Textiles, the factory, and the future of work

December 3, 2020 | Blog
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This blog is based on research made possible by the Initiatives and Conference Fund, financed  by the Economic History Society. For more information about research grants and prizes, please visit our Grants & Prizes section


by Alex Tertzakian (University of Cambridge)

From the distaffs and looms of ancient civilizations to industrial, steam-powered mills, the textile industry has epitomized the transition from artisanal to mass production and the rise of consumer culture. The production of textiles was the most important industry throughout the medieval and early modern periods as well as a leading sector during the Industrial Revolution.

In Britain, between the 1750s and 1850s, water and steam were adopted as substitutes for human muscle power which enabled unprecedented increases in productivity in textile manufacture, and stimulated complex changes in labour requirements. Research by Leigh Shaw-Taylor and Tony Wrigley has documented that the share of male workers employed in the textile industry began falling in the late eighteenth century, coinciding with the disruptive forces of mechanization in the industry.[1]

The impact on women’s work is harder to document. For example, within the textile industry, Craig Muldrew has highlighted that spinning was the most important source of female employment prior to industrialization.[2]  Therefore, the mechanization of spinning during the late eighteenth century likely resulted in the substantial loss of  many female employment opportunities, though the precise scale remains unknown. Leigh Shaw-Taylor, Keith Sugden and Xuesheng You have recently argued that female labour force shares in textiles fell sharply from 41 per cent  in 1761, to 28 per cent by 1817, with much of the reduction attributable to the mechanization of spinning. [3] As such, the declining share of male workers discussed above was unlikely to have been offset by a countervailing increase in female employment. Overall, while absolute employment in the textile industry increased during the nineteenth century, the share of the total labour force occupied in textiles declined.

The year 2021 marks the 250th anniversary of Richard Arkwright’s Cromford Mill – the world’s first water-powered cotton spinning mill (Figure 1).  Currently, the concerns of handloom weavers and domestic spinners in previous centuries are echoed in today’s growing tensions between factory automation and labour, and  there is renewed urgency to understand the historical consequences of industrialization. Recent research on the modern US, suggests that increasing competition from robots may reduce employment levels and wages,[4] with possibly  47 per cent of current jobs are at risk of automation.[5]

Figure 1. Arkwright’s Cromford Mill, Derbyshire. Source: Author’s own photo

The future of the factory system we inherited from those early British textile mills is now in question and the nature of people’s work is changing rapidly once again. My PhD research  focuses on the mechanization of the cotton textile industry in Britain, c.1780-1850. I am analysing archival data from different cotton mills in England in order to determine the impact that the introduction of new technologies and ways of working had on gendered employment, wages and time-use. One of the factories in my sample  is Arkwright’s Lumford mill at Bakewell, Derbyshire, established only a few years after his first mill at Cromford mentioned above. Primary source evidence for Lumford, with certain gaps,  survives in the form of wages books spanning 1786-1811 (Figure 2).  By analysing these new data for a very early cotton spinning mill, the impact of mechanization on wages and gendered employment can be observed directly.

Within the broad area of textile history,  new and important work is being conducted.  Important articles have examined  the medieval wool trade in Europe, the British and Indian cotton industries, and the important ‘high-wage economy’ debate in spinning in Britain.

Given the economic, social, and cultural importance of the textile industry, I am organizing a workshop called Centuries of cloth: historical approaches to the study of textiles. The workshop is specifically aimed at giving graduate students and junior scholars an opportunity to present their research and meet others working on textile history spanning all geographical areas and time periods. The primary aim of the workshop is to bring together researchers working on different questions pertaining to this diverse field of scholarship. Senior scholars will provide participants with constructive comments and suggestions on the papers they present.

Figure 2. Wages books from Arkwright’s Lumford Mill. Source: Derbyshire Record Office. Reference, D6907/1, D6907/2, D6907/3, and D6907/4


To contact the author: agt38@cam.ac.uk, @AlexTertzakian




Acemoglu, D. and Restrepo, P., ‘Robots and jobs: evidence from US labor markets’, Journal

of Political Economy, 128 (2020), pp. 2188–2244.


Frey, C. and Osborne, M., ‘The future of employment: how susceptible are jobs to

computerisation?’, Technological Forecasting & Social Change, 114 (2017), pp. 254–80.


Muldrew, C., ‘”Th’ancient distaff’ and “whirling spindle”: measuring the contribution of

spinning to household earnings and the national economy in England, 1550-1771’, Economic

History Review, 65 (2012), pp. 498–526.


Shaw-Taylor, L. and Wrigley, E.A., ‘Occupational structure and population change’, in R. Floud, J. Humphries, and P. Johnson, eds., The Cambridge Economic History of Modern Britain Volume I: 1700-1870 (Cambridge, 2014).



[1] Shaw-Taylor and Wrigley in Floud, Humphries and Johnson, eds., Cambridge economic history of modern Britain, vol I., p. 63.

[2] Muldrew, ‘”Ancient distaff’”.

[3] Shaw-Taylor, Sugden and You, ‘Female employment, technological change and labour shedding during the mechanization of the English textile industry c.1700-1851’, p. 13. Campop working paper: https://www.campop.geog.cam.ac.uk/research/occupations/outputs/preliminary/female_estimates_lst_ks_xy_2019.pdf.

[4] Acemoglu and Restrepo, ‘Robots and jobs’.

[5] Frey and Osborne, ‘The future of employment’.