Sunday, May 31, 2015

Printed Cotton Bans

* See here for an overview and an explanation of my citation system


Starting in 1686, France prohibited both the importation of Indian printed fabric as well as the printing of cottons. The combination of this ban with the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes drove Huguenot printers out of France (8, 37), taking their knowledge and experience to other countries such as England, Sweden, and Switzerland. Though some printers relocated to the free areas of Alsace and Marseille or rural areas away from the reach of the law(8, 38), the French printing industry was largely crippled.

People caught with printed cottons faced confiscation, fines, or imprisonment. In 1717, the government added the option of condemning people to life on a French galley (10.3, 224). Despite the threat of punishment, it was estimated in 1701 that 12 million livres of calicos changed hands in France, mostly smuggled from Amsterdam or London, or smuggled directly from India by the French East India Company. Generally only the most flagrant (merchant) offenders were harshly punished. However, hundreds of women were publicly stripped of their clothes, which were then burned. On the whole, enforcement of the ban was infrequent (8, 38).

In 1759, in the face of failure of enforcement and loss of technological advantage, the ban was finally lifted. Within a year, Christophe-Phillippe Oberkampf had established his print works at Jouy and soon gained fame for his “Toiles de Jouy.”


English silk and wool weavers began to complain about the increased competition in the 1670s (9, 25). The government's initial response was to increase duties on imported fabrics from 20% in the early 1690s to 35% in 1700 (12, 119). The Calico Act of 1701 stated that “all calicoes of China, Persia or the East Indies that are painted, dyed or printed or stained there... shall not be worn or otherwise used in Great Britain” (7, 157). This Act still allowed re-exportation of Indian printed cottons as well as the importation of plain white cottons, which could legally be printed for domestic consumption (10.6, 338). The re-exportation loophole led to much smuggling as ships ostensibly left for colonial markets, but actually doubled back to other British ports (9, 25).

Domestic printers were buoyed by the ban on imports, since they could import white cottons and print perfectly legal imitations of Indian fabrics. This led to an increase in the number of print works (10.3, 223). As domestic production ramped up, dissatisfaction among the silk and wool weavers began to boil over again. One wrote in 1702:

Though it was hoped that this prohibition would have discouraged the consumption of those goods, we find that allowing calicoes unstained to be brought in, has occasioned such an increase of the printing and staining calicoes here, and the printers and painters have brought that art to such perfection, that it is more prejudicial to us than it was before the passing of that Act. (11, 112)

Violence began to break out in 1720, with women being assaulted and stripped naked in London if they were found by the mob to be wearing the prohibited cloth. Some even had acid thrown at them (12, 119).

The government issued the Calico Act of 1721 which no longer exempted white Indian cottons. It also forbade printing on domestically produced all cotton fabrics. However, Indian handkerchiefs and muslins were still allowed, as was printing on fustians (cotton/linen blend fabrics) (10.6, 338). To further confuse matters, the Act also exempted any Indian fabrics that were already in the country – a fact difficult to prove or disprove (9, 25). Smuggling continued and cotton fabrics continued to be available (12, 127).

As British weavers refined their fustians, the quality approached that of all-cottons (8, 83). For a third time, the silk and wool weavers protested. This time, however, the government merely reenforced their previous decision by issuing the 1736 Manchester Act. This new act reaffirmed that as long as the printing was done on fustian, it was allowed (5, 17). The Acts stood thus until all-cotton fabrics were finally allowed in 1774 (11, 127).

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