Cotton and Antislavery: The Strange Story of Slave-Labour and Free-Labour Gingham Cloth in the 1850s

Anna Vaughan Kett

    Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperpeer-review


    Against the backdrop of the little-known and fascinating Trans-Atlantic boycott of slave-grown cotton, from the 1840s to the 1860s, a significant cohort of antislavery activists, primarily Quaker women demanded ‘slave-free’ or ‘free-labour’ alternatives. Thus a small, defined, and highly efficient supply chain was established, notably linking Philadelphia and Manchester, to enable raw cotton grown on free farms in the American South to be shipped to Britain, to be spun, woven and dyed in the North West and distributed for sale across Britain.
    Using fresh research initiated during my Doctoral enquiry, this paper will examine the nature of British free-labour cotton cloth. Through close examination of surviving examples, it will examine how it fitted with prevailing trends and tastes and how it formed its own strong, political identity. Through a textual source, The Slave: His Wrongs and Their Remedy, the British anti-slavery periodical run by Quakers, attitudes to both the purchase, and the wearing of this unique form of cotton cloth will be also be unpacked.
    There will be a distinct focus on gingham, the multi-coloured checked cloth so ubiquitous in the 1850s, which will be re-positioned as a cloth with multiple personalities; humble cloth of the labouring poor, despised clothing of the enslaved on plantations and ‘uniform’ of the antislavery activist.
    There will also be a focus on the northern gingham-manufacturing town of Carlisle, where a very strange tale unfolds. Whilst an elite form of hand-loomed, free-labour cotton gingham was being made to dress British and American abolitionists, a few streets away huge quantities of factory-made gingham was being made for the mass-market, including America, where it was in great demand to dress the enslaved on plantations.
    To conclude, this paper will demonstrate how one type of cloth may connote very different meanings, and whether any connections between them can be made.
    Original languageEnglish
    Publication statusPublished - 14 Nov 2018
    EventCostume Colloquium V1: Textiles in Fashion, Creativity in Context - Florence, Florence, Italy
    Duration: 14 Nov 201818 Nov 2019


    ConferenceCostume Colloquium V1: Textiles in Fashion, Creativity in Context


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