Smalls that stay in shape

The Cambridge History of Western Textiles
September 3, 2004

This two-volume work considers the production and consumption of textiles in the Western world over a period of some 3,000 years from the Bronze Age until the present day. The early chapters encompass the Near East as well as Europe, but from the medieval period the focus is entirely European until we reach the 18th century when the geographical remit widens to include the Americas.

The Cambridge History of Western Textiles was conceived more than 20 years ago by Kenneth Ponting, the first director of the Pasold Research Fund. The original editors, Donald Coleman and Negley Harte, were succeeded by David Jenkins, who has brought the project to completion. The chapters were written at various times but most were revised in the late 1990s.

In the acknowledgements, Jenkins says the remit of the 31 authors was to contribute "a review of the state of knowledge" and that, while their approaches are "diverse", their contributions "complement each other. The whole cannot add up to a comprehensive history of textiles, so huge and diverse is the subject". Nevertheless, Jenkins states in his introduction, the work "suggests a whole, if not an organic whole", and he concludes:

"The whole is the breadth, complexity and far-reaching implications of textiles in the history of economies and societies."

Although there is no mention of the book's targeted readership, it is likely to appeal to those with an interest in social, business or economic history but without particular knowledge of the textile trades. In addition, it should be valuable to historians of textiles with an expertise in a particular field, who may need to learn of the production and use of other types of textiles.

Part one, "Textile industries of the ancient world to AD1000", consists of a substantial introduction by John Peter Wild, followed by three chapters written by archaeologists using principally archaeological finds, with fragmentary documentary evidence from the earlier eras and a few texts from the later Roman and Byzantine periods. Wild explains that the evidence determines the end date, for "although not an obvious technical or historical watershed throughout the West, the year AD1000 marks the shift to where art and economic historians can provide more information about later medieval textiles than archaeologists". He continues with technical descriptions of spinning and weaving, including loom types and weave structures, which are clearly explained with the help of excellent illustrations and diagrams, and the introduction concludes with an analogous treatment of dyes and dyeing by Penelope Walton Rogers. The three chapters, arranged chronologically, then discuss textiles and clothing in linen, wool and silk, in the Near East, the Mediterranean and northern Europe.

The second part, "The medieval period", has a briefer introduction - and this is also true of parts three to five - followed by four chapters. The first two, concerned with woollens, are by John Munro. The third deals primarily with the production of medieval silks and the fourth finishes with a description of the use of textiles, including several original and intriguing insights. In the interests of clarity, it is sensible that the lengthy treatment of woollens is split into "Textiles, textile technology and industrial organisation" and "The Western European woollen industries and their struggles for international markets". Munro is to be admired for his skill in handling a plethora of questions and for his clarity in describing innovations, whether in technique, process or product. His approach is distinct from that of the other contributors. He offers much more than a "review of the state of knowledge". When writing of, say, the use of wheel-spun carded wools or the "supposed victory of the English cloth industry over its... Continental rivals", Munro outlines the "received wisdom", details the for and against arguments, develops alternative theses, and concludes with the "Munro doctrine". These analyses are absorbing and often convincing, but are supported simply by bibliographical references and some tables of data. To examine the arguments, some readers may rue the absence of footnotes. With the addition of footnotes, illustrations, bibliography and index, Munro's 143 pages would make an excellent monograph.

Part three, "The early modern period", contains ten chapters encompassing a greater variety of textiles than the other parts: woollens, linens, silks, cottons, knitwear, lace, tapestries and carpets. Most of the contributors are cultural historians and museum curators. The section opens with an authoritative but lively summary of the Western European woollen industry between 1500 and 1750 by Herman van der Wee, and closes with a similarly lucid and confident study of dress by Aileen Ribeiro. In between, the chapters are full of diversity and interest, although the title of the second, "The linen industry in early modern Europe", is misleading, as it focuses on a discussion of "proto-industrialisation" during the 18th century. It largely ignores the extensive production of linens that dominated the economies of many towns in Flanders, Saxony and Silesia in the second half of the 16th and throughout the 17th century.

The second volume, which contains parts four and five, "The 19th century" and "The 20th century", consists of eight and seven chapters respectively.

Although some readers may find the joys of knitting machines and the attractions of rayon limited, there are a number of well-written chapters that enlighten and surprise. Santina Levey's piece on machine-made lace handles the technology, design and response to changing fashion with an easy assurance. Similarly, Stanley Chapman's "Hosiery and knitwear in the 20th century" is engaging in its discussion of unshrinkable underwear, fully fashioned stockings and the postwar success of Italian knitwear.

For this reviewer, the book's shortcoming is one of balance, in both content and historical perspective. First, there is a notable preference for woollens: in the chapters about particular fibres, 4 pages are devoted to wool, 93 to cotton, 80 to silk and a mere 33 to linen. It could be argued that cotton "came lately" and that silk was used for luxury fabrics with a restricted market, and both, therefore, merit less space than woollens. Neither argument, however, applies to linen. Moreover, elsewhere in the book, in the chapter "Cotton, 1780-1914", Douglas Farnie writes: "Until the 1820s, the most important fibre in the world remained flax, which had provided Europe with the basis for its leading textile industry." Apart from the importance of linens to the economies of the centres of production, they were major trading goods, accounting for between 12 and 15 per cent by value of the total commodities imported into England during the 17th century. There was a huge variety of linens produced in different parts of Europe, with significant technical innovations in spinning, weaving and bleaching, as well as in process and product, and widespread attempts at "import-substitution".

It is strange, therefore, that a chapter on medieval linens does not appear in part two and that the linen chapter in part three is not more extensive in its scope, period and length. Furthermore, where is the space for the finest and most expensive of linens, damask napery, which was woven on a draw-loom, similar to that used for patterned silks? Although it covered the tables of the great from the early 16th century and was widely found on those of the prosperous middle class from 1650, linen damask gets just two paragraphs. The silks that covered the backs of the wealthy are rightly discussed at length, so why are the fine linens on their tables largely ignored? Indeed, the merchant elite in 17th-century London often invested more in bed and table linen than in silk apparel or bed hangings.

Second, possibly because of its lengthy gestation, there appears to be a lack of balance in the book's historical perspectives, with a distinct predilection for, and concentration on, supply - particularly among the economic historian contributors. The book's concern with demand, market mechanisms, fashion and consumer behaviour is limited. Only a few of the authors engage with the ideas floated in The Birth of a Consumer Society (1982) by Neil McKendrick, John Brewer and John Plumb, which spawned a considerable corpus of work, including Consumption and the World of Goods (1993) edited by Brewer and Roy Porter.

But it would be churlish to be overcritical, for the dominance of supply over demand is ameliorated by the diversity of the contributors, including historians of dress and curators of textile collections. Indeed, the book is unique in the scope of its coverage coupled with the diversity of its authorship. It is finely produced with some beautiful illustrations, clear diagrams and comprehensible tables, as well as 41 full-page colour plates.

Although it exhibits varied approaches to the production, marketing, ownership and use of different textiles, it certainly does show "the far-reaching implications of textiles in the history of economies and societies". It will be a most useful source of reference and stimulation to many.

David Mitchell is visiting research fellow, Centre for Metropolitan History, Institute of Historical Research, University of London.

The Cambridge History of Western Textiles

Author - David Jenkins
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Pages - 2 vols 1,191
Price - £250.00
ISBN - 0 521 34107 8

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