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  • Writer's pictureRex Watson

PRE-INDUSTRIAL TEXTILES IN LANCASHIRE inTwo Books

It depends what you mean by ‘industry’ of course, but when I learned history (or perhaps

didn’t learn it) the Industrial Revolution was 1760-1820. Now these may have been more or

less the central years, at least for textiles, but of course there was plenty of further

development after 1820, notably in weaving, and the ‘Revolution’ certainly had got going

before 1760. The classic treatise on cotton prior to the Revolution, The Cotton Trade and

Industrial Lancashire, by Wadsworth and Mann, 1931, deals with the period 1600-1780, and

indeed cotton was of little importance before 1600.


Now Wadsworth and Mann is not one of my two books here. The two I wish to introduce,

and recommend, come no further forward than 1640, and go back, at least one, to 1500.

In order of writing, we have firstly The Lancashire Textile Industry in the Sixteenth Century,

by Norman Lowe, Chetham Society 1973, and secondly Industry before the Industrial

Revolution, North-East Lancashire c.1500-1640, by John T. Swain, Chetham Society 1985.

Both concern Lancashire only, for Swain just the north-east, though he ranges more widely

than just textiles. Both authors notably use probate inventories to provide information on

the extent of cloth production, on how much of the testator’s value and effort concerned

textiles, technical detail about the various processes, and other matters. Thus if you are a

family historian, with wills and inventories for your family, in the county, you can start to

judge how typical, or atypical, they were.



Lowe, 16 th century

In these largely pre-cotton days (and pre-silk), the principal cloths were wool and linen

(made from flax). The latter is much less well known for the county, yet Lowe gives it more

or less equal status with wool. Linen was in fact produced in most areas of the county, the

main exceptions being the extreme easterly places such as Colne and Rochdale. Flax was

grown mainly in the flatter west and southwest. However, supplies came from other parts

of England, and of course Ireland. Wool came in large measure from sheep reared in the

Lancashire hills, though again with some from elsewhere in England, and from Ireland. Lowe

does devote some discussion to the use of the word ‘cotton’, as in ‘cotton wool’ for

example, a term for wool, not for the vegetable plant from India, etc.

There is detailed discussion about the extent of overseas trade, surprisingly substantial in

these early times, also about the legislative involvement of the government in its efforts to

control the industry. The last chapter looks to the future, which was to involve an increase

in ‘capitalistic’ organisation. However in the sixteenth century most textile workers seem to

have been ‘independent’. As revealed by the inventories, many people were only working

part-time in textiles, often of course working also in agriculture, probably described as

‘yeoman’ or ‘husbandman’.



Swain, c.1500-1640, NE Lancs

Interestingly, Swain early on notes three works that have to an extent dealt with the issues

of his book. One of these is Wadsworth and Mann, another Lowe. His area consists of the

Manor of Colne together with the Forests of Pendle and Trawden. One major source

therefore for lordship and landholding is the Clitheroe Court Rolls. Remembering Lowe’s

comments about linen in the east, there is little on this fabric, wool taking centre stage.

Other industries such as coal mining, quarrying, tanning, receive due attention.

There are chapters on Demography, Agriculture, Lordship, and Landholding, Wealth and

Poverty, prior to a long one on Cloth Production. These earlier chapters set the scene for the

major finding that it was perhaps the norm for a household to have a dual economy, most

commonly agriculture and cloth production. The standard cloths woven were kerseys.

There is much of more general interest in this book, for example detail of the dire famine

conditions of 1623, and of agricultural practices, both pastoral and arable.


Rex Watson. September 2023.






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