Working Papers


Wenjun Yu and Elise van Nederveen Meerkerk, "Textile Wages, Women's Earning Power, and Household Living Standards in the Yangtze Delta, 1756 -c.1930"2024.

This paper explores the real incomes of textile women and their economic contributions to household subsistence in the Yangtze Delta from 1756 to 1930. It finds that the daily real income by traditional hand spinning and weaving experienced a steady decline in the whole investigating period. However, when hand weavers used machine-made yarn, textile productivity improved and the daily return had an obvious increase. While this new method of hand weaving induced relatively high real incomes between the 1880s and early 1910s, in the longer term hand weavers' earnings generally declined. Nevertheless, women's annual remuneration still averaged around 65% of the income needed for a household's subsistence. When hand weaving stagnated since the 1920s, handicraft textile women contributed less than 20% of household subsistence expense, while the wages earnings of women who worked in urban mills hovered between 40% and 60% of a household subsistence budget. The earning power of Yangtze textile women was, on the one hand, depended on commercialization, global trade and textile industrialization in different historical eras, on the other hand, conditioned by their life circles and household labor allocation. No matter what kind of textile production women did, their economic contribution to the household throughout the period should not be underestimated.



Elise van Nederveen Meerkerk, "Globalization and women's textile work: a comparative perspective", 2020.

This paper stages a rather wide-ranging historical overview of changes in women’s work in the textile industry over a long period of time, in many parts of the world. Textile production has been highly labour-intensive throughout history. Even after machines were introduced since the late eighteenth century, textile producers have always been in need for cheap, flexible labour. In most places and times, it was women – and to a lesser extent children – who provided this labour. An important strategy in the search for cheap labour was the relocation of textile production. Although the latest shift, with mass cotton textile production moving from industrial sites in “the Global North” to “the Global South” is relatively well-known, earlier shifts have also occurred. In this paper, I aim to identify the most important drivers of these shifts, as well as their consequences for women workers. I will look at the process of globalization, but also at the availability, or the absence, of alternative work opportunities for women to explain these changes.

Katharine Frederick and Elise van Nederveen Meerkerk, "Wielding the thread: Local textile markets and global competition in the periphery, circa 1860-1960", 2020.

This paper analyzes domestic cloth production in relation to consumer preference in Java and sub-Saharan Africa, with the aim of uncovering how local industries coped with the effects of broader global and colonial forces during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Market-oriented deindustrialization theories based on Ricardian theory purport that, by the nineteenth century, world regions with a comparative advantage in manufacturing (primarily the West) prevailed as providers of industrial goods to the global market place, while regions with a comparative advantage in raw materials production (the Global South) abandoned industrial manufacturing for domestic markets in favor of tropical commodity production oriented toward global markets. However, the survival of numerous handicraft industries well into the twentieth century is a clear indication that simple comparative advantage is an insufficient explanation of industrial vitality. Inspired by contemporary business theory, we argue that many domestic handicraft producers in the Global South in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries wielded certain competitive advantages – derived from the very different production and marketing strategies pursued by handicraft manufacturers relative to factory producers – which provided competitive protection despite increasing globalization. We place particular emphasis on one crucial, yet understudied element in the explanation for the resilience of local production: the capacity of local producers to accommodate local consumer preference. Specifically, strategies of product differentiation and responsiveness to shifting consumer needs, along with flexibility in manufacturing methods, enabled local producers to remain competitive in confrontation with mounting imports from early factory producers, who typically offered cheap, but lower quality and less unique products. Moreover, some local manufacturers could even compete on the basis of price given the very low labor costs involved in seasonally oriented handicraft production.