In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Weavers

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Early Modern Europe
  • European Weavers and the Market
  • Italy
  • Great Britain
  • The Netherlands and Germany
  • France and Switzerland
  • Spain

Atlantic History Weavers
Daryl Hafter
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 August 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0164


Textiles were a dominant industry throughout the preindustrial world (15th–18th centuries), and their manufacture and trade preoccupied governments and laborers alike. From the 15th and 16th centuries onward, much cloth was produced by guilds in Europe, where the system of apprenticeship and regulations controlled training and quality. The usual practice was for male guild masters to involve their entire family in the craft, assisted by journeymen and sometimes journey women. Guilds with male and female masters also trained apprentices who graduated to the status of journey (day) workers, becoming masters after passing an examination and paying the fees. Guilds were urban institutions, and the guild master was a skilled worker responsible for complex weaving armures and for finishing the textiles, while other household members did less demanding tasks. As trade accelerated in the 17th and 18th centuries, manufacturers of cloth sought less expensive venues in rural areas, where nonguild workers wove cloth that was then finished in urban centers. To supply the male weavers, the wives of hundreds of workers spun thread, and, with their weaver husbands, they created an extensive cottage industry. Responding to an international market, textile merchants constantly demanded new types of material that pressed entrepreneurs to seek cheaper workers and to abandon guild industrial regulations. Thus the Early Modern period saw a transition in cloth manufacture from guild control to dominance by entrepreneurs with a virtually proletarianized male and female workforce.

General Overviews

In analyzing the forces that created the modern economic era, works by several theorists of history are especially helpful. Braudel 1992 (first published in 1979) gives a broad view of the steps leading to capitalism, situating early modern weaving at the forefront. Cipolla 1994 shows the importance of weavers in the author’s interdisciplinary overview of Early Modern Europe. De Vries and van de Woude 1997 uses the Netherlands as a lens in offering the most comprehensive picture of weavers and the economy. Because of the central position that textiles occupied in the preindustrial economy and in the early Industrial Revolution, a spate of books and articles are especially helpful in describing technology and the relationship between textile trade and the political economy. Interest has focused primarily on the evolution of modernizing institutions that brought about technical and social change. The paradigm of invention-driven British prominence current in economic histories of the 1950s and 1960s has given way to a more wide-ranging perspective on the Industrial Revolution. Early works such as Musson and Robinson 1969 give British artisans and inventors a privileged place. Mokyr 2011 emphasizes English learned societies and entrepreneurs as the unique founders of industrialization. Landes 1969 and Jacob 1997 show England’s seminal role in spreading the Industrial Revolution to continental Europe. These four books constitute contributions to a major historical debate between the relative influence of artisans or early scientists in developing the Industrial Revolution. Berg 1986 takes a different view, arguing that artisans and skilled labor were equally important.

  • Berg, Maxine. The Age of Manufactures, 1700–1820: Industry, Innovation and Work in Britain. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

    Artisans in small workshops and craft workers throughout the textile industry contributed significantly to improving spinning and weaving. Berg widens the scope in considering the causes of industrialization. This pioneering book is vital to understanding the Industrial Revolution as the result of long-term craft work, an uneven rate of mechanization, and the participation of women workers. An essential volume for general readers and scholars alike.

  • Braudel, Fernand. Civilization and Capitalism, 15th–18th Century. Vol. 2, The Wheels of Commerce. Translated by Siân Reynolds. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.

    First published as Les jeux de l’échange (Paris: Armand Colin, 1979). This book, by a master theoretician, locates early modern weaving in the broad scheme of European history. Sympathetic comments on weavers’ lives and work. Also points out the importance of colonial cloth markets for European textile manufacturing centers.

  • Cipolla, Carlo M. Before the Industrial Revolution: European Society and Economy, 1000–1700. 3d ed. New York: Norton, 1994.

    A very helpful survey of preindustrial industry, highlighting textiles. Sophisticated use of statistics and other sources. This book is useful for an overview, showing where textiles fit into the overall scheme of the economy.

  • de Vries, Jan, and Ad van de Woude. The First Modern Economy: Success, Failure, and Perseverance of the Dutch Economy, 1500–1815. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511666841

    This well-documented book describes the change in cloth-making in the Low Countries from urban guilds to nonguild rural workers. In this process, the cloth returned to urban guilds only to be finished. Linen and woolen cloth were a source of wealth in the Netherlands from the Middle Ages through the 18th century. Highly recommended.

  • Jacob, Margaret. Scientific Culture and the Making of the Industrial West. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

    An influential exposition of the view that scientific societies such as England’s Lunar Society, followers of natural philosophy, and early academic experts were major promoters of technical advance, including machines to manufacture textiles.

  • Landes, David S. The Unbound Prometheus: Technological Change and Industrial Development in Western Europe from 1750 to the Present. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1969.

    This pioneering work commands a vast array of information showing the ways in which England influenced industrialization in Western Europe. Shows how investment and technology traveled eastward, and changed weavers’ workshop structure.

  • Mokyr, Joel. The Enlightened Economy: Britain and the Industrial Revolution, 1700–1850. New York: Penguin, 2011.

    A distillation of Mokyr’s view that the first true economic modernization occurred in Britain from a combination of everyday interest in improving machines and natural philosophers’ learned societies. Mokyr also points out that Britain’s loose guild structure, homogenous geography, and lack of governmental industrial restrictions helped promote Britain’s unique preeminence in textile industries. Originally published in 2002.

  • Musson, A. E., and Eric Robinson. Science and Technology in the Industrial Revolution. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1969.

    Among the first calling attention to the links between early scientists and artisans in developing steam power, and applying it to textiles. Mainly interesting as historiographical background.

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