Atlantic History Textiles in the Atlantic World
by
Sally Tuckett
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 October 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0322

Introduction

Textile history is not just about the cloth itself; it is also about how that cloth was made, who used it and how, and what these factors can tell us as researchers about wider social, cultural, economic, and political practices of the past. Whether made of animal or plant fibers; woven, knitted, or felted; plain or dyed; embroidered or printed, textiles are used on some level by all societies and cultures. This use ranges from flat textiles such as blankets or bedding to utilitarian and fashionable garments that, respectively, protect or adorn the body, as well as giving observers a visual cue by which they can judge and categorize the wearer. Within the Atlantic world specifically, textiles can tell us about the ingenuity, social hierarchy, and cultural practices of indigenous populations before, during, and after colonial expansion. They can inform us about the development of the Atlantic economy in the early modern period, and the rise of industrial textile production over domestic manufacture from the late 18th century onward. Significantly, they can also tell us about the personal skills, tastes, and circumstances of the indigenous, free, and enslaved people who made, transported, used, and interpreted these goods in and around the Atlantic world. Exploring and understanding the history of textiles therefore involves the study of craft and design, technology and industrialization, goods and consumption, and people and society. Readers will find it helpful to also consult the Oxford Bibliographies articles on “Clothing,” “Material Culture in the Atlantic World,” “Cotton,” and “Silk.”

General Overviews

Textile history is inherently interdisciplinary, and approaches to it are as diverse as the textiles themselves. As such, there is no definitive overview of Atlantic textiles specifically, but there is a large body of work that can be drawn on, including introductory texts on the history of textiles, such as Schoeser 2003, which offers a rich, global perspective, and Harris 2010, which outlines the basic principles of textile manufacture from craft to industrial production. Gordon 2011 offers a more nuanced overview looking at the human need for textiles as protection from the elements and for symbolic and semiotic purposes. Economic history studies, such as Harte and Ponting 1973, have long used textiles as a means for discussing industrialization and trade in western Europe, providing key statistical information for the manufacture, movement, and value of textiles. Such approaches are still influential but are increasingly adopted alongside or with social and cultural analyses or object-based study, a key example of which is found in the list of contributors for Jenkins 2003. Much of the current field owes a debt to the object-focused works of museum curators, such as Montgomery 2007, Peck 2013, and Eaton 2014, where access to collections results in in-depth and informative studies on the physical properties, design, and movement of cloth. Textiles are also an obvious and useful choice for studies that incorporate the “material culture turn,” where everyday objects are studied to inform and help us interpret past societies and there is often considerable overlap with studies of clothing and dress; key examples are DuPlessis 2016 and Lemire 2018.

  • DuPlessis, Robert. The Material Atlantic: Clothing, Commerce, and Colonization in the Atlantic World, 1650–1800. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2016.

    E-mail Citation »

    An important work that examines both cloth and clothing, including how they were traded, introduced, used, and interpreted. It draws on archival and visual material from the North and South Atlantic, offering comparisons and interpretations from different geographic, colonial, and economic circumstances to argue that there was both a standardization and diversification in textiles and dress in the Atlantic world.

  • Eaton, Linda. Printed Textiles: British and American Cottons and Linens, 1700–1850. New York: Monacelli Press, 2014.

    E-mail Citation »

    Based on Florence Montgomery’s Printed Textiles: English and American Cottons and Linens, 1700–1850 (1970), Eaton’s work is the epitome of collection-based research and analysis. Eaton looks at production, trade, consumption, design, and technology. Sumptuously illustrated with examples from the printed textile collection at Winterthur Museum.

  • Gordon, Beverly. Textiles: The Whole Story, Uses, Meanings, Significance. London: Thames and Hudson, 2011.

    E-mail Citation »

    A thoughtful study of the individual and cultural meanings of cloth in a global context. Gordon draws on a wide range of examples, comparisons, and situations from Greek mythology to cloth and the life cycle, and space suits are discussed alongside quilted garments of the 18th century.

  • Harris, Jennifer, ed. 5000 Years of Textiles. London: British Museum, 2010.

    E-mail Citation »

    Divided into two parts. The first gives a survey of textile production techniques, from weaving to embroidery, dyeing and printing, and felt cloth. The second part is divided according to geographic regions with sections that explore textiles and their uses in chronological order. Includes a glossary and an extensive list of suggestions for further reading, making it a useful read for early stages of research. Published in association with the Whitworth Art Gallery and the Victoria and Albert Museum.

  • Harte, N. B., and K. G. Ponting, eds. Textile History and Economic History: Essays in Honour of Miss Julia de Lacy Mann. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1973.

    E-mail Citation »

    A series of essays that acknowledge the work of Mann as an economic and textile historian. The essays range chronologically from the 16th to the 19th century, and all have an English focus, but they are a prime example of how the study of textiles and economic history can be mutually beneficial.

  • Jenkins, David, ed. Cambridge History of Western Textiles. 2 vols. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

    E-mail Citation »

    These two volumes represent the diverse perspectives from which textile history can be studied, including contributions from dress historians, curators, archaeologists, business historians, and social historians. Each essay offers an overview of the current state of knowledge and introduces the historiography of that topic. Not necessarily a work to read from cover to cover, but an important starting point for production and consumption of textiles from the ancient world to the year 2000.

  • Lemire, Beverly. Global Trade and the Transformation of Consumer Cultures: The Material World Remade, c. 1500–1820. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

    DOI: 10.1017/9780511978814E-mail Citation »

    An in-depth and thought-provoking examination of global commodities, including fur and fabric, and their impact on early modern society.

  • Montgomery, Florence, with Linda Eaton. Textiles in America, 1650–1870. Reprint ed. New York: Norton, 2007.

    E-mail Citation »

    Based on extensive archival and object-based research, this is the definitive guide to textile taxonomy and terminology and is essential for anyone wishing to understand historic textiles in both North America and Europe. A dictionary of terms relating to both clothing and furnishing textiles is accompanied by contextual essays on furnishing fabrics and a comprehensive bibliography of printed primary material.

  • Peck, Amelia, ed. Interwoven Globe: The Worldwide Textile Trade, 1500–1800. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2013.

    E-mail Citation »

    Collection of essays and a catalogue of objects based on an exhibition held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2013–2014. The essays cover a geographic and temporal range, providing useful starting points for those interested in the Atlantic textile trades and beyond. Includes lavish illustrations and a detailed catalogue of the objects in question.

  • Schoeser, Mary. World Textiles: A Concise History. London: Thames and Hudson, 2003.

    E-mail Citation »

    Written by a leading textile historian, this relatively small volume explores the history of textiles in a clear and concise manner, making it an essential introductory read. Chapters are arranged thematically and chronologically, and a select bibliography for each chapter points to further reading.

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