“W” for Wool: War and Worsteds / Words and Things. Exploring the market for woollen textiles in early-modern Spanish America. John Styles, Research Professor in History, University of Hertfordshire, UK

With a population of between 6 and 8 million in 1700, larger than the Netherlands, Denmark, or England, the Spanish colonies in the Americas constituted a vast, wealthy market for a wide variety of European textiles. Despite local colonial production of woollen and cotton fabrics, Spanish American consumers were heavily reliant on European manufacturers, especially for higher quality textiles. Few of these textiles were manufactured in Spain. By the end of the 17th century, over 90% of the manufactured goods exported in the annual fleets which sailed from Cadiz originated outside Spain. The textiles smuggled into Spanish America from the neighbouring American colonies of other European powers, such as British Jamaica or Dutch Curaçao, were even more likely to have a non-Spanish origin.

It was French-made silks and linens that dominated European textile exports to Spanish America in the 18th century. Yet English worsteds also enjoyed considerable success, much to the irritation of the French. French exporters faced particular difficulties during the frequent wars of the 18th century, when British naval supremacy caused interruptions to the system of regular Spanish fleets. Towards the end of these wars, with the prospect of normal trade resuming, French officials and manufacturers redoubled their efforts to compete with English exports of woollen textiles.

Paris, AN, F12, 551-3: ‘Assortment of 25 pieces of bays for Veracruz, Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, Havana, Campeche and Caracas. Swatch no. 13 is the one to be followed for quality, length, width and weight.’
Paris, AN, F12, 551-3: ‘Assortment of 25 pieces of bays for Veracruz, Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, Havana, Campeche and Caracas. Swatch no. 13 is the one to be followed for quality, length, width and weight.’

One such episode, near the end of the Seven Years War in 1762, has left a fascinating collection of letters and fabric samples at the Archives Nationales in Paris (AN, F12, 551-3). The French were considering how to compete with British light worsteds – serges, shalloons, long ells and bays – in Spanish America. A French official noted ‘it seems we are beginning to think seriously about re-establishing our trade with Spain’. French producers were informed that in Spain ‘the English do considerable business in a fabric called shalloon, which is exactly the same as the one you make under the name serge. It is generally used for lining men’s suits. I think it would be possible … to enter into competition with the English in this field.’ The French consul at Cadiz sent swatches of English bays, of the kinds sold in Spanish America, to be copied.

Together, these letters and accompanying swatches enable us to see and feel the actual textiles, to discover how they were named in three languages (French, English and Spanish), to determine how they were used in clothing, and to learn how their quality was evaluated – it was the lightness of the warps in the English bays that gave them their superior softness. This combination of words and things is a Holy Grail for early modern textile scholarship. It is much sought after, but rarely found, so these documents constitute a remarkable survival.

References: Nuala Zahedieh, ‘Commerce and Conflict: Jamaica and the War of the Spanish Succession’, in A.B. Leonard and David Pretel (eds), The Caribbean and the Atlantic World Economy (Basingstoke, 2015), 68-86; Toshikazu Kasai, ‘English Smuggling Activities in the Official and Private Documents”, HERSETEC, 3 (2009), 169-189; Richard Salvucci, Textiles and Capitalism in Mexico: An Economic History of the Obrajes, 1539-1840 (Princeton NJ, 1987).

See: John Styles, “Fashion, Textiles and the Origins of Industrial Revolution”, The East Asian Journal of British History, Vol. 5 March 2016, pp. 161-189.


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