Nineteenth Century Textile Technology in India

Art History/Craft History

Nineteenth Century Textile Technology in India



Textile technology was the first to feel the tremors of mechanization that became the tsunami of the ‘Industrial Revolution’ and it was cotton spinning that was at the forefront. While whole libraries of scholarship have been devoted to the great technological shift in the West and its social and economic outcomes, relatively little academic consideration has been afforded to its effect in India. I hope through this short note to encourage such research and reflection on the part of scholars of technology.

The continuous manufacture of cotton cloth in the Indian subcontinent over a period of four millennia, and its domination of world textile trade for over a thousand years  is acknowledged to be a pre-industrial phenomenon in terms of scale, reach and variety.  India made and exported cotton textiles on a vast scale from at least the fifth century of the Common Era until the early nineteenth.  The critical point here is that the cotton lint from which they were made came from a diversity of cotton plants, indigenous varieties bred over centuries  in the different regions of the subcontinent,  each variety specific to its region, each with different kinds of fibre, differing in length, lustre, fineness, softness and colour. This diversity of material was worked by tools of spinning and weaving  that were flexible enough to manage diversity, producing a vast range of different cloths suited to varying needs of different kinds of people, fine for the rich, soft for those who led sedentary lives, durable and hardy for working people.

As miniaturization has been the special skill of Japanese culture, the management of diversity has been the unmatched strength of Indian production systems, and nowhere is this more evident than in the traditional cotton textile industry.  Cotton cloth was made over millennia using different cotton varieties and making a huge range of cotton fabrics. The transforming of the cotton fibre into cloth employed people of many different castes, possibly making up between them the majority of the population of the region. The industry had close connections with both its raw material and its  market structure. In this structure, or system,  each part was closely linked to its proximate parts. Cotton was grown by small-holder farmers in every part of the region, and was easily available to the textile makers through periodic local markets. The manufactured yarn and fabric in turn was sold both to local weavers  and users and to traders who collected it from these small local markets and sold it on to bigger traders, eventually integrating it into world trade.

The tools and technologies of Indian artisanal cotton textile manufacture had certain inalienable features: they were local variants of an overall unity of design, made by local skills, they were inexpensive in relation to the value of their products, and they could be adapted to suit different kinds of cotton fibre. These qualities allowed an infinite number of varied small production cycles to thrive in the different micro-regions of the country, producing a range of cotton fabrics.

Cotton cloth making for ordinary people, differing in structure from weaving for the upper classes, had close lateral relations throughout the production chain, from the cotton farmer to the weaver. The accessible nature of the means of production combined with the easy availability of the raw material meant that cotton cloth making in pre-industrial India was very often the alternative or fall-back option of struggling farmer families, peasantry dislocated by wars or the like.[1] It remained so till recent times. Unlike the so-called ‘developed’ countries , India has never fully industrialised. Industrialisation in India has never absorbed more than a small part of the workforce[2], while artisanal manufacture continues to contribute significantly to both employment and output. The largest artisanal industry by far is the hand-weaving of cloth, producing well into the 21st century around 12% of the country’s textile output.

In England mechanised spinning was finally able to produce for the first time a cotton yarn strong enough to be used for a warp, something which traditional technologies in India and elsewhere had done for ages[3]. Spinning technology continued to advance during the last years of the eighteenth century and the early years of the nineteenth, and went hand-in-hand with the development of the factory system. To promote the new technologies there was an alliance between the industrialist and the State that asserted the right of the industrialist to introduce new technology regardless of its consequences for the working population. The protests against such technology in the days of early industrialisation are well known. It was not all machinery that the Luddites opposed, but rather “all machinery hurtful to commonality” as their manifesto said. The army was called out to quell the protests with gunfire. “There were more troops in the troubled areas of the Midlands and north of England than Wellington had under his command in the Peninsular War,” writes Brian Bailey in his 1998 account The Luddite Rebellion. Laws were passed prescribing death by hanging or transportation to penal colonies for machine breakers.  Improvements in technology have ever since by and large taken the road to displacement of labour for increase in profit.

In India too it was a confrontation between Technology and the State on the one hand against the small farmer, the hand-weaver and the hand-spinner on the other, but protest has been of a different kind: ‘Few voices critical of technology can be heard in developing countries’ says the Brittanica entry on History of Technology[4]. Perhaps the entry could be re-worded to read  ‘Unheard voices’. For of course those dispossessed by the new technologies voiced their laments, but the imbalance of power between the Indian spinner and the colonial state was too vast to be bridged even by a million small voices.[5] Distress in India never reached the level of organised protest. Even today, though there are small instances of Indian farmers breaking up the shops of traders selling cotton seeds, these remain at the level of minor disturbances. Many more cotton farmers express their despair through suicide.  However the post-colonial Indian state has modeled its response to farmer and weaver distress on its colonial forbears. There has never been an investigation sponsored by the Indian state on the connection between cotton spinning technology and the difficulties of cotton farmers, or the need of hand weavers for different kinds of yarn.

Cotton yarn spinning technology retains till today the basic principles of its early days: it is rigid rather than flexible, and it can process only a specific kind of cotton fibre. The early inventions of cotton yarn spinning were made to suit the American variety of cotton, and it is one of the unanswered  questions of history whether the technology could have taken a different direction if the original raw material had been Indian rather than American cotton.  This technology was introduced into the Indian subcontinent in the nineteenth century and has been in use ever since. The story of its establishment in India is an instance, perhaps the largest in history, of an imposition of an alien technology by means of colonial force. What lends extraordinary interest to this event is that this particular technology was the tool that was used to expropriate India’s position as the cotton textile supplier to the world, a position the sub-continent had held for at least a thousand years. Its successful establishment in the very home of its former rival therefore is doubly ironic.

The circumstances, nature and effects of this event in India in both the short and long terms have yet to elicit the academic attention they deserve. Such scholarship would add to Indian perspectives on early industrialization, and open a historical window on the contemporary crisis of cotton farming and cotton textile production in India.  Perhaps a tentative hypothesis could be floated: Could things have been different if early technology had incorporated the principles of Indian artisanal cotton textile manufacture, such as the flexibility to cope with diversity? If it had, what would today’s cotton spinning technology look like?

Why should this subject be of interest?  Because, apart from the role of history to illumine the dark places of the past, today, two hundred and years later, the mismatch of industrial revolution spinning technology to Indian cotton farming is the cause of hundreds of thousands of suicides of Indian cotton farmers. The cotton textile weaving industry of India, both mechanised and artisanal, is now entirely dependent on yarn spun by this technology. The spinning industry itself is in the doldrums,  surviving on financial life support.

The ebb and flow of Indian cotton cloth making which had been constant over centuries – springing back after interruptions of conflict or epidemics – was disrupted during the domination of large parts of the country by the English East India Company, known simply as the Company, which began to control production, beginning with attempts to monopolise the weaving of fine cloth, and later, as the cotton textile mills of Lancashire were established, by denuding entire regions of raw cotton to feed the nascent industry. Under colonial rule, the first technologies that affected Indian cotton cloth making took the form of the railway and the telegraph, specifically intended to make a passage for the large-scale export of raw cotton from the country.  Improved transport and communication linked cotton growing regions to the coast and efficiently carried away the cotton that earlier had supplied local textile production[6]. Hundreds of thousands of cloth making families lost their livelihoods as a result.

A series of related technical changes supported the establishment of the new technology: New varieties of cotton were introduced more suited to machine processing, large ginning machines replaced small household gins and loose cotton began to be pressed into hard rectangular cubes for ease of transport.  Each of these changes  contributed to a systematic shift in the nature of cotton growing and cloth production in India.

New varieties of cotton needed to be introduced since the machinery of cotton spinning demanded the longer, stronger staples of the American species that could withstand the rigours of machine processing rather than the softer, shorter fibres of local Indian cottons, and the Company introduced the American Hirsutum strain into India to suit mechanised spinning. While the driving power of the new spinning technology changed from water to steam to electricity, the basic need for long-staple cotton with which it began remained the same, and remains so to this day. It has not changed through the series of modernizations, which have served primarily to increase the speed of operation, thereby putting ever more strain on the cotton fibre.

Large ginning machinery was able to produce ginned lint in the quantities needed for machine processing. When cotton was ginned by the farmer family the seed from one harvest was used for the next planting. The colonial administration centralized the de-seeding process by introducing large ginning machinery owned and operated by money-lenders, who ‘loaned’ the seed back to the farmer, to be repaid in harvested cotton. In this way the control of the seed passed out of the hands of the farmer. Today cotton seed is supplied to farmers by the agents of large multinational corporations and new seed must be bought each year.

Loose cotton lint had to be tightly packed to carry it overseas. The Company brought in pressing machines to compress the lint into dense cubes, a process known as baling. Baling has now become a standard part of pre-spinning, even when cotton is no longer carried overseas. The compacted bale then has to be opened and the fibres returned to their original separate state. Modern baling and bale-opening and the following processes need large infrastructure and consume quantities of energy. They damage the fibre, reducing its elasticity and absorbency.

It was not just the application of motor power that changed yarn spinning. The new technology initiated a seismic shift of the interrelations of the textile production chain. A series of relationships which had had equal power and lateral connections among themselves – farmer, spinner, weaver – now turned into one where the spinning mill began to dictate to both farmer and weaver, Before, spinning had been part of a textile continuum from the plant to the cloth. Different cottons were grown according to their local habitat, and these had been used to make particular textiles, in production relationships developed by custom over centuries.   Now the spinning mill would take from the farmer only one kind of cotton and give the weaver the same yarn everywhere. Diversity, the vital element of traditional Indian cloth making was directly undermined by the new technology.

With independence from colonialism,  India had a chance to redesign for itself a cotton spinning technology that would emerge from its own long spinning tradition. This technology would have been specifically geared to Indian conditions, and would have preserved the diversity of Indian cotton species. It would have allowed farmers to grow the cotton best suited to their own soil and micro-climate. It would have given back to the Indian handloom the range of yarns that underscored the identity of regional textiles. But independent India kept to the colonial path, and by the late twentieth century American  Hirsutum cotton had almost entirely replaced the local varieties. Since the spinning mills are the only customers of cotton, Indian farmers are forced to grow it. It is the fatal mismatch between Indian farms and farming practices and the cultivation of American cotton that is the fundamental cause of the hundreds of thousands of Indian cotton farmer suicides in the last century, which continue today.

A contemporary assessment of technology must consider its place in the global environment and its relation to society. The technology of mechanised cotton yarn spinning in India fails the tests of social, financial and environmental sustainability. Socially it perpetuates inequality since the spinning mill’s large costs of infrastructure and operation  ensure that only the small segment of society that has access to capital can own the means of production, while modernisation, helped  by loan interest subsidies from the State,[7] reduces the number of working people it employs. It continues to oppress the farmer family, driving them to debt and suicide by demanding  the kind of cotton to grow which becomes for the farmer a high-stake gamble. Financially the yarn-spinning industry of India is loaded with bank loans which it is unable to repay.[8]

Environmental auditing of cotton yarn spinning mills has rarely been undertaken, but energy costs are high (around 15-20% of operating costs) and increasing with the high-speeds of newer machinery. Baling, bale opening, and blowroom need large machines and large quantities of energy. The size of individual mills is increasing, and large scale operations generate high levels of heat, so that more energy and large quantities of fresh water are needed for humidification and cooling.

A small initiative by a not-for-profit organization is attempting to chart a new direction for cotton yarn spinning in India. This is the Malkha initiative[9] .

‘Malkha stands for a decentralised, sustainable, field-to-fabric cotton textile chain, collectively owned and managed by the primary producers – the farmers, the ginners, the spinners, the dyers and the weavers’ says the Malkha website. Malkha has set up small-scale cotton yarn spinning units in cotton farming countryside. It has done away with the whole back-and –forth, energy intensive operation of pressing the cotton into bales and the subsequent stages of bale-opening and blow-room which are needed to get baled cotton fibres back into their original, separate state. Besides being energy-intensive and needing large infrastructure, baling and its following processes weaken cotton fibre and destroy much of its elasticity and absorbency. Malkha yarn is woven into cloth on handlooms. The result is a cotton fabric that keeps the springiness and absorbency of the original fibre and holds dyes well. Clothes made from Malkha hold their shape and colour over years.

Handweaving is the most environmentally friendly way of making cloth, and as such deserves to be promoted as a ‘green’, industry, an ecologically sound textile industry suited to the age of climate crisis. While in most parts of the world hand-weaving has been reduced to a niche or a hobby, in India hand-weaving particularly of cotton with all its ancillary activities of warping, bobbin-winding, dyeing and finishing of cloth provides life-sustaining occupation to literally millions. Ninety-five percent of the hand looms of the world are in India.

Malkha affirms the viability of decentralised yarn spinning. By reducing the size of its individual spinning units, Malkha makes yarn spinning compatible in scale with cotton farming[10] on the one hand and weaving on the handloom on the other. When each link in the production chain matches the scale of the others, they can have lateral relationships among themselves, opening up the potential for democracy in production. This is Malkha’s ultimate aim: a large number of decentralised production chains owned and managed by collectives of the producers themselves.

Technology has a large part to play in this transformation. Though Malkha has reduced the size of the spinning mill and transferred it nearer to cotton fields, it still uses the rigid yarn-spinning machinery derived from the Industrial Revolution model that cannot process cotton fibres from different varieties of cotton plant. A new technology specifically designed to suit Indian conditions, flexible enough to suit the diversity of Indian cottons, is yet to be invented. The direction of technology development established two hundred years ago needs to take a new path.


  • Similarly, in England commoners dispossessed by the Enclosure Acts of the mid nineteenth century took to hand-weaving on a large scale, and eventually formed the work-force of the new textile factories.
  • ‘An overwhelmingly large percentage of workers (about 92 per cent) are engaged in informal employment’ India Labour and Employment Report 2014, Workers in the era of globalization, Institute for Human Development
  • The Indians did it by sizing the yarn with gruel made from local cereals. According to Forbes Watson Indian sizing was superior to the British, which caused mildewing of the cotton cloth exported to India.  “While on this subject we have taken occasion to speak of the character and extent of Sizing used by the native weaver. This is a point of great practical importance, as it has been thought, and probably correctly so, that the Size used by the British manufacturer is often the cause of that mildewing which is so destructive to the cotton goods sent from this country to India” The textile manufactures and the costumes of the people of India, J Forbes Watson, London, 1866.
  • 3 see ‘In 1828’ in Economics of Khadi, M K Gandhi, Navjivan Press, Ahmedabad, 1941
  • See Laxman D Satya,  Cotton and Famine in Berar 1850-1900, Manohar, New Delhi, 1997
  • Through a series of ‘Textile Upgradation’ and ‘Technology Modernisation’ funds. ‘A majority of Indian banks’ Rs.1.6 trillion loans outstanding to the (textile) sector is to cotton textile units’.  Livemint, Oct 15,2012
  • Here I must declare an interest, since I am a member of the Malkha organisation. Seventy-five percent of cotton in India is grown by small-holder farmers on their own or leased fields of two to five acres each.

Unsolicited paper, Round Table of Society of History of Technology June 2016

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