The history of the global apparel industry: Pre-industrial Revolution

The history of the global apparel industry: Pre-industrial Revolution

The history of the global apparel industry: Pre-industrial Revolution

The apparel industry is enormous. Encompassing everything from manufacturing to retail to fashion, the industry is valued at around USD$1.53 trillion. According to the World Bank, it employs over 430 million people globally, about 12.6% of the world’s workforce.

Generating billions of dollars every year, the global apparel industry is a major contributor to the world’s economy, and, despite several challenges, is expected to grow in the coming years.

So how did making clothes become the 8th biggest industry in the world and one of the foundations of modern civilisation?

Well, it’s a long story, too long for a single blog post, so we’re going to break it up, starting this month at the very beginning…

Making clothes from the very start

One of the first things to separate us from the other animals was the ability to use tools, and one of the first tools we used was clothes. Wrapping ourselves up in furs from other animals was the beginning of something special, and it only became more complex and sophisticated.

Clothing served both functional and symbolic purposes in early societies. Prehistoric humans created clothing using materials readily available in their environments, such as animal hides and plant fibres, but it wasn’t just to keep warm. These garments were often fashioned with bones, feathers or flowers in what we can now see as the embers of the fashion industry.

As civilizations emerged, simple techniques like wrapping, tying and sewing became more refined and complex. Ancient Egypt, for example, developed sophisticated techniques for spinning flax fibres into linen, which was used to create garments for both practical and ceremonial purposes. Similarly, in ancient Mesopotamia, the use of the vertical loom allowed for intricately woven textiles.

In China, before the Qin Dynasty unified the country in 221 BC, the different states were constantly at war with each other. The different styles of clothes from this period showed which state people came from and their status within that society.

The rise of ancient Greece and Rome witnessed further advancements in apparel production. The Greeks introduced the use of wool and developed looms for weaving, while the Romans introduced the spinning wheel, which greatly increased yarn production. Tailoring techniques, such as draping and cutting fabric to create fitted garments, also began to appear around this period.

And that’s how it was for centuries. Clothes were made by people for their fellow countrymen and only made en mass for soldiers. Different styles and fashions were spread through conquest more than trade, with the Romans spreading their culture across most of Europe.

loom for weaving

Artisan guilds and cottage industries

With the decline of the Roman Empire, Europe entered the Middle Ages, characterised by feudalism and the rise of artisan guilds.

Artisan guilds played a crucial role in regulating and advancing the apparel industry during this period. Through educational seminars, apprenticeships, networking and promotion, the guilds supported artisans and fine craftsmanship, including weavers, spinners, and tailors.

These guilds established standards for production and protected the interests of their members. They ensured quality control and maintained trade secrets, passing down knowledge and skills from one generation to the next.

The guild system provided artisans with a sense of stability and security, offering them protection, access to resources and a framework for apprenticeship and training. Guild members were responsible for the entire garment-making process, from spinning the yarn to sewing the final product. They worked from their homes or small workshops, which were known as cottage industries.

Cottage industries were a prevalent form of apparel manufacturing during this period. Craftsmen and women would work on individual parts of the garment, often passing them from one household to another. This system allowed families to contribute to clothing production while fulfilling their other daily responsibilities, a system which is still seen in rural parts of Asia today.

The garments produced during this period in Europe were highly valued and often adorned with intricate details and embellishments, reflecting the craftsmanship and artistry of the artisans.

Setting the foundation for the future

The artisan guilds and cottage industries laid the foundation for the subsequent industrialisation of the apparel industry. They established a framework for specialisation and collaboration, paving the way for clothing production on a larger scale.

With the network in place, it was logical that the next step would be to make clothes on a mass scale, once the technology was available. That new technology arrived in 1764 with the invention of The Spinning Jenny by James Hargreaves.

spinning wheel introduced in the apparel industry in 1764

The Spinning Jenny enabled the simultaneous spinning of multiple threads, significantly increasing yarn production and efficiency compared to traditional spinning wheels. This development accelerated the availability of yarn, which became the foundation for large-scale textile manufacturing, and thus, the birth of the factory system began with apparel.

The next breakthrough came 20 years later with the invention of The Power Loom by Edmund Cartwright in 1785. The power loom automated the weaving process, eliminating the need for manual labour and greatly increasing fabric production.

The power loom mechanized the repetitive and time-consuming task of weaving, allowing for faster and more consistent production of textiles. By 1833, there were as many as 100,000 in use across the textile factories of Britain, playing a significant role in the industrialisation of the textile industry.

Contentious from the start

Then, just as today, workers complained that machines were taking their jobs, with the Luddite movement emerging during the harsh economic climate of the Napoleonic Wars.

These men would raid factories and destroy the new machines, but in the end, the government sent in troops to suppress Luddite activity and the movement was eventually quelled.

As you can see, from the very start of the mass production of apparel, there has been controversy. As the Industrial Revolution kicks off, the industry becomes global, trade spreads to all four corners of the earth, and even wars are fought over textiles.

But that’s for part two!