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The Early mechanisation of British textile production and the importance of Anna Maria Garthwaite to the silk industry

Maria van Kampen



This article will discuss the changes in British textile production in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. The focus will be on the silk industry and particularly on Anna Maria Garthwaite, who played a major role in the improvement of the Spitalfields luxury silk production during that time.

Early development of the English textile industry

All fibres, animal, vegetable or mineral, except silk, require spinning before they can be used to produce fabric (Lebeau, 1994, pp.13-16). The processes involved with textile manufacture have been known for centuries; Egyptians used flax to spin and weave linen at the time of the Pharaohs, waterwheels were known to the Romans (Yorke, 2005, p.10), and the horizontal loom had arrived on the European mainland by the thirteenth century (Whewell and Abrahart, 2017, p.16).


In England, the production of textiles remained a cottage industry, with skills passed on within families, until the early eighteenth century (Lebeau, 1994, pp.13-16).

The demand for luxury textiles increased at the end of the seventeenth century when trading routes with India and China opened up and exotic novel objects, designs and raw goods became available. These included silk and cotton, the latter being a new, hitherto unknown, fabric in Europe.  At the same time the improved standard of living of a wider part of the population meant that luxury goods and fabrics were no longer the prerogative of royalty and the Church but were now increasingly purchased by the middle classes. The increase in society’s wealth was not only coupled with a change in fashion, with an increased emphasis on luxury and comfort for clothes as well as for upholstery, but also with a new trend to protect expensive furniture with printed cotton covers. This meant that the demand for new, exotic fabrics rose exponentially (Petzold, 1991, pp.35-43).


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