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.
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.