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The Decline and Fall of British Cotton

Posted by Timothy Green on

British Cotton was once the envy of the world, with the vast majority of the world’s supply being produced in the sprawling factories of North-West England. Such was the size of the industry that, in 1860, there were over 2500 cotton mills in the Lancashire region alone, employing approximately half a million people.

So ingrained was cotton production in the fabric of British society, that the Greater Manchester area gained the nickname “Cottonopolis”; and for good reason. By 1900, 80% of the world’s cotton was spun within 20 Miles of Manchester.

But the pressures of the First World War caused a sharp decline in output in Britain’s cotton industry. Production had peaked in 1912 with the mills combined output exceeding 8 billion yards of cloth. Further trade issues caused by the complexities fall of the British Empire accompanied by growing competition from emerging economies meant that 800 mills closed during the interwar period.

The decline of British cotton continued through the decades with one mill closing a week as offshoring became more prevalent. Such was the reduction in output, that by 1958, Britain was a net importer of cotton cloth. Cotton manufacturing in Britain hobbled on for another two decades, with one mill closing a week, until finally the last mill stopped operating in the 1980s.

After it’s long decline, it looked as though Britain was never to spin cotton again. But there is a glimmer of hope as a Mill reopened in the former “Cottonopolis” last year. Unlike far-eastern counterparts, who rely on mass production of poor quality cotton, English Fine Cottons are committed to manufacturing high-end cotton for a more discerning clientele.

We at Studio British hope this is the first step in the long journey to bring cotton manufacturing home.

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