CORDIS - EU research results

Rethinking Textiles

Final Report Summary - RETHINKTEX (Rethinking Textiles)

Rethinking Textiles (RETHINKTEX no 628722) was a two-year project funded by the Marie Curie People Programme of the European Commission. It drew on research methods in the history of technology to reinterpret the British Industrial Revolution. The project advanced the scientific understanding of this historical period among academics and disseminated new knowledge to a wider audience of students and the general public through publications, museum exhibitions, and conferences.

The collaboration involved Prof Regina Lee Blaszczyk of the University of Leeds as the Principal Investigator and Dr Barbara Hahn of Texas Tech University as the Fellow. The British mechanization of textile production is a crucial case for understanding the relationship between technological change and economic growth, but with few exceptions, the topic has long been dominated by economic historians concerned to explain change at the macroeconomic level. Rethinking Textiles is an example of micro-history, enriching the story of the Industrial Revolution with greater specificity about particular people, technologies, and products. It places the Industrial Revolution in an exciting new context, using the histories of technology, consumption, and design to develop a new narrative history of British industrialization as a global phenomenon with parallels to the Digital Age.

In residence at the University of Leeds between 1 July 2014 and 30 June 2016, Dr Hahn undertook significant historical research into technological change in the early modern and modern periods. She studied the economic, social, and cultural context that laid the foundation for the British Industrial Revolution with reference to the Manchester cotton industry and the multiple varieties of Yorkshire cloth manufacturing. The work entailed the study of documents and artifacts in libraries, archives, and museums in major centers such as Birmingham, Leeds, Liverpool, London, and Manchester, and in smaller towns around the UK such as Derby and Paisley. This work allowed Dr Hahn to develop a nuanced analysis of technological and social change in the British textile industry, reaching from the cotton importers of Liverpool to the leisure trade of Blackpool. The data-gathering activities of Year 1 led laid the foundation for publications, exhibitions and, public programs in Year 2.

One of the major themes to emerge from the research includes a more complex understanding of the British textile industry, 1700-1900, and its role in the Industrial Revolution. In-depth research led the project team to see that “invention” and “revolution” may not be the best concepts for explaining the major changes in the textile industry during the era of British industrialization. The Fellow will develop this insight further as she refines an array of outcomes that include scientific journal articles, a monograph to be targeted to university students, a pamphlet for university teachers, and museum exhibitions. The Principal Investigator has already applied these ideas to her work on the Yorkshire woolen industry and the fashion system, to be published as a book in 2017 under the auspices of her EU-funded CRP, The Enterprise of Culture.

The major outcomes of Rethinking Textiles were 1) the Fellow’s presentation of 16 scientific conference papers and popular lectures, some of which have been revised for major international journals; 2) the drafting and refinement of the Fellow’s 80,000-word book manuscript, tentatively called Technology in the Industrial Revolution, under contract with Cambridge University Press for submission by 1 August 2017; 3) her negotiations with a publisher for a second short book, tentatively called Cloth Britannia: The History of Technology and the Industrial Revolution; 4) her visits to nearly 30 museum in the UK and Europe to study artifacts and promote the project; 5) a project Website at the School of History, University of Leeds; and 6) collaborations by the Fellow and the Principal Investigator on public programs and exhibitions at regional and national museums.

One distinctive feature of Rethinking Textiles was the focus on extending academic research to non-academic audiences, building on the expertise of the Principal Investigator who has extensive experience in museums, heritage, and public history. The major outcome along these lines is the collaboration with the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) in Manchester on the reinterpretation of its textile machinery hall and on a new exhibition about the city as “Cottonopolis.” The Fellow assisted MOSI’s educators and curators with draft scripts on both of these efforts. Elsewhere, smaller collaborations included a joint effort between the Fellow and local heritage professionals on a new pamphlet for the West Yorkshire Heritage Trail.

Further public engagement came through the University of Leeds, where the Principal Investigator piggybacked Rethinking Textiles onto other research projects to create synergies. Funding from Rethinking Textiles was used for two conferences on textile history, “War of the Fibres” and “Rethinking Textiles: Yorkshire Edition,” which attracted 40 and 80 members of the general public, respectively. The Principal Investigator and the Fellow both presented their work and served as moderators. Another outreach efforts was an exhibition on “The Synthetics Revolution” at ULITA (the International Textile Archive at the University of Leeds), which was curated by colleagues in the School of History and the School of Design under the auspices of Rethinking Textiles and the Principal Investigator’s large CRP, The Enterprise of Culture.