Early Modern Cotton

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Early Modern Cotton

Economic historians interested in explaining the dynamics of economic development and technological progress have centred their attention on cotton, with a particular focus on the period starting with the Industrial Revolution. Much less is known about the cotton industry in early modern economies. The presence of cotton as one of the plethora of textiles in early-modern Europe has never been denied. However, historians have paid much more attention to wool, linen and silk, hardly mentioning the relevance of fustian (a fabric made with linen warp and cotton weft). The economic importance of cotton production in Eurasia before the 1770s is still unknown. Even in the case of Britain – where the antecedents and influences that motivated the expansion of the cotton sector have been meticulously sought – there are still numerous lacunae.

This session aims to analyse the role of cotton textiles in Europe, the Ottoman Empire and India. These were three key areas in Eurasia where cotton textiles played a major role in economic development (or economic decline) in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Papers will provide a deeper understanding of how specific regions, nations or macro-areas contributed to the development of such an important sector. Individual papers will highlight specific trajectories and set them within a comparative framework. The papers included in this session consider cotton in its supply-side aspects (as raw material and yarn) and final consumption (as textiles and clothing) and attempt to locate cotton manufacturing within strategies ranging from cultivation to the commercialisation of cotton goods. Raw cotton was cultivated in India and the Ottoman Empire, but was never locally produced in Europe. Conversely, Europe and India heavily relied on international markets for the commercialisation of cotton goods, while the Ottoman Empire sold its cotton production mainly on the home market. The seventeenth-century decline of the industry in Turkey was followed a century later by India, leading to the end of a long trend of economic growth. What were the causes? And how was the European development in cotton production connected to such major changes in other world areas? The aim of this session is to revise concepts of ‘industrialisation’ and ‘de-industrialisation’ within a global framework.

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