John Styles


projects: spinning









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Spinning in the era of the spinning wheel, 1400-1800.


From the introduction of the spinning wheel to England during the later Middle Ages to its eclipse by the powered spinning machine early in the nineteenth century, hand-spun yarn was vital to the success of the textile industries that dominated English manufacturing. Indeed, hand spinning – of wool, flax and increasingly cotton – became the principal income-generating activity pursued by women. For many of those women, it was also an essential means of furnishing their own families with textiles. Spinning straddled the boundary that has been erected by historians between the monetized economy of commercial exchange and the non-monetized sphere of the household. It was, at one and the same time, an economic and material foundation of England’s rise to pre-eminence in the international trade in textiles, and a crucial means by which rural families supplied themselves with cloth. It is no co-incidence, therefore, that in the course of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the word ‘spinster’ became the conventional term used in English to designate an unmarried woman. Yet the history of spinning in the period has never been the subject of a major study in its own right.


The absence of such a study has in recent years become increasingly anomalous. The huge expansion of historical research into the economic, social and cultural history of late-medieval and early-modern England has embraced many subjects related to spinning, including gender relations, consumption, fashion, material culture, technological innovation, household economics, employment law, labour relations, trade, law enforcement, globalization and economic policy making. Yet we still lack a study that focuses specifically on spinning, which was, by the eighteenth century, the most common form of non-agricultural employment in England, let alone a study integrating the insights and methodologies of all the new research in related fields that touches on the subject. In existing studies, hand spinning is typically dismissed simply as a low-productivity bottleneck that needed to be overcome in the forward march of economic and technological progress, an obstacle swept aside by heroic inventors of factory technologies in the Industrial Revolution.  


‘Spinning in the Era of the Spinning Wheel’ aims to rectify this anomaly. Its objective is to provide a comprehensive history of hand spinning in England between 1400 and 1800, a history that approaches the subject from the whole range of relevant perspectives, treating it as a practice that was at one and the same time material, technological, economic, commercial, legal, cultural, gendered, and global. Its approach is cross-disciplinary, embracing historical, literary, legal, technological and scientific approaches.


‘Spinning in the Era of the Spinning Wheel, 1440-1800’ is supported by a European Research Council Advanced Grant.





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