Textiles

Updated October 23rd, 1999. Your comments and suggestions would be appreciated.

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   1,2"Textiles" is the name given to woven cloth (Flemish='stof, laken') made from wool, linen and later, cotton. In addition to textiles, lace and knitted materials fall in this general category.    
   When the Romans conquered the region in 57 BC, they were surprised to see the beautiful flax ('vlas') fields and the fine linen ('linnen') that was made from flax yarns spun from
fibers of the flax plant. However, as far back as the medieval ages there had been a heavy trade in wool and wool cloth between Flanders and England and Florence too. Cotton appeared on the stage somewhat later.
  The decline of the rural cottage-based flax-linen industry in Flanders and Brabant began in the mid-18th century and reached crisis proportions in the early- and mid-19th century. This is described under: "The Flax and Linen Industry", "A family working with flax into the 20th century" and "More on the Rural Economy". There were always a few 'boeren' in each district with entrepreneurial skills who bought up flax from other boeren while it was still in the field (an early form of 'investing in futures'?) to process it themselves. Others bought and sold the finished linen cloth from their neighbors and became affluent.
  Beginning in the 1700s landowners, during periods of 'bad times', started buying up land still owned by poverty-stricken boeren and then renting it back to them. These rents gradually rose as the owners recognized that this was an indirect way to obtain a greater return from their land investment since it enticed boeren to rely increasingly on home industries by committing their large families to flax growing, spinning, weaving and lace making. (The explosive growth of the population that continued well into the late 19th century might at first might be puzzling since it meant more mouths to feed on a decrease income. However, it actually benefited country people because more children, from their youngest years, could would work, contributing to the family income and therefore, to its survival.)
  Although impoverished boeren could grow enough food for their families on slivers of land they still could afford to rent, they became more and more dependent on home industries, flax processing and lace making to be able to meet their taxes and buy necessities like clothes and wooden shoes which they could not afford to make within the family, even if they possessed the necessary skills, without taking time from the money-yielding work with flax.
  A further 'squeeze' was applied by astute merchants ('
dealers') through the "putting out" system to extract what little surplus cottagers and their families gained by engaging in the home flax industry. Because the boer now had too little land to grow enough flax to keep the family busy, he either had to purchase unprocessed flax from another grower or from a merchant-entrepreneur ('dealer') on credit (usually at a high interest rate) or he could work directly for the merchant who provided the flax and paid an increasingly smaller wage for the finished linen cloth which he then sold. Such a merchant-dealer ('winkler-fabrikant') might also operate a store and compel his 'contracted' weavers to accept as payment for his work bread, cheap cloth and shoddy goods from his store rather than receive his wages in Francs. Although a few of 'his' weavers might have 2 to 4 Francs left over at the end of the week, if a weaver had no money the dealer might offer to buy back at a reduced price something he had sold him earlier. An example is documented in 19033 of a loaf of bread sold for 34 centimes to a weaver being bought back for 28 centimes!
   Some merchants extended this "putting out" system by providing the 'tools' needed, including a loom so that the cottager did not need to own such 'tools of the trade' as a loom. Then he and his family became strictly wage earners. This system slowly converted boeren families into
proletariat: people who had no money and did not own sufficient land, if any, from which they could obtain a return. All they had left to offer was their labor for wages.
  An explosive population growth during this period continued well into the late 19th century. This might at first be puzzling since it would seem to mean more mouths to feed on a decreasing income. However, it actually benefited country people because an increased number of children who, from their youngest years, contributed to the family income and therefore, to its survival. Thus the boer benefited from his contribution to the general population explosion during the 18th century because it required 2 spinners to make enough spun flax to keep one weaver busy. The additional 'hands' of 4 to 6 children contributed to the preliminary processing of the flax and to the operation the family's farm which provided their food and sometimes a little surplus that could be sold.

  Continuation of age-old cottage-based linen production offered certain competitive advantages to merchant-entrepreneurs: cheap labor and ease of laying off unneeded workers, all with a minimum or no investment of capital in supplies, tools and buildings. Nevertheless, there was a gradual shift into towns and cities of the textile industry and an influx into towns of impoverished country folk displaced from the farms. The capital costs of a factory in a town were relatively low and labor was cheap but the lack of means to speed up work kept productivity fixed and low. However, in the late 1700s the first signs of the industrial revolution appeared in England with the use of water and steam power to speed spinning and weaving. Belgium followed with an increased in the number of steam engines that rose from 234 to 2300 between 1834 and 1850. Earlier these textile mills had remained relatively small, averaging of only about 45 workers per cotton factory.3a The increasing mechanization encouraged new inventions that allowed manufacturers to extract more work out of a seemingly endless supply of cheap labor.
  Lieven Bauwens in the late 1700s smuggled cotton spinning machinery out of England, installed it in Gent and starting the mechanization of the textile and related industries in Belgium. Cotton, imported first from India and later from the southern U.S.A. and Egypt, was the first fiber adapted to the mechanization of spinning by the 'Spinning Jenny' (see picture). This, even in its most primitive form, allowed one operator to spin enough yarn to keep up with more than one loom.
  Soon spinning machines and looms were driven by steam engines and increased in size to handle huge amounts of cotton. Also they needed no skilled spinners and weavers to operate them; unskilled workers were adequate. This mechanization reached a peak in the 19th century in the textile mills of
Voortman and other manufacturers in Gent. The Voortmans had a policy of employing mainly women and adolescents and paying them poorly. This allowed them to drive down the wages of their men employees to a level lower than those offered to men in similar enterprises in Gent. Within families the wages of the women and children were considered a supplement to those of the man of the family. It was therefore acceptable for the Voortmans to pay them wages lower than their actual productivity, thus reducing labor costs but not output and yielding more profit. This wage policy was consistent with another aspect of the Voortman investment approach: They kept their production system integrated and within Gent, avoiding the expensive spreading out of their manufacturing to rural areas. Those of their competitors who chose the rural factory option had to employ relatively skilled and therefore more expensive local workers.
   The Voortmans' low salary policy was not forced by technological changes in the industry but represented the goal of profitability, regardless of its social costs, chosen by the directors of the company: All was permissible if it led to lower wages.
4
  However, not all industrialists were as strictly money-minded as the Voortmans. Although he became as rich as the Voortmans, another major industrialist in Gent, Ferdinand Lousbergs was a philanthropist and built a rest home ('thuis Lousbergs') for workers.5
  However, in general, children remained favorite employees in the textile industry. Not only were their wages low, they were more adaptable than adults. Also, their small size and flexibility allowed them to scramble about around the machines. For example the youngest children in the textile factories were usually employed as 'scavengers' and 'piecers'. Scavengers had to pick up the loose cotton from under the machinery. This was extremely dangerous as the children were expected to carry out the task while the machine was still working.
   The working hours were long: 10 to 14 hours a day, 6 days a week! Similar problem existed during the same period in England. We know that corrective legislation came into effect in Belgium during the mid-1800s. Industrialization followed the British 'model' but standards of living lagged considerably: low wages and long hours. Belgian competitiveness in the world market depended heavily on women's and children's work. Women comprised 54% of the workers in the textile industry in 1880, earning 1/2 to 2/3 of what men did. In 1887 many children went off to work "after first communion", i.e. as young as seven.

   There is no information available on the details of working conditions in Belgian textile mills. However the need to control these were recognized by a law passed in 1891 which set out the working conditions of women and children. In England the Parliamentary Hearings that preceded the passing of a law that regulated child labor are informative: It was common for very young children to be working for over twelve hours a day. A survey of doctors in 1836 showed that "ten hours is the utmost quantity of labour which can be endured by the children" without damaging their health. The testimony at the Parliamentary Hearings of Sarah Carpenter, a child textile worker is disturbing! 


   Meanwhile in Belgium, during the first half of the nineteenth century the collapse of the rural textile 'cottage' industry and the potato famine impoverished Flemish workers in the countryside, created a large pool of impoverished workers. Over some decades such workers migrated into towns.
     Artisans and craft workers in Gent were nearly all male and looked down on adult male weavers who were relatively well paid and were the most skilled workers in the textile industry. Wives of artisans, including those of many mechanics and machine builders, were more likely to own or work in small stores and not have their children work. In contrast, the wives and children of male textile workers more often worked in textile factories just as their husbands and fathers did. As might be expected young women factory workers wished to marry into the higher social position of the craft workers' wives. Among themselves they sang a popular song:
 

6 "No, no, no, not a weaver,
Even more, not a spinner.
I must have a craftsman,
who can keep me."

   During the 1880s new looms were introduced from England and resulted in the laying off of older male workers and by the mid-1890s the weavers union's membership had dropped by half.
   Although universal suffrage for males had been granted in 1894, the two established Catholic and Liberal party supporters were 'protected' by having additional votes for those with education and wealth. In the 1894 election the Socialists won 28 seats eight more than the Liberals but the Catholics retained their dominance with 130 seats. It was the Gent socialists who launched "The Great Strike of 1895" and this led to the formation of strong industrial unions and strengthened the labor movement in Belgium.

1See "The Linen House" an excellent source of information on flax and linen and an excellent overview of the history of British textile industry.
2Henriette Diehl helped edit this page.
3"Door Arm Vlaanderen" (Through Poor Flanders) by August Winne, published by the Cooperative People's Press, Gent, 1903.
3a "The Age of revolution 1789-1848", Eric Hobsbawm, 1962.
4From From "Wages, Manufacturers and Workers in the Nineteenth-Century Factory; The Voortman Cotton Mill in Ghent", Peter Scholliers, Berg publishers, 1996, Oxford & Washington D.C. Kindly translated and interpreted by Professor Paul duprez and André Deblaere.
5 From "Five Centuries of Welfare in Gent" published by OCMW, Gent 1999.
6 From "A House Divided: Catholics, Socialists and Flemish Nationalists in 19th Century Belgium" by Carl Strikwerda, 1997 ISBN 0-8476-8527-6.


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