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Learning from the muse: Indian cotton textiles and British industrialisation

Raman, Alka (2021) Learning from the muse: Indian cotton textiles and British industrialisation. PhD thesis, London School of Economics and Political Science.

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Identification Number: 10.21953/lse.00004316


The thesis offers a new perspective on technological change in the British cotton industry. It explores the influence of Indian textiles on the process of cotton manufacturing, partly to match certain qualities of the products imported from India. Whereas an existing scholarship stresses this factor, the thesis analyses the nature of the influence with novel material evidence and a systematic review of documentary sources. The thesis asks one main question: what was the impact of the imitation of Indian cotton textiles on the growth of cloth making and printing in Britain during the period 1740-1860? Using textual sources, the thesis identifies that the Indian influence was transmitted to the British cotton industry via the pursuit of quality to match that of the benchmark Indian cottons. It disentangles this impact by examining surviving British and Indian cotton textiles from this period through the lens of quality improvements related to cloth making and imprinting dye colours on to the cloth. The research finds that cloth quality in the British cotton industry improved 99% from 1740- 1820, measuring quality in terms of thread per inch count. It demonstrates a material shift towards lightweight, washable, affordable and fashionable cotton textiles. It shows that the process of imitation of Indian cottons provided solutions for two critical bottlenecks within cloth-making in Britain – first, the ability to make the all-cotton cloth, followed by the ability to make the fine all-cotton cloth. Connecting the findings from the material evidence with the mechanical evidence, the thesis identifies the making of the spinning jenny as basic mechanisation of the Indian spinning process, the waterframe as further mechanisation that enabled the overcoming of the first bottleneck and the making of the all-cotton cloth, and the mule as the key machinery that enabled the overcoming of the second bottleneck and the making of the fine all-cotton cloth. In line with historical textual evidence, it identifies a skillgap within the British labour force related to the ability to spin adequate cotton warp that could compete with Indian cottons, and an early recognition amongst entrepreneurs to adopt mechanical spinning as a means of bridging this gap. It demonstrates that a combination of skill, technique and fibre staple determines final cloth quality, not the fibre staple in isolation. In relation to calico printing, the thesis shows that print quality of British calicoes evolved to converge with that of Indian printed and painted cotton textiles. Textual evidence shows that 5 codified knowledge related to cotton printing techniques was transferred from India to Britain via Europe, and that Indian artisanal techniques of cotton printing and dyeing were adopted in Britain. The research finds that Indian textile dyeing techniques pertaining to Chay root used for imparting the colour red to cloth were adapted to develop the Turkey red process of red dyeing in Europe and Britain. It also identifies an intersection between the artisanal-empirical exploration of Indian dyeing techniques and the separately evolving science of chemistry through an overlap in the interests for understanding the properties of organic dye materials and their use in the creation of chemical dyes. The study also points out that the historiography of dyestuffs, specifically the strand related to painting with blue on cloth, requires revision. Mainstream literature on the subject holds that the ability to paint with indigo on to cloth was first developed by the English around 1738 using the arsenic technique. This is in direct contrast to surviving material evidence in museums around the world where Indian textiles from as early as the 12th century are deemed by curators to have indigo painted on them. Scientific investigations of a handful of these Indian textiles using Raman Spectroscopy, X-Ray Fluorescence and Gas Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry have revealed that the blue deemed painted is indeed indigo but does not contain arsenic. This finding suggests that further scientific experiments are needed for the establishment of a correct and evidence-based historiography of textile dyes in human history.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Additional Information: © 2021 Alka Raman
Library of Congress subject classification: H Social Sciences > HC Economic History and Conditions
H Social Sciences > HD Industries. Land use. Labor > HD28 Management. Industrial Management
Sets: Departments > Economic History
Supervisor: Roy, Tirthankar

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