A lot of the technological developments in the early-ish industrial revolution in Britain were about increasing the rate and efficiency of textile manufacture. It's easy to find material about what these innovations were and who was responsible for them, but in order for it to have all been worthwhile there must have been an enormous (or at least increasing) unmet demand for textiles.

It seems to be hard (at least on a cursory first glance by a non-expert) to find anything about the demand side of the story - I would like more details about it. For example: Why was there such a huge unmet demand for textiles during that time? What were the main uses of the cotton and wool fabrics that were being produced? (E.g. was it mostly clothes or were there major industrial uses as well?) Were they mainly being consumed domestically or abroad, and if the latter, where? Did the demand for textiles greatly increase before or during the industrial revolution, or had the textile market always been limited by production capacity?

  • 2
    There doesn't have to have been increasing demand. The industrialization process would lead to more efficient production. As a consequence, the manufacturer could offer the product to market at lower cost (with the same level of profit) undercutting the competition (from other countries) and gaining market share. Sep 19, 2015 at 12:28
  • @KillingTime I am no economist and might be using terms incorrectly, but I would think that would not work unless there was a very large sustained demand. Otherwise, undercutting would only give a temporary advantage, until the market became saturated by all the cheap textiles. But still, if what you say is the case, then that is what I want to know.
    – N. Virgo
    Sep 19, 2015 at 12:33
  • At the early stages of the industrial revolution, I think it would have taken some time for British manufacturers to saturate the world market. Sep 19, 2015 at 12:56
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    @Nathaniel The basic principle at work here is that as price goes down, demand goes up. Industrialisation allowed substantially cheaper textiles to be produced, thus opening up a huge market that had heretofore been priced out of consumption.
    – Semaphore
    Sep 19, 2015 at 14:07
  • To put things into perspective, this is an example of a fly shuttle, which was "state-of-the-art" before Industrial Revolution: youtube.com/watch?v=khiEAEqdkZY. As you can see, it meant a lot of time to produce even small patches of clothes; pre-Industrial Revolution clothing was very expensive relative to what we know now.
    – SJuan76
    Sep 19, 2015 at 17:56

2 Answers 2


The Industrial Revolution resulted in massive gains for worker productivity. The textile industry in particular was a leading and early driver of the industrialisation process. In fact, the importance and impact of the British textile manufacture was such that the Industrial Revolution has been called "mainly the revolution of the cotton industry in Britain".1

With its superior productivity, industrialised textile production swept away traditional industries both domestic foreign through sheer price advantage. As a basic necessity of human life, clothing has always held potential for mass consumption. For most of history however, this potential was resolutely held back by price. That clothing were distributed in wills testifies to the fact that pre-industrial peasants were rarely able to afford new clothes.2 Industrialised mass production of clothing removed this barrier to consumption by dramatically lowering the prices.

In addition to existing demand however, the enormous growth in British textile production was enabled by her extensive export markets, principally in Asia. Specifically, India and China, the two most populous markets in the world. By the time of the Industrial Revolution, India had largely succumbed to British rule and was a prime destination for British exports.

Between 1793 and 1813, the value of British textile exports east of the Cape of Good Hope (mainly to India) jumped from £156 to £108,824 - a factor of almost 700:3

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Initially, British textiles fared poorly in China. Traditional Chinese textile production was largely performed at the household level, by wives and daughters in their spare time. This mode of production efficiently utilised labour resources while suppressing costs. The resulting high productivity of household manufacturing was such that as late as the 1820s, decades after the Industrial Revolution had begun, China was still exporting substantial amounts of textile to Britain.

As the Industrial Revolution proceeded however, British industries slashed production costs and achieved price competitiveness in China. By 1860 the price of yarn had plunged to 1/16 of its price in 1779.4 Chinese households in cotton producing provinces continue to clothe themselves, however the market became thoroughly dominated by foreign clothing. The reversal of fortunes can be observed from the textile import/export figures at Canton, the chief port of Chinese trade at the time:

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Even in 1800, the population was China had reached 260 million. The Indian population was lower, but estimates are still as high as 200 million. The two great markets had heretofore produced much of the manufactured goods of the world, including textiles, in order to feed their enormous domestic demand.

The Industrial Revolution changed all this by giving British textile production (and other industries) an competitive edge. In doing so, British industry supplanted native production, taking for itself their lucrative domestic market of literally hundreds of millions. At the same time, mass production had sparked an era of mass consumption at a level that had never been possible before due to much lower prices.

The same pattern, albeit on a smaller scale, was essentially repeated everywhere British mercantile power acquired free access - at least until the rise of competition. The combined results are that, for over a century, the rapid growth of the British textile industry was sufficiently absorbed by a seemingly insatiable market.

1. Blokker, Niels. International Regulation of World Trade in Textiles: Lessons for Practice, a Contribution to Theory. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1989.
2. Forgeng, Jeffrey L., and Jeffrey L. Singman. Daily Life in Medieval Europe. Greenwood Publishing Group, 1999.
3. Dutt, Romesh Chunder. The Economic History of India Under Early British Rule: From the Rise of the British Power in 1757, to the Accession of Queen Victoria in 1837. Vol. 1. Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner, 1906.
4. Zhou, Xun. The Great Escape: Modelling the Industrial Revolution. ProQuest, 2008.

  • I'm wondering if there's anything that can be said about user5001's answer, that the growing population in Britain might also have been a factor? Do you know of any data that would indicate to what extent that mattered in addition to the foreign market and mass consumption?
    – N. Virgo
    Sep 23, 2015 at 13:38
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    @Nathaniel Yes, it is a good point and indeed very much a factor. However, the growth of British textile production far outstrips the population growth. Between 1750 and 1850 the population of Britain tripled. Over the same period, however, British consumption of raw cotton increased from 1 or 2 million to 584 million pounds. This was enabled only by the massive export markets overseas - at 15 million the British population of 1850 was only a fraction of either India or China's.
    – Semaphore
    Sep 23, 2015 at 15:30

One thing that's overlooked is that there was also a huge population growth during the industrial revolution. The population of england grew from 7 million to 30 million in a century. So even without selling the clothes overseas there was a lot more people buying clothes than there was before the industrial revolution.

See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demography_of_England

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