1798 - 1960

Cotton Manufacture, Trade and Textiles

Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum

During most of the second millenium CE, cotton dominated the global economy and in many respects India was its epicentre. By 1766, Indian cotton cloth exported to Great Britain constituted more than 75 percent of the East India Company's total exports.

In 1867, the Paris Universal Exhibition was held under the reign of Napoleon III. This medal was awarded to the Government of Bombay for its contribution of samples of raw cotton with the words 'Hors Concours' meaning 'Outstanding'.

Several ethnographic documents exist, many of which are in the Museum's collection, which bear witness to the visual records created documenting the life and culture of people in India. Some of these records reflect the fascination for Indian indigenous goods and fabrics. One such example, is 'The Costume of Hindostan: Elucidated by Sixty Coloured Engravings, with Descriptions in English and French, created between 1798 and 1799' by Francois Balthazar Solvyns, a Flemish artist who lived in India. His ethnographic portraits of people in India, compiled together in his pioneering work titled, 'Les Hindous', provide an encyclopedic insight into the everyday life in the 18th century. 

Indian muslin cloth as described in the 'Costumes of Hindostan' Balthazar Solvyns. "The texture of some of them is extremely delicate, that when spread between two persons, the appearance is that of a mist or fog, and although a yard and a quarter wide, can be drawn through a wedding ring." The image shows a miniature painting from the collection, with the Imam of Oudh presumably wearing an attire made of fine muslin.

"The loom is rude and simple, yet with such machinery they manufacture those beautiful muslins that are in Europe so much sought after and admired."

"These people are very industrious and equally inoffensive; their wages small, and they are therefore necessitated to labour incessantly to support their families, which are generally very numerous. Their children however, when they attain ten years of age, will earn their own livelihood or contribute in a great measure towards it."
-'Costumes of Hindostan' Balthazar Solvyns

In the 1790s, 80 million yards of Indian cotton cloth was exported to Europe. It is estimated that in 1776, Dhaka had 80,000 spinners, and Surat in 1795 had 15,000 looms in operation. The image shows a plate from the Forbes Watson's collection of muslin manufacture processes in Dhaka.

John Forbes Watson's documentation was created to demonstrate clothes worn by Indians in order to produce these in England and then sell them in the Indian market. Cloth samples as well as images of clothing were represented in the plates.

Popular male attires in cotton in the 19th-20th century India as represented in the John Forbes Watson Collection.The plate categorizes the dress on the bottom right as 'long Hindu Coat' and the one bottom centre as a 'Mussulman coat'

The plates from the Watson's collection show the cloth sampling categorized with details such as cloth types, price and regions in which they were produced.

The Museum's collection includes miniature clay models as well as prints that were created to show the Indian crafts/artisan's processes in great detail. Many of these models were also referenced from the representations in the ethnographic documents such as Solvyns and Watsons. This model depicts the cleaning of raw cotton through a hand-operated ginning apparatus, similar versions of which are still used today. The ginning process shown here involves stringing the cotton so that the seeds start separating from the cotton, which is then rolled into making yarn for spinning.

This clay model from the Museum's collection shows the an artisan using wooden blocks for hand printed fabrics

These prints by Shoberl, F. (1822-27) illustrate the ingenious processes related cotton fabric production. The world in miniatures: Hindoostan, by Shoberl was created in the early 19th century. It is illustrated with more than hundred coloured engravings and is a part of the Museum's collection of rare books

Situated within the easy reach of cotton growing districts, Bombay (Mumbai) proved well suited for the expansion of cotton trade not only for the requirement of its own spinning factories but for the export trade to Europe, United States of America, China and Japan. Infact by the beginning of the 20th centure, Bombay was regarded as the largest cotton market in Asia and for several years a large number of cotton bales were exported from the city compared with Liverpool and the same period.

Cotton Mills 
It was recorded that by  1925 there were 82 spinning and weaving mills in the town and island of Mumbai  (Rutnagur, Indian textile journal, 1927) . Seen here is a glass negative of the Swadeshi Mill, which was established as the Kurla Mill in 1860 and rechristened as Dharamsey Poonjabhai Mills in 1865.

Relief map of 'Worli Estate' in Mumbai before the development of the Mills

By the beginning of the 20th century the Bombay Cotton Mills were no inferior to the Lancashire textile factories in England in their general equipment and manufacturing resources (Rutnagur, Indian textile journal, 1927). Seen here is a relief map depicting the landscape of Worli region in Mumbai after the development of mill industries.

The increase in the number of cotton mills resulted in an influx of people coming to the city for work. In 1925, there were 117,230 male and 33,370 female operatives in mills of town and Kurla region of Mumbai. Special community housing was devised for the mill workers, a type of architecture referred to as 'chawl', which is still widely prevalent and is unique to the city of Mumbai.

Trademarks and labels were used on mill yarn and cloth coming into India from great Britain. The general format of a label was rectangular with ornate margins and a central image which depicted Hindu mythological figures or deities, members of British Royal family, or jugglers and belly dancers, nautch girls, artisans and service renders (Jain, 2016).

Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum
Credits: Story

Imperial Gazetteer of India, Berhampore to Bombay Vol. VIII. Oxford : Clarendon Pres, 1908.

Imperial Gazetteer of India, The Indian Empire Vol.III. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1907.

Jain, Jyotindra. 2016, Vol.68 No.3. "The Visual-Culture of the Indo-British Cotton Trade." A Story of Early Indian Advertising . Mumbai: The Marg Foundation. 34-49.

Bombay Industries: The Cotton Mill. A Review of the Progress of the Textile Industry in Bombay from 1850 to 1926 and the Present Constitution, Management and Financial Position of the Spinning and Weaving Factories. Edited by Sorabji M. Rutnagur. Indian Textile Journal, 1927.

Tarlo, Emma. 1996. Clothing Matters: Dress and Identity in India. University of Chicago Press.

2015. Fabric of India, Rosemary Crill (ed.). London: Victoria & Albert Museum.

Advisors: Dr. Jyotindra Jain, Monisha Ahmed and Mayank Mansingh Kaul.

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