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The Early History of Cotton Manufacturing

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

by Beth Cooper

Raise your hand if you love cotton fabric!  Yep. All quilters love cotton!  Have you ever thought about the history of cotton in quilting?  What did quilters use before cotton was available? When did cotton come into regular use?  It is all very interesting and is significant to every quilter.  After all, where would we be without cotton?

In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.  And when he got to America, he found cotton.  It was already here.  Throughout the 1500s and 1600s, it was found all over the southern part of what is now the United States.  It didn’t come into great use until the mid-1700s though.  Linen, wool, and silk were the main fabrics used prior to cotton. 

Most of the early fabric used in American quilts had been imported from Europe.  Prior to the late 1700s, American textile manufacturing was very limited.  There were no textile mills in the United States because Europe would not allow textile workers to migrate to the soon-to-be United States.  Textile production was a very necessary element of society and Europe knew that they had control of that market.  Allowing textile workers to move to the colonies would serve no purpose to the European governments.  Eventually, some skilled textile workers did escape Europe under false pretenses and move to the Americas.

In 1790, a young man named Samuel Slater moved to Pawtucket, Rhode Island.  He had the ability to memorize machinery and how it worked.  He had been an apprentice in an English textile mill and because he could recreate the machinery from memory, he soon had his own textile mill up and running in Rhode Island.  He was nicknamed “Slater the Traitor” by the English. He went on to start textile mills all across the Eastern states and was very successful. He built houses, churches, and entire communities around his mills so that his employees had homes nearby.

Samuel Slater, known as Slater the Traitor. Image courtesy of Brown University Library.

In 1793, Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin.  This was a huge moment for the future of cotton.  This machine separated the seed from the cotton filament.  This process had always been done by hand prior to this.  It had previously taken one person a whole day to separate one pound of lint from the cottonseed.  Mr. Whitney’s gin could separate 50 pounds in one day!  Modern gins can separate and bale over 500,000 pounds of cotton in one day.  The downside of the cotton gin invention was that it caused the slave trade to explode as the south needed more and more workers to pick cotton and process it.  Eli Whitney had hoped that his invention would help end slavery but it had done the opposite and had increased the evil trade.

A young Eli Whitney (Image from Wikimedia)

By the mid-1800s, the United States was leading the way with cotton exports and the textile mills were full of women. This was convenient for the mill owners, as they could pay the women less money than men, and the women were more efficient with the cotton than the men.  During the Civil War and while the men were away, the mills needed workers and families needed the money, thus children were sent to work each day instead of school.  It’s a sad, but truthful part of the history of textiles in the United States. 

There you have it – the good, the bad and the ugly of the start of American cotton manufacturing.  There have definitely been some highs and some lows on the road to cotton manufacturing in the United States.  Without it, though, we would not have the cotton industry that we have now. 

Shop here for a great selection of cotton fabric. Our ancestors would be envious of the selection!

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Vivian L Marshall
Vivian L Marshall
10 months ago

Love reading the history!

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