This post is part of our #AliceClark100 Online Reading Group. In it Amy Erickson offers some reflections on the third main chapter of The Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century, on ‘Textiles’. Amy is a University Lecturer in British Economic and Social History 1500-1750 at the University of Cambridge. You can access the book here.
Alice Clark’s chapter on textiles concentrates on spinning, the textile production process which involved the most people, the overwhelming majority of whom were female. The production of cloth required several times more spinners than weavers (who were primarily male), whether the fibre in question was derived from a plant (flax or hemp) or an animal (wool or silk). As Clark puts it, ‘From the general economic standpoint, the textile industries rank second in importance to agriculture … but in the history of women’s economic development they hold a position which is quite unique.’ This was not only true of England: textiles were the principal export of most European countries over 300 years.
An early post on Many Headed Monster by Mark Hailwood explored the ubiquity of spinning and included two woodcut images of women sitting at spinning wheels that were used to illustrate early modern ballads. The term ‘hand-spinning’ describes spinning both by wheel and by distaff or drop spindle, a method which can be used while walking, as in Paul Sandby’s mid-18th century drawing of a woman carrying a distaff (courtesy of the trustees of the British Museum).
A decade after Working Life, Ivy Pinchbeck provided further evidence on spinning in the period 1750-1850, when hand spinning in the home was largely replaced by water-powered factory spinning. This transition from hand to machine, from home to factory, has recently received detailed attention. Craig Muldrew (2012) estimated that by the later 18th century hand spinning employed nearly 75% of all women over age 14, or 1,500,000 women. The transition to mechanisation, which not only increased productivity but also employed increasing numbers of men rather than women, would have caused mass female unemployment and thereby significant impoverishment.
Clark alludes to rising wages in spinning in the early 18th century, with reference to Defoe’s writings. High spinning wages have recently been claimed to have been the spur for the mechanisation of spinning, beginning in the 1760s with cotton, which is viewed as the ‘spark’ of the Industrial Revolution. John Styles (2016) complicated that grand narrative by showing that it was a very local competition in Lancashire between wool producers and cotton producers for female spinning labour that produced the ‘spinning jenny’ in the 1760s, and that the crucial spur to mechanisation was the rapid growth of the North American market over the 18th century. Jane Humphries and Benjamin Schneider (2019), re-assessing contemporary estimates and investigating a collection of actual accounts, as opposed to estimates, suggest that productivity was much lower than assumed and therefore spinning wages were almost everywhere low, regardless of fibre and quality of yarn.
Clark’s aim in focussing on the 17th century was to understand just how different a pre-industrial England might have looked from the fully industrial late 19th century. Her scope was limited to the records available at the time in the British Library: state papers, pamphlets, and published local histories and civic corporation records. Most of the evidence comes from the first half of the 17th century, and particularly from the depression of the 1620s which generated many sources in terms of petitions about loss of work and government concern with unrest among those out of work. Clark uses ‘spinster’ in its occupational sense (a meaning it retained until at least the 1801 census in some parts of the country).
She found evidence of spinsters’ agency in petitions and suits that they brought against employers about payment, and equally in petitions from clothiers/middlemen about malfeasance by spinners like embezzlement (i.e., subversion of the capitalist employers). Clark differentiated labour relations in spinning between the housewives who spun flax to meet household needs for linen (underwear and household linen), and the women who worked for a piece rate in the already capitalised wool or luxury industries to produce for the domestic and overseas market, both of which were growing.
Those who worked for cash were further distinguished between women who acquired their own fibre and sold the spun product to the weaver or clothier, and women who were given fibre to spin and returned it for a piece rate, on a putting out basis. Income from spinning is difficult to calculate because the piece rate does not give the time taken. But in Clark’s view a spinster even in wool, the highest paid fibre, could not make a living wage, a conclusion which is complicated by the difficulties of ascertaining what a living wage might have been in the 17th century. Certainly spinning labour was fostered in schools for poor children and imposed in workhouses, as much for the moral lessons thereby imputed as for a shortage of yarn. Clark describes spinning as a ‘sweated industry’, meaning a laborious and very low paid labour – a coinage of the 1880s.
Clark saw labouring for a piece rate overtaking the self-reliant housewives over the course of the century, and she was probably right, although even in the mid-18th century wives and daughters were spinning flax for household consumption as well as cotton and wool for a wage, as Alice Dolan (2014) showed from a Lancashire account book which is the only surviving record of a husbandman in the 18th century.
In her analysis of the luxury fibres – including the spinning of silk and of precious metals for lace and for inclusion in cloth – Clark curiously assumed no growth in the luxury market, whereas we now know that market expanded enormously over the 17th and the 18th centuries. What that expansion did for wages still remains to be investigated. Spinning silk and metal required very particular skills. Neither of these were ever outsourced to a workhouse, as spinning candle wicks and mop heads were. Clark points to the silkwomen who had managed the trade in the middle ages, but thought they had disappeared by the 17th century.
Certainly the vast majority of women working in textiles did so for a wage rather than as an employer, but there were also independent women traders in the early modern period. Through collections of letters and accounts, Trish Crawford examined the clothier Elizabeth Harvey, and Pam Sharpe the lace dealer Hester Pinney. Sarah Birt, Jessica Collins, Laura Gowing and I have begun to explore the women who were employers in the needle trades in London through the guild records. Clark uses ‘clothing trade’ in this chapter in its early modern sense to mean cloth-making, rather than the modern sense of the production of clothes.
Clark’s conclusion states her deductions in typically bold fashion: ‘The fact that the nation depended entirely upon women for the thread from which its clothing and household linen was made must be remembered in estimating their economic position. Even if no other work had fallen to their share, they can hardly have been regarded as mere dependants on their husbands’ (145). It was her own middle-class Victorian experience which was the historical anomaly in regarding women as economically inactive.
Clark’s argument is sweeping, and identifies the central importance of spinning in the national economy which has only in the last decade been acknowledged (again) as pivotal. Research now focuses on the significant regional disparities in textile production, and on understanding long lost techniques – many of which were specific to particular types of textile – using records collected since the 1960s in county record offices.
A great deal more research is still needed on textiles, not least on the other processes involved besides spinning and weaving: the flax sowing, gathering, heckling, retting, and bleaching; the shearing, carding, burling, combing, fulling, calendaring, and tenting necessary for wool; the throwing, reeling, and spinning of silk; as well as on the importation of fibres and yarn for finishing in England. Women may be found to have played a role in most of these processes, at the labouring end and at the capitalist end, and as in Clark’s day, we still need to understand more about the relationship between the two.
Jessica Collins, ‘Jane Holt, milliner, and other women in business: apprentices, freewomen and mistresses in the Clothworkers’ Company, 1606–1800’, Textile History 44:1 (2013), 72-94.
Patricia Crawford, ‘A decade in the life of Elizabeth Harvey of Taunton 1696–1706’, Women’s History Review 19 (2010), 245-57.
Alice Dolan, ‘The fabric of life: time and textiles in an 18th-century plebeian home’, Home Cultures 11:3 (2014), 353-74.
Laura Gowing, ‘Girls on forms: apprenticing young women in 17th-century London’, Journal of British Studies 55:3 (2016), 447-73.
Jane Humphries and Benjamin Schneider, ‘Spinning the industrial revolution’, Economic History Review 72:1 (2019), 126-55.
Craig Muldrew, ‘“Th’ancient Distaff” and “Whirling Spindle”: measuring the contribution of spinning to household earnings and the national economy in England, 1550–1770’, Economic History Review 65:2 (2012), 498-526.
Ivy Pinchbeck, Women Workers and the Industrial Revolution, 1750-1850 (Routledge, 1930).
Pamela Sharpe, ‘Pinney, Hester (1658-1740), businesswoman’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: https://doi-org.ezp.lib.cam.ac.uk/10.1093/ref:odnb/55393
John Styles, ‘Fashion, textiles and the origins of industrial revolution’, The East Asian Journal of British History, 5 (2016), 161-189. Open Access at: https://www.history.ac.uk/publications/east-asian-journal-of-british-history
John Styles, Spinning in the Era of the Spinning Wheel at http://spinning-wheel.org/.