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Wool and Wool-Based Textiles in the West European Economy, c.800 - 1500: Innovations and Traditions in Textile Products, Technology, and Industrial Organisation

Listed author(s):
  • John H. Munro

This paper is a necessary companion to the one entitled The West European Woollen Industries and their Struggles for International Markets, c.1000 - 1500. No one can properly comprehend that five-century history of international competition for textile markets, without some basic understanding of the products that the manufacturers sought to sell in seeking customers in those markets, and some understanding of the changes in industrial organisation that enabled producers to market their products. During these five centuries, West European textile producers marketed a very wide range of wool-based textiles, classed under the general headings of woollens, worsteds, and semi-worsted 'stuffs'. They ranged in quality and price from relatively cheap -- those that a master craftsmen could buy with two week's wages -- to the ultra-luxurious woollen scarlets, aimed at aristocratic markets: extremely costly fabrics, rivalling the best silks, whose purchase might cost a master mason several years's wages. Wools, of course, constituted the essential ingredient of all these fabrics, and certainly for luxury quality woollens, the most expensive input, accounting for 60% - 75% of the cost of production, with other raw materials (oils, fullers' earth, teasels, and dyestuffs, etc.) accounted for another 10%. To understand both the supply and demand factors involved in marketing these textiles, the historian must clearly explain the economics of wool production and of supplying other raw materials; and then the techniques involved in the manufacturing processes: wool-sorting and preparation, combing, carding, spinning, weaving, and (for woollens), fulling and felting, teaseling or napping, shearing, dyeing, and other finishing processes. The historian must then demonstrate how the wools, dyestuffs, and manufacturing processes differed between and amongst the various types of woollens, worsteds, and semi-worsted stuffs. To understand the marketing of these textiles, the historian must also delineate the nature of product innovations (styles, colours, etc.) and then relate the relative prices for these textiles to (1) the cost of a basket of essential consumable goods, and (2) the daily wage-earnings of master craftsmen. Underlying all these complex analyses lies a more fundamental question: a demonstration of Adam Smith's famous dictum 'That the Division of Labour is Limited by the Extent of the Market'. This paper attempts to show how the expansion of international market networks from the 10 th century transformed an essentially rural domestic handicraft industry into a very complex, essentially-urban based industry, with a very complex division of labour; and how market forces and supply factors brought about a veritable 'industrial revolution' in these textiles -- in weaving, carding, spinning, and fulling particularly -- that, re lative to the conditions of the medieval economy, were as important as the 18 th -century Industrial Revolution in cotton textiles. Somewhat surprisingly, this wool-based 'industrial revolution' was more or less complete by the 15 th century, thus leaving a technological hiatus until the 18 th century. The companion paper seeks to demonstrate, in terms of supply and demand models (but principally a transaction cost model), how structural changes in the late-medieval economy centuries forced so many textile-producers to forsake the export-oriented production of cheaper, lighter textiles to concentrate upon the far higher-produced, much more luxurious heavy-weight woollens (whose durability would last several lifetimes). The relevance of those market changes for technological change becomes clear when an examination of the new industrial processes reveal that many of them, while cutting production costs, so impaired quality that producers, competing in luxury markets, eschewed them for fear of losing customers. The paper shows how urban guilds and governments imposed quality-controls, in actingtions, while rejecting others. In contrastthe essence of the modern Industrial Revolution in textiles was in vastly improving quality, while also cutting costs.

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Paper provided by University of Toronto, Department of Economics in its series Working Papers with number munro-00-05.

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Length: 64 pages
Date of creation: 24 Nov 2000
Handle: RePEc:tor:tecipa:munro-00-05
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