roy, Riello, 2009) and these modified European material culture in fundamental way (Lemire, 2009). As the theories of Consumer Revolution (McKendrick, 1982) and Industrious Revolution (de Vries, 1994, 2008) advocate, demand for consumption of marketed goods led to a reallocation of time towards market labor and to increased intensity of work. This created a facilitating environment for the Industrial Revolution.

However, textile industries also affected the lives of people in the pre-modern period through the provision of employment mainly in the putting-out system. The sector was principally important for productive role of women as spinning was then one of the few employment opportunities available for women.

The Research Project

The aim of this PhD project is to examine how the Indian and Chinese silk affected the
economy and culture of Britain and its colonial markets in comparison to the influence it played in France, moreover, keeping the significance of silk in perspective with the significance of cotton in this regard.
The main factors whose importance will be assessed, are the new consumption patterns for Asian textiles in Europe and North America and their underpinnings, intercontinental trade and East India Company´s role within it and government policies in respect to textiles. When Asian textiles are addressed in the social or economic history literature the focus is typically on cottons. Comparatively, very few scholars have focused on the role of silk.

The PhD will, therefore, analyze in a comparative way, the different impacts of Chinese and Indian cotton and silk imports on the material culture of Europe with emphasis on Britain and France as these countries were correspondingly the producers of silk items. Merging demand-side approaches focusing on how Asian imports transformed material culture in Europe with supplyside approaches concentrating on changes of structure and growth of the economy brought about by these imports, would be instrumental for obtaining more comprehensive perspective of the determining processes. Meanwhile the qualitative focus would allow for taking into account all of the impelling conditions.

Methods ans Sources

Firstly, the project will focus on the differing implications of silk imports on the economy and society in contrast to cotton, paying particular attention to the social context of the
demand for silk. In order to do so inheritance records, crime records and personal letters available in institutions like the National Archives, British Library etc. will be used.
Moreover, comparison of evidence from biographies and historical fiction versus the evidence communicated by the artifacts from museums showing the personal tastes in clothing and furnishing might represent an interesting perspective.

One of the central questions to ask when comparing cotton and silk would be why silk never took the leading position among textiles and remained confined to the consumption of the upper classes. Was it the technological aspects of pre-modern silk processing that made it an item of luxury, or was it it's historical connection to social status that would not allow for silk´s mass consumption? Consequently, were these the reasons why silk industry never became a strategic industry neither in Britain nor in France? Additionally, the project will address the technological level of the English and French silk industry versus the Indian and Chinese one.

Apart from looking at the industrial aspects of production it will also assess the gender and labor issues, principally the economic and social role of women in production and consumption of silk goods. To address these issues literature recounting technical development of the silk industry e.g. Coleman (1969), Schober (1930), Warner (1921) will be consulted as well as bookkeeping records of firms such as Courtalds, which is to be found in the Essex County Record Office.
Patent records might represent interesting source of information as well. Secondly, the PhD project would concentrate on the conditions enabling Asian textiles to affect British economy in such a remarkable way. Specifically, it will briefly look at the social institutions rendering market consumption possible, as the presence of consumption laws would create an adverse environment for altering material culture as shown by Ogilvie (2004, 2009) on the case of Wurttemberg.
Literature (e.g. Kamen, 2000) dealing with the influence of social institutions as guilds, church authorities or political authorities would be consulted for these purposes.

Subsequently, more attention will be directed towards the significance of international trade and the role played by the East India Company. The project will take as it's outset the argument of O´Brien (2009), that the global links in the form of intercontinental trade supported by the global power of Britain, was central for the development of domestic textile production and subsequent technological transformation, and test the hypothesis that the East India Company played a central role in this respect by shaping the intercontinental trade with Asia.
The Company´s impact on boosting trade will be assessed, comparing cotton and silk. Hence, trade policies towards textile imports will be analyzed, especially its flexibility to respond to changes in demand, its marketing strategies and influence on the government trade policies. For this end publications about East India Company´s role in the 17th and 18th century trade and politics will be consulted (Chaudhuri, 1978, Mukherje, 1955, Parshad, 1932, Morse, 1926).

Other important sources of information should be business records of the Company, letters exchanged among its staff, petitions to the Parliament and similar records to be found in the British Library, National Archives etc. Assuming that the hypothesis of O´Brian holds, Britain should experience a significant advantage versus France, as the French East India Company was a much weaker actor in the international trade (Wellington, 2006). It would be of interest then to examine whether this advantage had been realized in the British silk industry as the hypothesis supposes had been the case for the cotton industry.

Thirdly, as the 17th and 18th centuries were times when the mercantile policies
prevailed, assessing the government views of the mounting imports of textiles would be of interest. The PhD project will, therefore, evaluate the government policies in respect to the silk industry, principally import substitution and export promotion policies. Government acts restraining or prohibiting imports of silk products and petitions of silk manufactures will be informative in this respect. Evaluating the success of these policies would be necessary. Hence, the demand for British and French manufactured silks would be assessed and compared with the success of Lancashire producers of cotton items who after an import substitution phase were able to outcompete Asian producers on the North American and West African markets (Berg, 2009).

Furthermore, if imports of Asian textiles reached such magnitude that it affected the material culture of Europe, it would be of interest to investigate whether they informed the governments´ decisions about colonial expansion. It would be essential to examine whether silk played the same role as cotton in this respect. Additionally, this draws on the role of silk in the triangular Atlantic trade.


The research project will enhance the understanding of the importance of global processes for determining the developmental paths of countries, drawing on the importance of the textile sector in the pre-modern as well as early modern period, it will assess the contribution of its specific branch the silk production for economic and social undertakings.
Apart from adding to textile history it will contribute to extending the knowledge about material culture´s significance in pre-industrial and industrializing economies. Likewise, it will enhance our knowledge about the role of intercontinental trade for altering economic and cultural setting, making contribution to trade history.
Adopting a qualitative approach will be instrumental for expanding insights into influences on governments´ decisions for adopting certain economic policies in the pre-modern period.