Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



From Textiles in Trade: Proceedings of the Textile Society of America Biennial Symposium, September 14–16, 1990, Washington, DC


Copyright © 1990 by the author(s).


In the eighteenth century, a great deal of linen was produced in the American colonies. Virtually every farming family spun and wove linen cloth for its own consumption. The production of linen was the most widespread industrial activity in America during the colonial period. Yet at the same time, large amounts of linen were imported from across the Atlantic into the American colonies. Linen was the most important commodity entering into the American trade. This apparently paradoxical situation reflects the importance in pre-industrial society of the production and consumption of the extensive range of types of fabrics grouped together as 'linen'.

The range of uses of 'linen' is greater than for any other type of fabric. Clothing, bedding, the table and other domestic needs required various sorts of linen, and the transport and packaging industries required others - sailcloth, sacking and bagging of all sorts. The range of quality was considerable, from the finest cambrics and lawns and damasks to the coarsest sackcloths. In colonial America there was a sort of dual economy: basic linen needs were provided outside the market by the widespread domestic production of homespun coarse linetv while the market was dominated by a range of better-quality (though still low-priced) linens imported from England, Scotland and Ireland, and imported too from the continent of Europe (especially Germany) via London.

The point was well made by Thomas Fitch, a Boston upholsterer, writing in 1726. 'Very coarse 3/4 Garlets [i.e. linen from Gulik, or Julich] not being serviceable won't sute our people1, he wrote, 'though we certainly have enough that are poor. Yet they won't wear Garlets but homespun linens, or rather cotton and linen cloth that is very durable though not so white. Those that buy Garlets therefore are for a sort that will wear and look pretty and so decline buying coarset than [pattern] No.1772'. (Quoted in Montgomery, 1984, p.345.) The rapid population growth in the American colonies - from little over a quarter of a million in 1700 to nearly a million and a quarter in 1750, 2.2M in 1770 and 5.3M by 1800 - resulted in an expanding and buoyant market for British and European linen. Linen became the most important single commodity shipped across the Atlantic In the eighteenth century