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).



The factors affecting European trade and competition in worsted cloth in foreign markets, notably the United States, in the second half of the nineteenth century are well recorded. From the 1840s the two main worsted cloth producing countries of Europe, Britain and France, pursued quite different strategies in production and trade. Developments in dyeing technology from the late 1830s allowed substantial improvements in the production of mixed worsted cloth; cloth of cotton warp and worsted weft. The British industry rapidly converted its production to the cheaper mixed worsteds for a much wider market to the extent that by the late 1850s perhaps only five per cent of its output remained all-wool cloth. The French industry continued to concentrate on the production of softer all-wool worsteds, woven from dry-spun yarn produced on the mule; yarn which dyed better to brilliant and delicate shades. As a result Britain gained much of the world market expansion from the 1840s to the 1860s but France retained clear command of the high quality market.1

From the 1860s, however, fashion changes perhaps partly initiated by the American Civil War, the resultant cotton famine and consequent alterations in relative raw fibre prices favoured the French, and growing German, worsted industry. Moreover tariff barriers, particularly in the United States, were most effective against lower and medium quality goods to the disadvantage of Britain. As a result the British worsted industry lost much of its home market to France and suffered a decline in trade to its major traditional markets, including the United States. It was much criticized for its lack of adaptation to French competition and there has subsequently been debate about whether it was lethargic in changing its technology and product to new market conditions. The nature and scale of the problem did not permit easy and rapid solutions. The raw materials, technology and labour skills required for all-wool worsted production were quite different and a rapid conversion to French methods of wool preparation and spinning was not quickly feasible. The British industry instead pursued a policy, initially rather slowly, of adapting its existing machinery and innovating new products, notably worsted coatings. In the two decades before the First World War it did recoup some of its previous trade losses but its level of trade did not recover to that of earlier years.2