The Cloth Industry

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The Cloth Industry

The cloth industry stands out from all others in several respects. It was the first large-scale industry in Europe; it was the one English industry which reached European pre-eminence, the first to form separate gilds, the first to become capitalistic in its organization. England had always manufactured a certain amount of cloth for its own consumption, even apart from the rough spinning and weaving which had been done on rural estates. Letters had passed between Charlemagne and Offa of Mercia regarding the cloth industry; the Weavers were the earliest and most privileged 'of London gilds, and an Assize of Cloth was decreed in 1200 and incorporated in Magna Carta. But though some export seems to have taken place during the thirteenth century, it is not until the fourteenth century that it began to become really, important, and during the latter half of that century (if we can trust the figures of the customs and alnagers' 'accounts) production rose from 15,010 pieces in 1858, of which 10,000 were exported, to nearly 50,000 in 1395, of which 48,000 were exported. These figures refer to broadcloth; but there was also an important industry in worsted (that is, cloth woven from long-staple wool which has been combed, not carded) centred in Norfolk and Suffolk. The export of worsted from Yarmouth alone amounted to 109000 pieces in the single year 1400-1.

The reasons for this sudden development are obscure. Up to the fourteenth century the chief cloth-producing areas had been Italy and Flanders, both of which used English wool; both had already developed a capitalistic structure, and had frequent labour troubles. In the fourteenth century the Flemish burghers became involved in wars with their overlord, the King of France, and Edward III invited Flemish weavers to come and settle in England, which many of them did, taking native workers, as apprentices. At one time, too, the export of wool was forbidden to residents in England; this may have diverted English merchants into cloth-making. We do not really know how important Edward ill's policy was. On the one hand, he has been called the "father of English commerce "; on the other, he has been said to have "found the cloth industry expanding, and taxed it ". Possibly his policy was in fact helpful; but it seems more than doubtful whether any fourteenth-century government was capable of framing and carrying out a consistent long-term economic policy, and of correctly foreseeing its results. Edward and his advisers probably had little more than the vaguest idea of fostering the industry, though they may have buiided better than they knew.

The alnagers were officials appointed by the Crown to inspect finished pieces of cloth in order to see that they conformed to the size and quality prescribed by the Assize. Each piece, when approved, was sealed by the alnagers seal, without which it might not be sold, and the alnager exacted a fee for this service.

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Class differences within the Gilds

This type of craft gild was certainly the most common, since most industries were small in scale and their technical processes simple - simple enough, at all events, for one master craftsman to perform them all and market the finished product himself.

If the demand for the commodity was fairly stable, it was easy for the gild to regulate the admissions to it, and to make sure that every industrious apprentice stood a fair chance of becoming a small master in the end.

But for certain goods,' particularly woollen cloths, the conditions of production and sale were different.

Many successive... see: Class differences within the Gilds

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