This is the second half of the fourth part of our four part (I, II, III, IVa, IVb) look at the production of textiles, particularly wool and linen, in the pre-modern world. Last time, we looked at commercial textile workers and the finishing processes for textiles (fulling, dyeing, etc) which generally took place in a commercial context. This week, we are going to look at the other major element of the commercial textile trade, which were the merchants who traded in textiles both rare and common.
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Produce Local, Think Global
Fabric as a finished product is somewhat different from the other products (grain and iron) we’ve discussed in this series so far. Bulk grain is a commodity – which means that one kilogram of grain is pretty much like the next. When grain gets traded in bulk it is because of differences in supply, not generally because grain in one region or other is particularly tasty. Consequently, you only get bulk grain trading when one area is producing a surplus and another not producing enough. The same is more loosely true of iron; Iron wasn’t a perfect commodity in the pre-modern world since some ores produced better quality metal than others and some trade in high quality ores or metal (like wootz) happened. But for every-day use, local iron was generally good enough and typically available. Iron could be – and often was – treated as a commodity too.
Fabric is not like that. While the lower classes will often have had to make do with whatever sorts of cloth is produced cheaply and locally, for people who could afford to have some choices the very nature of textile production produces lots of regional differences which incentivized trade. Almost everything about textile production is subject to regional variations:
- What fibers are being used. Major wool and linen producing regions tended to be separate, with wool (and sheep) in colder climates and uplands while (as noted) flax tended to be grown in warmer river-valleys with rich alluvial soil. Meanwhile, the cotton-and-silk producing regions generally (with some notable exceptions, mind) did not overlap with the wool and linen producing regions.
- The nature of the local fibers. We’ll get to some specific examples in a moment but ancient and medieval writers were well aware that different growing conditions, breeds of sheep or flax, climate and so on produced fibers of subtly different qualities. Consequently, even with the exact same processes, cloth produced in one region might be different from cloth produced in another region. But the processes were almost never the same because…
- Local variation in production processes. Again, we’ll have some examples in a moment, but the variance here could be considerable. As we’ve seen, the various tasks in cloth production are all pretty involved and give a lot of room for skill and thus for location variations in methods and patterns. One might see different weaving patterns, different spinning techniques, different chemical treatments, different growing or shearing methods and so on producing fabrics of different qualities which might thus be ideal for different purposes.
- Dye methods and availability. And as we discussed last time, available dyestuffs (and the craft knowledge about how to use them) was also often very local, leading to certain colors or patterns of color being associated with different regions and creating a demand for those. While it was often possible to ship dyestuffs (although not all dyestuffs responded well to long-distance shipping), it was often more economical to shift dyed fabric.
Added on top of this, fabric is a great trade-good. It is relatively low bulk when wrapped around in a roll (a bolt of fabric might hold fabric anywhere from 35-91m long and 100-150cm wide. Standard English broadcloth was 24 yards x 1.75 yards; that’s a lot of fabric in both cases!) and could be very high value, especially for high quality or foreign fabrics (or fabrics dyed in rare or difficult colors). Moreover, fabric isn’t perishable, temperature sensitive (short of an actual fire) or particularly fragile, meaning that as long as it is kept reasonably dry it will keep over long distances and adverse conditions. And everyone needs it; fabrics are almost perfect stock trade goods.
Consequently, we have ample evidence to the trade of both raw fibers (that is, wool or flax rovings) and finished fabrics from some of the earliest periods of written records (spotting textile trade earlier than that is hard, since fabric is so rarely preserved in the archaeological record). Records from Presargonic Mesopotamia (c. 2400-2300) record wool trading both between Mesopotamian cities but wool being used as a trade good for merchants heading through the Persian Gulf, to Elam and appears to have been one of, if not the primary export good for Sumerian cities (W. Sallaberger in Breniquet and Michel, op. cit.). More evidence comes later, for instance, palace letters and records from the Old Babylonian Empire (1894-1595) reporting the commercialization of wool produced under the auspices of the palace or the temple (Mesopotamian economies being centralized in this way in what is sometimes termed a ‘redistribution economy’ though this term and the model it implies is increasingly contested as it becomes clearer from our evidence that economic activity outside of the ‘palace economy’ also existed) and being traded with other cities like Sippar (on this, note K. De Graef and C. Michel’s chapters in Breniquet and Michel, op. cit.).
Pliny the Elder, in detailing wool and linen producing regions provides some clues for the outline of the cloth trade in the Roman world. Pliny notes that the region between the Po and Ticino river (in Northern Italy) produced linen that was never bleached while linen from Faventia (modern Faenza) was always bleached and renowned for its whiteness (Pliny, NH 19.9). Linen from Spain around Tarragona was thought by Pliny to be exceptionally fine while linens from Zeola (modern Oiartzun, Spain) was particularly durable and good for making nets (Pliny, NH 19.10). Meanwhile Egyptian flax he notes is the least strong but the most fine and thus the most expensive (Pliny NH 19.14). Meanwhile on wool, Pliny notes that natural wool color varied by region; the best white wool he thought came from the Po River valley, the best black wool from the Alps, the best red wool from Asia Minor, the best brown wool from Canusium (in Apulia) and so on (Pliny, NH 8.188-191). He also notes different local manufacture processes producing different results, noting Gallic embroidery and felting (NH 8.192). And of course, being Pliny, he must rank them all, with wool from Tarentum and Canusium (Taranto and Canosa di Puglia) being the best, followed more generally by Italian wools and in third place wools from Miletus in Asia Minor (Pliny NH 8.190). Agreement was not quite universal, Columella gives the best wools as those from Miletus, Calabria, and Apulia, with Tarantine wool being the best, but demoting the rest of the Italian wools out of the list entirely (Col. De Re Rust. 7.2).
In medieval Europe, wool merchants were a common feature of economic activity in towns, with the Low Countries and Northern Italy in particular being hubs of trade in wool and other fabrics (Italian ports also being one of the major routes by which cottons and silks from India and China might find their way, via the Mediterranean, to European aristocrats). Wool produced in Britain (which was a major production center) would be shipped either as rovings or as undyed ‘broadcloths’ (called ‘whites’) to the Low Countries for dyeing and sale abroad (though there was also quite a lot of cloth dyeing happening in Britain as well).
Patterns of Trade
We have already discussed some of the basic patterns that trade tended to follow in the ancient and medieval world in our discussion of the impact of local geography on cities and in discussing the grain trade and much of that is applicable here although there are some importance differences that are worth discussing.
Transport costs remain a significant factor in the organization of textile trade. Prior to the invention of the steam engine and thus the train, moving lower value goods in any kind of bulk overland any significant distance was prohibitively expensive. In contrast, seas and rivers represented blue roads and highways, allowing for far cheaper and faster transport of bulk goods. The typical estimate, derived from the Diocletian’s Price Edict (and thus dating to the Late Roman Empire, so this is with the system of Roman roads; take those away and things get even worse for land transport) is that the ratio of the cost of land, river and sea transport was roughly 20:4:1, with sea transport thus being four times cheaper than river transport and twenty times cheaper than road transport for bulk goods (like fabric).
It should thus be of little surprise that regions involved in major textile production for export were often concentrated either on coasts or on rivers that were navigable to the sea (one may map the regions Pliny lists as major wool and linen exporters to find that they are all accessible by sea). While the sheep themselves may be grazed part of the year up in the uplands far from the coast, one of the great advantages of transhumance is that the sheep may transport themselves under the care of their shepherds to villages and lower pastures not too far from coastal towns which may serve as centers of textile production and major points of sale.
Now those transport costs become less and less significant the more valuable the goods being transported are. For a bulk good like grain (or common wools), transport may represent a majority of the costs. But if one is shipping something extremely valuable (particularly valuable per unit weight), the cost of acquisition at the source (and the profits of final sale) are much larger relative to the transport costs and less efficient methods of transportation become useful, thus the viability of silk and other expensive luxury goods being transported overland across Eurasia on the famous silk road.
Very high value fabrics didn’t need to come from so far afield though. In the Roman world, the province of Asia (corresponding roughly to western Turkey today) had several notable centers of production for particularly high valued textiles (on this, see I. Benda-Weber, “Textile Production Centers, Products and Merchants in the Roman Province of Asia” in Gleba and Pásztókai-Szeöke, op. cit.). Thyateira’s guild of purple-dyers (the πορφυροβάφοι) seem to have had trade contacts for their wares – wool dyed Tyrian purple via the murex snail – all over the province as well as in Macedonia and Italy. Weavers in the region were also known for producing fabrics with complex woven patterns and Miletus, one of the major ports in the region, had as noted the reputation for producing the best dyed wool in the Mediterranean. Such fabrics were highly valued and we find evidence that such fabrics were bought not merely by the Roman elite, but also made overland as far as Persia where such wares were valued at the Achaemenid (550-330 BC) court.
Neverthless, not all fabrics moving through trade in antiquity or the middle ages were rare or high value fabrics. As Jinyu Liu notes in a study of inscriptions relating to the textile trade, “coarse wool and wool of medium quality, and products made of these non-luxury wools dominated the market” in the Roman Empire, often being ‘pulled’ through trade towards both large population centers in the interior of the empire and towards the Roman armies in the frontier provinces, both of which must have outstripped local production in their demand for textiles (Liu, “Trade, Traders and Guilds (?) in Textiles” in Gleba and Pásztókai-Szeöke, op. cit.). This trade included not just fabrics but also ready-made products like garments or blankets which must have been aimed at fairly modest people, neither the very poor (who couldn’t afford them) nor the wealthy (who wouldn’t have been caught dead in ‘ready-made’ one-size-fits-no-one clothing), but rather the middling urban workers and common soldiers (and perhaps small farmers, though we might assume their households would produce most of their own textiles in the countryside where wool and flax, being agricultural and pastoral products, might be more available).
In Medieval Europe, just as in the ancient world, the centers of textile trading tended to follow the water as it made transport easier. England was a major wool-producing center in the high and later Middle Ages (and into the Early Modern period), with J.S. Lee (op. cit., 9) estimating production per capita exploding from around 1.3 pounds per person in the early 1300s to 7 pounds by the 1550s as the textile production system in England reoriented towards export. Wool products, produced in towns mostly in towns that were nearly coastal or had river-access flowed down by coastal trade and up the Thames to London to either be sold and used there or to be further exported to the dyers and fabric markets of the Low Countries (where fabrics could use the Rhine to travel further into the continent) or to be bought by the merchants of the Hanseatic League and so head into the Baltic.
Cloth Merchants and Clothiers
Unlike farming and trade in grain, where the producer (the farmer) and the merchant are almost always separate entities, in cloth trade there is a fair evidence for what in modern parlance we might call ‘vertical integration,’ with clothiers (managing the middle and finishing stages of production) also acting as merchants and sometimes owning initial production (that is, flax fields and herds of sheep), though it was also common for each stage of production and distribution to be handled by different people buying and selling products between stages. Moreover, while we don’t see much evidence for dedicated ‘grain traders’ in the ancient world (though there is more evidence for such in the Middle Ages), it is clear that in both the ancient and medieval Mediterranean that fabric trading was often the occupation of specialized merchants and clothiers.
Those specialized dealers in fabric could run up and down the social and economic spectrum, though they were of course always people with some property (since we’re now talking about the owners of businesses in manufacture and trade, rather than the workers in them) and generally also did not reach the highest levels of society (which remained reserved for large landholders and military aristocrats), though they could often become very prominent within local civic organizations. So you have often humble dealers and manufacturers of local fabrics for relatively local consumption alongside wealthy merchants dealing in foreign cloths or expensive dyes (especially Tyrian purple) all of who might be captured under the heading ‘cloth merchants.’
I. Benda-Weber (op. cit.) for instance looks at what we know of seven individuals involved with textile production and trade in Asia Minor. Interesting inscriptions distinguish between purple-dyers (a πορφυροβάφοσ) and purple-sellers (a πορφυροπώλης or – we do sometimes see women as purple-sellers, πορφυρόωλις). Both Thessaloniki and Philippi (in Greece) apparently had guilds of purple-dyers (both with members from ancient Thyateira (modern Akhisar, Turkey), itself a production center of purple-dyed cloth); in Philippi, an ‘Antiochos, son of Lykos, the Thyateiran’ a purple-dyer, was even honored as a benefactor of the city (indicating he had undertaken some significant public service).
Purple sellers could be more prominent still. An inscription from Hierapolis (near modern Pamukkale, Turkey) attests that one purple-seller, a Marcus Aurelius, son of Alexandros Moschianos was, in the late-second or early-third century, a member of the city’s council, indicating that social respectability and a degree of political clout. (Saint) Lydia (Acts 16:14-15) was apparently a purple-seller in Phillipi who welcomed (Saint) Paul of Tarsos; interestingly she appears to be sui iuris (under her own legal authority) given that she is a merchant of high value purple cloth, is able to house Paul and his companions and converts with her household. It seems likely she was the wealthy owner of either a purple-cloth dyeing workshop or a shipping operation, rather than a textile worker herself.
Dealers in more humble fabrics might be more humble people, but if they were trading in bulk, they might also be significant in their communities. Liu (op. cit.) notes inscriptions attesting to the operations of centonarii (rag-dealers), sagarii (cloak-sellers) and vestiarii (clothes-sellers) who seem to be trading in lower quality or ready-made textiles. Gaius Rusonius Secondus, who had a tombstone in Vienne, was a sagarius who had been an elected magistrate (one of the sexvir or ‘six-men’) in Lugdunum and seems likely to have been a significant fellow there (Lugdunum, modern Lyon, seems to have been an important market in textiles, which makes sense, given that it sits on the Saone and Rhone rivers). More humble Roman cloth merchants are increasingly hard to see (they tend not to have fancy tombs and inscriptions we can read) but it is clear that such traders were fairly common in the towns and military settlements of the empire.
Medieval English clothiers – individuals, mostly men, who managed both the making and marketing of woollen cloth, typically as business owners rather than laborers (although humble clothiers might do both) – are much better attested. J.S. Lee is able to trace the family backgrounds of clothiers, noting that they tended to be either the relatives (sons or nephews) of existing clothiers or the sons of relatively well-to-do families (prosperous smallholders, artisans or other sorts of merchants), because setting up in the wool-trade business required capital and access to apprenticeships to learn to the trade (while men are the majority of English clothiers, women clothiers working alone did exist, though they seem frequently to have been widows of male clothiers carrying on their deceased husbands businesses, J.S. Lee, op. cit., 193-4).
Lee notes that a poor rural clothier might live not very differently from a smallholding yeoman farmer, while a poor urban clothier would have lived in a way much resembling urban craft-workers. At the same time, we also read of much larger scale clothiers, with large operations and houses that resembled ecclesiastical and civic dignitaries with enclosed courtyards and who could make benefactions (like funding extensions or decorations to local churches, or even commission entire new civic buildings in their home towns). Some of the more successful clothiers were – much like our Roman-era town councilor cloth-dealers – able to join the gentry and obtain respectability but this seems at least somewhat rare.
In any event, and this should be stressed, the clothier or cloth merchant was in both the ancient and medieval world, generally in no real danger of penetrating into the upper levels of the landholding elite military aristocracy which dominated above the local level (there are a few exceptions in medieval England, but they seem to be quite few). Wealthy merchants might become gentlemen or significant local civic figures, but generally no more. In some cases, efforts were made to make sure this was so. In Rome, senators were forbidden from owning ships above a certain, quite paltry, size (though, being wealthy and powerful, already existing senatorial families seem to have avoided this by simply investing in the trade activities of other, ‘socially inferior,’ men). In 1576, Wiltshire, Somerset and Gloucestershire limited land acquisitions by clothiers to no more than twenty acres, apparently attempting to block successful clothiers from buying their way into the gentry. In places where local civic politics were the highest level of politics – for instance in medieval Italian civic governance in Northern Italy – one might find the most successful cloth-dealers active there (though medieval Italian civic governance is a topic best left for its own post).
Textile production is often neglected in popular portrayals of the past. If it appears at all, it is in the form of very high status women engaged in something like embroidery as something like a hobby. While the popular image of the past often includes the forging of metal objects (mostly weapons) and sometimes even some farming, scenes of women patiently spinning and weaving are rare to vanishing. This, I have often thought, leads to the painfully prevalent assumption I find made by students that prior to what they imagine as the ‘entry of women into the workforce’ in the 1900s that women were essentially idle or did cooking and cleaning in the manner of a 1930s American housewife (though this latter assumption is made with no real understanding of how much more labor intensive those two tasks were before washing machines, dishwashers, vacuum cleaners, microwave ovens and so on).
In fact, ancient and medieval women – often even very elite women – were very much involved in production in the household. They were always ‘in the workforce’ and the relative invisibility of that fact should caution us as to the ways in which the social value placed on certain kinds of labor effects their visibility. Of course ‘women’s work’ in the pre-modern did not end with textiles, but they represent a substantial portion of female-gendered labor in the pre-modern household. Even when textiles were being produced for commercial sale, often the work of producing them was done by these women either working as professionals or through operations that harnessed household production by paying household producers for their work (the ‘putting out’ system).
After agriculture itself, textile production was probably the single largest sector of the pre-modern economy, rivaled only by construction. Much like agriculture, textile production and trade stretched from some of the humblest people in society – the women in subsistence farming families – to wealthy merchants who might serve as town councilors or embellish their local churches as a show of wealth and piety. Fabric was, perhaps, the quintessential trade good and commercial textile production in the pre-modern period was a larger part of economic life than trade in things like ceramics, metal or stonework which may appear more prominently in either the written sources (because male writers tend to focus on male occupations or on occupations important for male elite display) or because they are more likely to survive in the archaeological record.
It was also a necessary task, both as a matter of simple survival in less temperate climates, but also as a matter of comfort and social respectability. Textile production was not some optional frivolity, but as important for the success of a family as farming or blacksmithing or any other craft or trade (and rather more important than many of them). For humble people in society, well-made homespun clothes could be a made to assert at least some basic level of dignity. For the elite, whose position required them to ‘look the part’ in order to retain the legitimacy that position depended on, suitable expensive and eye-catching clothing was often required for success. And of course textiles were used not only for clothing itself, but for blankets, containers, rags and all other manner of household goods (some of which might be made out of fresh textiles, others of which might be produced by combining scraps of older worn-out textiles).
Fortunately, the last several decades, increasing amounts of scholarly attention have been paid to the production of textiles in the household and to the commercial status of textiles in the broader pre-modern market. Textile studies really remain a relatively young field compared to, for instance, the study of ancient ceramics or statuary or farming or even blacksmithing, but hopefully I have given some impression of the tremendous strides that have been made. One may hope that, bit by bit, that understanding will creep into the popular conception of the past and we may do away with the image of the ‘idle’ pre-modern housewife, replaced instead by the skilled and industrious (or equally enough careless and indolent; just as not everyone today is diligent, so too of the ancient world) household textile worker.
But that ends our overview of textile production. I do hope to make a few addenda to this series (though perhaps not right away) to discuss, for instance, complex weaving patterns, tablet weaving, embroidery, and some of the other means by which textiles might be rendered a bit more fancy. For those looking to read more on the topic, remember that the first post has a selected bibliography.
Next week, something different!