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).


When Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Louis XIV's minister for finance and economic affairs, said: "Fashion is to France what gold mines are to the Spaniards," (quoted by Minchinton 1977,112) he recognized how significant the manufactory of fashionable luxury textiles was for the economy of France. During the seventeenth and eighteenth century many absolutist rulers of Europe who pursued mercantilist policies fostered the production and trade of expensive textiles.

Tremendous resources went into the making of woven silks, lace, tapestries, fine embroideries and table linens. The best designers and craftsmen were employed who used the most valued materials, such as silk, precious metals and stone. Textiles, as they appear in painting and surviving pieces, are to a considerable degree responsible for our notion of the seventeenth and eighteenth century as an era of extravagant luxury and splendor. A study of the interrelationship of luxury textiles and the theories and policies of mercantilism will provide the historical background necessary to understand why this period created textiles of extraordinary artistic and technical quality.

Although the usefulness of the term mercantilism has been questioned by some (De Vries 1976,236 and Blaich 1973,1-10), in the context of this paper the following widely used definition is still helpful. Here the term mercantilism refers to economic theories and policies which European countries applied to different degrees and at various periods during the seventeenth and eighteenth century. Implementing mercantilist policies governments forcefully intervened in economic processes in order to expand national income and to use economic power for political ends (Minchinton 1969,vii and De Vries 1976,236-237). Striving for a positive trade balance rulers sought to accumulate monetary wealth which they regarded the key to political power. For the first time governments extensively and systematically used protectionist measures to increase the production and trade of goods. They granted generous financial support and privileges to new enterprises, controlled the quality of goods through industry regulations, and tried to ward off the import of competing foreign goods through high custom duties.