History of the American Textile Industry

Nanjiba Nur

Though Bangladesh is today, a key player in the global textile industry along with China, historically textile industry actually evolved from some other places; yes the West. The textile industry, by many economists, is regarded as a ladder for industrial and economic development for nations. Most of the highly industrialized countries started their very first industrial journey with weaving and spinning factories. England, America has a no different story. Today’s article is all about how the textile industry found its way to America from England and how it disappeared as the economy grew stronger.

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First Textile Mills in America, Knowledge Transfer from England

In the late 1700s, the textile industry began to take off in England, and many Americans wished to see the same development in the United States. However, English law made it illegal to carry loom designs out of England. Samuel Slater evaded this law by migrating to the United States and bringing in his head the knowledge of power looms to America in 1789. In 1790, Slater’s knowledge helped Moses Brown build the first water-powered spinning textile mill in America. After Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin, a device that sped up the process of sorting the cotton seed from cotton fiber, in 1793, the cotton textile industry grew rapidly in America.

Within several years, Francis Cabot Lowell, an American merchant, helped to establish the first textile factory in the United States. Impressed by the British textile mills, he established his own and formed the Boston Manufacturing Company in 1813 with several partners.

The company constructed a mill close to the Charles River in Waltham, Massachusetts, and established the Lowell system, which integrated all tasks in one mill by converting raw cotton into cloth. Lowell was also known for employing single girls who desired independence in his mills; they became known as the Lowell Girls. Many people also see the establishment of the Lowell mill as the start of the Industrial Revolution in America.

When Lowell died of an illness in 1817, the investors in his company received dividends, which they used to create a larger mill town in 1822. They named the Massachusetts town Lowell in honor of Francis Cabot Lowell. Thanks to Lowell, the majority of businesses by 1832 were related to the textile industry.

Cotton became known as “King Cotton” in the South, and the Southern United States became the chief cotton supplier in the 1800s. In 1860 alone, over 60 percent of American exports was raw cotton. For cotton that was produced, the Boston Manufacturing Company was responsible for one-fifth of such production by the 1850s. By 1870, 2,400 woolen mills and hundreds of cotton mills permeated the United States.

War often drove the textile industry. In the case of the North Carolina textile industry, which was representative of the nation as a whole, the advent of the Civil War prompted a switch from yarn spinning to developing materials for the war effort.7 Cotton during the Civil War was an interesting bargaining chip.  The South believed that their dominance of the cotton market would force European powers to recognize their claims to legitimacy.  The textile industry, particularly in the areas around Liverpool, played a major role in the British economy and was dependent on American cotton.  The North knew that the South’s ability to finance the war was dependent on its ability to export its cotton.  The natural solution to this problem was to blockade Confederate ports.  The Confederacy though had miscalculated and the British preferred to suffer the consequences of a cotton shortage and subsequent temporary collapse of its textile industry rather than choose sides in the war.

Likewise, World War I brought an increased demand for American-made textile goods, specifically blankets and military uniforms.  Due to World War I, the textile industry in North Carolina, in particular, grew substantially, and, by 1923, North Carolina had surpassed Massachusetts as the leading textile-producing state in America based on the value of the product.

The emergence of North Carolina Textile Industry and Role in America’s Economy

After World War I, textiles continued to play an important role in America’s industrial system, as they had since the early 1800s. In fact, the textile industry dominated the South, as employment in the textile industry peaked in June 1948 with 1.3 million jobs. North Carolina held the record with 40% of its jobs in textile and apparel manufacturing in 1940. In the 1960s, American textile companies produced 95% of bedding and clothing in the United States. But the American textile industry began to slow down in the late 1990s. Roughly 650 textile plants closed between 1997 and 2009, and North Carolina only had 1.1% of jobs in the textile industry in 2013. Most of the American clothing is produced overseas with only 2-3% produced in the United States.

Even so, the American textile industry has seen a resurgence in the states, especially in the Carolinas. Beginning in the early 2010s, China began to outsource jobs in the textile industry to the United States. Many even called it “just the beginning of a textile resurgence that will revitalize” the Carolinas. Today, the American textile industry is the fourth largest exporter of textile products in the world. In 2017, apparel, fiber, and textile exports were $28.6 billion. A world leader in textile research and development, the United States textile industry is particularly focused on next-generation textile materials, especially for the U.S. military. As A. Blanton Godfrey, dean of the College of Textiles at North Carolina State University, noted, “But if Norma Rae [a character in a 1979 movie about a textile worker who campaigns an organizing push for unions] wants to sit at a computer terminal and program the robot, that’s different.” Godfrey is right: the textile industry has come a long way in the past 220 years from the first American water-powered spinning textile mill in 1790.

Ready-Made Clothing

It was not until after the power-driven sewing machine was invented, that factory production of clothes and shoes on a large scale occurred. Before sewing machines, nearly all clothing was local and hand-sewn, there were tailors and seamstresses in most towns that could make individual items of clothing for customers.

About 1831, George Opdyke (later Mayor of New York) began the small-scale manufacture of ready-made clothing, which he stocked and sold largely through a store in New Orleans. Opdyke was one of the first American merchants to do so. But it was not until after the power-driven sewing machine was invented, that factory production of clothes on a large scale occurred. Since then the clothing industry has grown.

Ready-Made Shoes

The Singer machine of 1851 was strong enough to sew leather and was adopted by shoemakers. These shoemakers were found chiefly in Massachusetts, and they had traditions reaching back at least to Philip Kertland, a famous shoemaker (circa 1636) who taught many apprentices. Even in the early days before machinery, division of labor was the rule in the shops of Massachusetts. One workman cut the leather, often tanned on the premises; another sewed the uppers together, while another sewed on the soles. Wooden pegs were invented in 1811 and came into common use about 1815 for the cheaper grades of shoes: Soon the practice of sending out the uppers to be done by women in their own homes became common. These women were wretchedly paid, and when the sewing machine came to do the work better than it could be done by hand, the practice of “putting out” work gradually declined.

That variation of the sewing machine which was to do the more difficult work of sewing the sole to the upper was the invention of a mere boy, Lyman Blake. The first model, completed in 1858, was imperfect, but Lyman Blake was able to interest Gordon McKay, of Boston, and three years of patient experimentation and large expenditure followed. The McKay sole-sewing machine, which they produced, came into use, and for twenty-one years was used almost universally both in the United States and Great Britain. But this, like all the other useful inventions, was in time enlarged and greatly improved, and hundreds of other inventions have been made in the shoe industry. There are machines to split leather, make the thickness absolutely uniform, sew the uppers, insert eyelets, cut out heel tops, and many more. In fact, division of labor has been carried farther in the making of shoes than in most industries, for there are about three hundred separate operations in making a pair of shoes.

Textile and Clothing Industry in America Today

Textile and clothing manufacturing in the U.S. has significantly shrunk in size over the past decades due to multiple factors ranging from automation, and import competition to the shifting U.S. comparative advantages for related products. However, U.S. textile manufacturing is gradually coming back. The output of U.S. textile manufacturing (measured by value-added) totaled $16.59 billion in 2021, up 23.8% from 2009. In comparison, U.S. clothing manufacturing dropped to $9.5 billion in 2019, 4.4% lower than ten years ago (Bureau of Economic Analysis, 2021). Meanwhile, like many other sectors, U.S. textile and clothing production was hit hard by COVID-19 in the first half of 2020 but started to recover in the 3rd quarter. Notably, as of December 2021, U.S. textile production had returned to its pre-COVID level. On the other hand, as the U.S. economy is turning more mature and sophisticated, the share of U.S. textile and apparel manufacturing in the U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) dropped to only 0.12% in 2020 from 0.57% in 1998 (Bureau of Economic Analysis, 2021).

The U.S. textile and clothing manufacturing is changing in nature. For example, textile products had accounted for over 66% of the total output of the U.S. textile and clothing industry as of 2019, up from only 58% in 1998 (Bureau of Economic Analysis, 2020). Textiles and clothing “Made in the USA” are growing particularly fast in some product categories that are high-tech driven, such as medical textiles, protective clothing, specialty, and industrial fabrics, and non-woven. These products are also becoming the new growth engine of U.S. textile exports. Notably, “special fabrics and yarns” accounted for more than 34% of U.S. textile exports in 2019, up from only 20% in 2010 (Data source: UNComtrade, 2021). Like many other developed economies whose textile and apparel industries had reached the stage of post-maturity, the United States today is a net textile exporter and net apparel importer.

Major References:

A History of the Textile Revolution, url: https://www.thoughtco.com/textile-revolution-britains-role-1991935

A brief history of Textiles, url: https://logoknits.com/2019/08/24/a-brief-history-of-textiles

USDA Data