Fiber Wars

Chapter 2


Today, people more frequently think of diet when they think of fiber. Yet, historically, their manifold functions in daily human activity made agriculturally produced plant fibers the foundation of economies from field to factory and gave them a central role in international relations. European powers rose and fell with the vagaries of the fabric trade. The looms of Antwerp and Bruges ran on Flemish flax and English wool. In the 1700's, an upstart East Indian fiber made from seed hair threatened the British wool industry. Laws were passed banning its importation. Protectionism would not prevail, however, since the British East India Company stood to gain so much from the new fiber. Bertha Dodge in her historical monograph, Cotton: The Plant That Would Be King, explains that "By 1719, this industry had grown to such proportions that the woolen interests, through Parliament, again tried to have the importation of raw cotton interdicted, this time meeting with no success whatever."8 Cotton became a world power,9 and is credited as the single greatest force in the early economic development of the US:

While the immigration of people and particularly capital into the United States played an important part in our growth in the thirty years after 1815, it was the growth of the cotton textile industry and the demand for cotton which was decisive....The vicissitudes of the cotton trade-speculative expansion of 1818, the radical decline in prices in the 1820's and the boom in the 1830's-were the most important influence upon the varying rates of growth of the economy during the period....The demands for western foodstuffs and northeastern services and manufactures were basically dependent upon the income received from the cotton trade.10
A coarse fabric, "tow-cloth," made from hemp was used for summer clothing, but "It is doubtful if American hemp will ever again be used for such purposes, not so much because flax linen is a better product, but because the cheapness of cotton has enabled this fiber to supersede both hemp and flax in common manufactures in the domestic economy."13

Before cotton entered the arena, linen from flax had been the highest valued fabric, its usage tracing into prehistory. Flax lost its preeminence when a series of mechanical inventions shifted the economics of cotton fabric production, and commenced the industrial revolution. The fly-shuttle, invented by John Kay in 1733, speeded up the looms, increasing the demand for thread, a demand met by the invention of the spinning jenny by John Wyatt in 1738. These tools could be concatenated and driven by water or steam in the new, centralized work environment, the factory. Whitney's cotton gin appeared in the 1790's after which the raw cotton to supply the needs of English factories came increasingly from the American South. "The ten bales reaching England in 1784 from the new United States...had become about one-third of a million bales by 1820, over two and a half million by 1860."11 Whitney's machine, by mechanizing the delinting of Upland cotton, the American variety, engendered the slave-based plantation system needed for labor-intensive cotton agriculture.

The changes in cotton manufacture transformed fiber economics. Cotton quickly took over markets previously dominated by flax, and to a lesser degree by hemp, in the US and Europe. By 1850, flax culture had nearly disappeared in the US. It had long endured as a cottage industry, each rural household having its own small plot for domestic use.

"From a series of papers written between 1787 and 1791, by Mr. Tench Coxe, Commissioner of Revenue..., it appears that manufactures from flax and hemp had become an established and very important [cottage] industry; he enumerates, among articles 'manufactured in a household way,' seines and nets of various kinds, twine and pack thread, sail-cloth, tow-cloth, white and checked shirting, sheeting, toweling, table-linen, bed-ticks, hosiery, sewing thread, and seine-thread lace."12

Domestic Bast Fibers

Fiber Wars: Table of Contents