This blog accompanies the preparation for the Tangled Yarns exhibition and associated education and outreach programme at the William Morris Gallery, London (15 Oct 2014 to 1 February 2015) and its subsequent  tour to Cromford Mills in Derbyshire (26 September  to 25 October 2015).  In 2017 a version of Tangled Yarns will show at the People’s History Museum, Manchester.

First,  a bit more detail about the Tangled Yarns project: I am using specific stories in the textile industry’s history from the 18th century to the present day as inspiration for works that aim to shine a spotlight on some of the issues of gender, exploitation and inequality associated with the making of textiles sold in the UK.

I am particularly focusing on cotton because cotton’s characteristics have long made it “Fashion’s Favourite” (the title of a fascinating book by Beverly Lemire on the cotton trade and the consumer in Britain 1600-1800): immensely versatile, very compatible with mass production and consumption, affordable, easy to wear and wash, and very suited to dyed and printed finishes. The Lancashire cotton industry was at the heart of the UK’s industrial revolution, whereas its supply chain and markets have always been global, with a fascinating back-and-forth co-dependency between India and England and also a strong connection to the slave economy of the Southern US.
Last but not least, there are obvious similarities between the historic exploitation of workers in the Lancashire mills and Victorian sweatshops, and the exploitation of workers in developing countries who now make our clothes. In fact, when talking about sweatshops and sweated labour we are using terms coined in Victorian times.

All this is intimately connected to the first exhibition venue, the William Morris Gallery – home of William Morris, designer extraordinaire, committed socialist, Victorian businessman, writer and poet, environmental and cultural heritage campaigner…. I still wonder how he packed it all into 62 short years (well they say he died of being William Morris!) Morris would be wearily familiar with horror stories like the collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory building in Bangladesh in April 2013, or the violent police crackdown early this year against Cambodian garment workers who dared to strike for better wages.

So naturally, one of the subjects or stories I’ve been investigating is Morris & Co – specifically, the firm’s beautiful cotton textiles. Morris’s blockprinting workshops in Merton Abbey are commonly credited with offering jobs and working conditions well above the Victorian Status Quo. But from today’s perspective of responsible supply chain management, Morris would have had to look beyond the boundaries of his own enterprise. Didn’t the rolls of unbleached cotton fabric used by Morris & Co come from the Lancashire mills? We can be pretty certain that they did, but did Morris really have any alternatives? To be continued in a later blog post…


More than half way though the month of exhibiting at Cromford Mills already! The works look great in the 200-year old building, and what a perfect venue it is for Tangled Yarns: the world’s first water-powered spinning mill and the birthplace of the modern factory system.

The opening event was fantastic – really good turnout, a lovely introduction from the Duke of Devonshire (whose Chatsworth House is very nearby), and great  feedback from visitors. I was happy to meet both the CEO and the Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the  Arkwright Society  – to thank them for hosting the exhibition … and for the Society’s amazing work over the last decades to save Cromford Mills from destruction and oblivion, and turning it into what it is today. (NB more is still to come,  with a new World Heritage Site Gateway centre to open soon, and more buildings yet to be restored – all very exciting).

On the weekend I finally had time to explore the beautiful Dervent Valley Mills World Heritage Site – with sunshine to match! First up the rock next to Cromford Mills to get a view of the mill and, as it turns out, of both of Richard Arkwright’s houses: the one he lived in until his death, literally on top of Cromford Mills – he could see the main factory gate from there.

And then Willersley Castle, the grand  ‘pile’ Arkwright commissioned to be built for him once he was a rich man – but never lived to see it finished!

As you can see from the last image, the landscape is just so picturesque it’s unreal. Really hard to imagine this as the cradle of the Industrial Revolution! Went for a lovely long walk up and down the peaks around the Cromford Canal. It’s easy to see why the World Heritage Commission values the unique combination of natural and industrial heritage in the Derwent Valley.

To see a bit more of  the industrial  part of the World Heritage site I visited Masson Mills, just a short walk away from Cromford Mills. Built in 1783 this was the improved “V2” of Richard Arkwright’s spinning mills, build right on the river Derwent to take advantage of the river’s strong and consistent water power. It became the blueprint of early spinning mill design in the UK and even the US.  Today you can see historic (but working!) machines to process cotton from bale to woven cloth, with machinery demonstrations every day.

The bobbin room at Masson Mills apparently has the world’s largest collection of bobbins! When we visited there was such a lovely light, it felt like walking into an old still life.


Eventually steam was added to power Masson Mills – the boiler house was constructed in 1908. When I saw the boilers they seemed like familiar faces – very similar to the 1874 boiler drawing I had painted onto my hanging “The Spectre”.


Finally: I had to smile when everytime I saw this sign in Cromford . Just for the avoidance of doubt…..




For my new piece about Richard Arkwright I wanted to use the same techniques as for the other more narrative works in the Tangled Yarns show: painting on patterned  fabric. So the search for a fabric began – ideally the reproduction of a type of 18th century fabric that would have existed during Arkwright’s lifetime.  Also, the picturesque landscape of the Derwent valley had made a strong impression on me and I wanted that to be reflected in the fabric.

I very quickly narrowed my search down to a type of fabric called Toile de Jouy, which seemed to tick all the boxes. The name comes from the very successful copperplate-printed  fabrics produced from 1760 in Jouy-en-Josas near Paris, although the copperplate printing technology had actually been invented in Ireland in 1752 and came to England shortly afterwards. The typical Toile de Jouy pattern consists of single-colour pastoral motifs, e.g. rich people haven a picnic in a very idyllic countryside, or idealised scenes of peasants going about their work. Due to the success of the fabrics made in Jouy-en-Josas, “Toile the Jouy” became the term used for this style of pictorial printed fabric, irrespective of where it was produced.

I love the ambiguities involved when using this fabric in a work that explores the changes Arkwirght’s factory system brought to the Derwent valley (and later the rest of England) and the lives of its people: Yes, the location he  chose was (and is) rural and picturesque, and many people living there would have been farming, but their lives would not have been nearly as charmed as that of the happy peasants frolicking on the toile – they would have been dirt poor, life would have been a hard slog, and most would have died young. And of course only rich people like Arkwright would have been able to buy the fashionable printed toiles at the time.

The patterns of  18th century Toiles de Jouy were typically dark blue or dark red on cream-white ground;  other colours (black, brown, green magenta) were apparently rare.  For my piece, it absolutely had to be green  – like  the landscape around Cromford.  And I’m not even that keen on green in my art practice.  Well, nothing like a challenge.

The other challenge was size:  Like most toiles, the fabric I chose has a very large pattern with a big repeat, around 7o cm each way. To get a good pattern effect I would have had to make quite a large work, but this would have been difficult to fit into the space at Cromford.  Also, it seemed  a good idea to keep the size similar to that of related works in the show. So I ended up with a 80 x 100 cm format, where suddenly each scene of the pattern becomes a unique, and quite large,  element in the painting’s composition.

At the same time, these patterns don’t have a lot of weight because the motifs are  line-drawn rather than set in blocks of colour. This is fine if you want to use the fabric just as a background pattern. However, I was aiming to interweave the fabric pattern with the painted elements of the work, and this is quite tricky if the pattern is both large and “light”.

My idea was for elements of Arkwright’s factory system to increasingly “invade” the pattern from bottom left to top right of the canvas, then morphing into an industrial landscape of the 19th century that completely “pollutes” the pastoral scenes. Being particularly interested in the impacts of the factory system on people, I had fun “trapping” the  people of the pattern in the gears and wheels of Arkwight’s machines.


Aside from machines, factory buildings and smokestacks, clocks feature prominently in the painting, because I think that the factory shift system, with its long hours and strict discipline, really forced a huge change in people’s lives.

The clocks in the picture are modelled on the clock of the Greyhound Hotel in Cromford market square (also built by Richard Arkwright), seeing as the original factory clock does not survive. The dials are set to the start and end of the day shift – 6AM to 7PM.

In the middle of all this is Sir Arkwright….

…. proudly presiding over his inventions  – and unable to see the industrial hell they eventually led to.

All that is solid melts into air.





I was probably not the only person to assume that the industrial revolution had started in Lancashire. But  no – it was in Derbyshire, where the Derwent Valley mills revolutionised the cotton spinning industry by combining, on a large scale, machinery, workforce and water power  – the birth of the factory system.  Richard Arkwright’s mill at Cromford was the first to do so successfully and the “Arkwright system” became the blueprint for other early mills in England and beyond.

Given my interest in labour history and the socio-economic impacts of the textile industry, one of my first thoughts was: I wonder  if  Marx had anything to say about Arkwright? He did, and it wasn’t very complimentary. When talking about factory discipline in Das Kapital, Marx starts off by quoting  Andrew Ure ‘s praise of Arkwright –   “to devise and administer a successful code of factory discipline, suited to the necessities of factory diligence, was the Herculean enterprise, the noble achievement of Arkwright!” – only to then rubbish  Arkwright’s character  in a footnote: “Whoever knows the life history of Arkwright, will never dub the barber-genius ‘noble’. Of all the great inventors of the 18th century, he was incontestably the greatest thiever of other people’s inventions and the meanest fellow”. Controversy – what fun!

Marx would have based the “thiever” epithet on the fact that the patents Arkwright had taken out for his water spinning frame and  carding engine were eventually overturned  – the courts ruled that they were essentially copies of other people’s inventions.

However, Arkwright’s real genius was not in these inventions but in how he put them to use in his factory system. He appears a true capitalist pioneer – smart, innovative, happy to take risks, highly competitive, and with his eyes firmly on the bottom line. I was struck by the fact that Arkwright’s first partnership agreement (with two distant relatives) in 1768 commits them to becoming “joint adventurers and partners” in their quest for a patent and for improving and operating the invented machines.  For it must have been quite an adventure, setting up that first spinning mill in Cromford. There was already some  industry in the area – corn mills, lead mines, and grinding mills, all using of the available water power – but Arkwrights’s factory was to be much larger. And there weren’t enough people living nearby to  build his mill and its machinery, never mind working in the mill once it was operating.

So what was work like at Cromford Mills? Until 1792, the factory operated 24 hours, after which night work was abolished.  Workers worked 13 hour days (which included 1 hour for dinner), 6 days/week, from 6 AM to 7 PM in summer and from 7 AM to 8 PM in winter, with the night shift starting at 7/8 PM respectively. The factory bell would summon workers to work and factory gates closed at the start of the shift, so if you weren’t in on time you’d lose a day’s wages.

Occupational health & safety did not exist as a concept, but if you got sick you’d receive half pay and free medical assistance. Workers also had 8.5 days unpaid leave at important public holidays, which included 4 days for the  “Cromford wakes”, the village’s big annual carnival/celebration.

Most workers were children from about age 7, preferred because of their small, nimble fingers and because they could be paid less than adults. The rest of the workforce were women; men were not employed in the spinning mills.  But Arkwright wanted large families to move into the area to satisfy his increasing demand for labour, so he had to think of men’s employment as well. Solution: (i) men were employed in  building the machinery and constructing new premises as the operation expanded; (ii) men found employment as knitters and weavers (at the time, these  were  men’s jobs) using the mill’s spun yarn, either working from home or in a workshop in the factory grounds.

Arkwright  also built worker housing. His earliest terraces, built in 1776, still stand today. They were well-lit, high-quality houses,  each with a garden plot attached. The top floors would accommodate the weaver’s rooms.

As you can see, these house were a far cry from the infamous back-to-back slums that proliferated in the cotton towns just a few decades later. More housing was added in subsequent years as the mills – and Cromford village –  continued to grow.

Finally, Arkwright  made  what we would call today ‘corporate social responsibility’  or ‘philantropic’ investments. For example, he set up a school in Cromford which, according to the Manchester Mercury of February 1785, “already consists of two hundred children” who would go to school on sundays when they weren’t working. in 1790 he bought the Cromford Estate and built the Market Place including the Greyhound Public House.

Compared to what is known of mill practices and workers’  living conditions in Lancashire in the early decades of the 19th century, Arkwright’s regime appears comparatively benign. Many mills worked shifts of 14 hours or longer, with no break for dinner.  Whereas Arkwright only accepted children aged 7 or  older who had at least rudimentary reading and writing skills, other mills would employ children as young as 5 or 6, who were paid even less. An eyewitness in 1801 notes that the children leaving their shift at Cromford Mills looked “in general very healthy and many with fine, rosy complexions”. The unpaid holidays, half pay on sick days and medical attention offered by Arkwright were rare bonuses. It also helped that the mills were water-powered – the later, steam-powered mills tended to get hotter and were more polluting.

Another significant difference was in the housing. We know from many contemporary accounts, most famously Engels’ 1845  Condition of the  Working Class in England, that the  dank, dark, cramped, stinking, unsanitary slums  – “cattle sheds for human beings” according to Engels – that housed the cotton workers were literally making people ill.

Or rather:  more sick  than they already were from working long hours in the mills. The development of factory legislation in the early 19th century indicates that working conditions in the rapidly expanding cotton industry must have gotten from bad to worse quite quickly. As early as 1802 the Apprentices Act was passed to tackle two key problems: the unhealthy working environment in the mills (e.g. dirty, too hot, badly ventilated), and the excessive hours worked by apprenticed children.  (NB the concern was the children’s health; the fact that the children were working was not questioned per se).  As ever,  enforcement  was the weak point: Robert Fitton’s  book The Arkwrights – Spinners of Fortune  quotes several accounts of factory owners ‘preparing’ for inspection visits by slowing the machine speed, lowering the temperature, dismissing sick and deformed workers, and cleaning up both the shopfloors and workforce. (To every factory auditor today, this procedure will sound familiar!) The 1819 Cotton Mills and Factories Act then extended the restrictions on child labour to all children: no children under 9 to be employed, with a maximum of 12 hours/day.  Arkwright’s son, Richard Arkwright Junior, who continued the business after his father’s death in 1792, was among  the few factory owners who did not oppose the Act.

So were the Arkwrights unusually enlightened and benign employers? They may well have been, and as owners and inventors of  “the system” a certain paternalistic attitude would certainly appear natural. I would, however, argue that their comparatively better conditions  could just as likely have been a function of  economic necessity  and competitive position in the market. In other words: they made good business sense at the time.

*   When Arkwright built his first mills in Cromford he faced a significant shortage of locally-based labour. In order to encourage whole families to up sticks and settle in Cromford  he had to offer something: Jobs for the whole family and good wages – as mentioned in Arkwright’s job adverts – would have been key pull factors.

*   The other problem Arkwright faced was labour retention – people (particularly children) were simply not used to the idea of factory discipline.  So  it was a matter of sticks and carrots, and of being pragmatic: e.g. penalising lateness  but offering a good enough job that would make workers want to stay put and succumb to the factory system;  offering an official (unpaid) day off on a major public holiday when realistically no-one would turn up anyway. Also, by offering good housing conveniently close to the mill Arkwright increased the chances of workers staying in Cromford long-term,  and turning up to work every day on time.

*    Retaining his workforce for as long as possible was important for Arkwright not just in terms of productivity (i.e. not having to keep retraining new people) but also in terms of competition: He was determined to keep the monopoly of his “system” as long as possible, and  paranoid about any competitors copying it. (His fears were well justified – more on that in another post). Therefore it was important to him that his workers were loyal – and if you prize loyalty you had better treat your staff reasonably well.

*    The lack of immediate competition meant that Arkwright could afford the working conditions he offered whilst still making a large profit. As more and more  cotton mills entered the market, competition became fierce; in such a situation reducing labour cost was (and is) always an easy way to maximise profits. So it’s not hard to imagine  that later mill owners looked at Arkwright’s system and thought of ways of squeezing more money out of it.

*    Importantly, later cotton barons had access to a constant oversupply of labour, in contrast to Arkwright. The 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act must have brought matters to a head, with masses of desperately poor people migrating to the cotton towns in search of work, given that the alternative  – the workhouse – was not preferable. These people were extremely vulnerable to exploitation by mill owners and slum landlords, and exploited they were, including by being cheated out of their already meagre wages (as mentioned e.g. in Engels’ Condition of the Working Class). Reminds me a lot of the situation of Bangladeshi garment workers today.

I doubt that  Arkwright could have imagined what monster he unleashed when he invented the factory system.  He was a man of consequences – and that was to be the title for my Cromford-inspired work.

Note: My main sources for working conditions at Cromford Mills were: R.S Fitton: The Arkwrights – Spinners of Fortune (1989); and D Buxton/C Charlton: Cromford Revisited (2013)





Having been extended due to popular demand, Tangled Yarns finished at the William Morris Gallery on 1 February. I was exhilarated from the amazing feedback and reviews, but also completely exhausted. So the end of the exhibition was also a natural end of this blog ….except the exhibition is touring! From 26 September, Tangled Yarns can be seen at Cromford Mills, part of the picturesque Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site in Derbyshire. Built between 1771 and 1791, Sir Richard Arkwright’s Mills at Cromford were the world’s first successful water powered cotton spinning mills and the blueprint of modern factory production.

It all started with a proposal from Cromford Mills to host the exhibition, and an exploratory visit to Cromford Mills on a cold, rainy day in mid-January. My first impression was how incredibly green the Derwent Valley is, even when looking through driving rain. I was met at the station by Mark, one of Cromford’s volunteers and a sheer  inexhaustible source of knowledge about the mill and its history. He gave me a fascinating tour round the site which – second impression – seemed to be built like a fortress.

That’s by design, explained Mark, to make the factory easily defendable against machine-breakers. The first inkling of just how significant Cromford was in terms of industrial history, labour history and the history of textile production. At the end of my day at Cromford and hearing about how Arkwright’s inventions led to the birth of the once mighty British cotton industry I was hooked. What a fitting venue for Tangled Yarns! And of course I wanted to make at least on new piece that responded specifically to the site.

First though, a much-deserved holiday in hot and sunny India (including the inevitable fabric shopping spree). And then, just as I was ready to get back into the studio  (and the books on Richard Arkwright)  I got seriously ill –  out of the blue it seemed… but then I had been very run down. That knocked me out of several months  – and gave rise to some thoughts about work-life balance and managing energy- and stress-levels in future. Luckily, I recovered just in time to start making my Cromford-inspired piece. It’s not yet finished, of course, but then there’s still a few weeks to go!  And by now I even have enough of my energy back to continue this blog with a few posts about my preparations for the Cromford Mills show.

Researching Sir Richard Arkwright has been fascinating. Right from the start I sensed that I wanted to know more about this man, inventor of the water spinning frame and the carding engine. Looking at Joseph Wright of Derby’s portraits I got the impression of a very smart, confident, and just a tad shifty businessman, the size of his proud belly a measure of his success.

How come that he became so rich and successful whereas Samuel Cromptom, whose spinning mule was arguably a more significant invention, died a pauper? The short answer must be that Arkwright was a better businessman. And his business acumen must have been the driving force behind his most important invention: the modern factory system. More on this in the next post.


A few days ago the Tangled Yarns exhibition brought me another “first” – the shooting of my first TV interview. I was being interviewed by journalist and filmmaker Lea Borromeo for The World today with Tariq Ali. Lea and I share an interest in the dark side of the textile industry – she  is currently working on The Cotton Film: Dirty White Gold, a documentary  on Indian cotton farmer suicides and fashion, connecting the clothing supply chain from seed to shop.    On the face of it, our artistic media and  approaches how to engage with audiences couldn’t be more different but, as we discovered during our conversation, we actually have a lot  in common. I really enjoyed exchanging thoughts with Lea about about the textile industry (in particular cotton, given her current project)  and about making art as a critical, engaged citizen. Only afterwards I realised that I had somehow managed to forget to say the things I found most important! Never mind the countless verbal and physical tics I undoubtedly displayed….Goes to show that conducting media interviews, even if they are not live, is a skill – and I am at the bottom of a steep learning curve. So I am awaiting the publication of the interview with some trepidation.

Cotton farming features in two of the stories told in Tangled Yarns: Childs’ Play, which is inspired by the endemic use of forced and child labour in contemporary Uzbek cotton farming,  and Stained, where the wearer of an 1840s cotton dress is confronted by the exploited workers involved in producing the dress  at various stages of the supply chain – including a US cotton plantation slave (see also post of 28 July 14). What links these two stories is the use of forced labour in cotton farming.

ILO convention 29 (1930) on the prohibition of forced labour defines forced labour as “all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily”. This clearly covers ‘traditional-style’ slavery but it also covers many variants of ‘modern-day’ slavery where the employer does not own the worker but the worker has no choice but to work,  and can’t leave…because, e.g.  they had their passports taken, because they can never repay the debt owed to their traffickers or their slum landlord/employer, because of the constant threat of violence, or simply because they don’t get paid their due wages for months on end. You could say that modern-day forms of  forced labour are capitalism’s logical ‘improvement’ on slavery: cheaper for employers because they don’t have to house and feed their forced labourers  all the time. The 2014 Protocol to the Forced labour Convention recognises these new forms of forced labour and aims to better protect those particularly vulnerable to exploitation, such as trafficked people and migrants.

Industries prone to forced labour today are those with a large amount of arduous, manual, low-skilled  labour – such as domestic work, construction, and agricultural labour. This is not a ‘developing country issue’, it happens equally in rich western countries like the UK. Where agriculture is highly mechanised there is little scope for forced labour. The problem with cotton is that whilst machine-harvesting is possible, manual harvesting produces better quality cotton and therefore attracts a market premium.

Uzbekistan, the world’s 4th largest exporter of cotton, is a unique case because the entire sector is completely state-controlled  – the state not only owns and controls all agricultural land and what is grown there, but also controls the market as the only buyer of cotton from farmers. The whole system relies on coercion: farmers cannot choose what to grow, when and how, and after the country’s independence the forced mass mobilisation of  labour became endemic, particularly at harvesting time. Forcibly recruited field workers typically  face impossible harvesting quotas for little or nominal pay, while refusal to take part is heavily sanctioned e.g. you could lose your (normal) job. Until very recently, the use  of school children, including very young ones, was widespread. However, thanks to  10 years of sustained international pressure  markedly fewer children appear to have been in the fields in the last couple of years, with very few under 18 spotted in the 2014 harvest. This reduction in child labour was, however, apparently ‘made up’ with more forced labour by adults.  Cotton farmers will see little or nothing  of Uzbekistan’s significant export earnings from cotton because (state-controlled) farm gate prices are kept artificially low.  For those who want to find out more about Uzbek cotton I can recommend Cotton Campaign  who have an excellent information hub on their website. They’ve also been really supportive during my research (thanks Matt!)

So – the cotton economy appears rotten in Uzbekistan (and we haven’t even talked about thirsty cotton shrinking the Aral Sea, toxic residue from pesticide use  and other environmental damage). It is also remarkably inefficient, as two recent reports by the Open Society Foundations and Bonn University once again demonstrate. Interestingly the cotton slave economy of the American antebellum South was also inefficient: it stifled innovation and investment in better farm implement and machinery, and the productivity of slaves was further undermined by overwork, maltreatment and malnourishment.

One thing that is different today is the role of public awareness campaigns and is impact on the big clothing brands that use cotton in their retail products. The international campaigns against Uzbek cotton called (amongst other things) for a total boycott of Uzbek cotton and specifically targeted Western brands believed  to be using cotton from Uzbekistan. This was a new departure in the scrutiny of  fashion supply chains: going beyond   previous anti-sweatshop campaigns, it focused  on the very start of the supply chain. It resulted in the commitment of over 160 brands to not knowingly source Uzbek cotton.  One would have thought that during the 1860s Lancashire cotton famine (caused by the blockade of American cotton during the Civil War), “slave-free” cotton sourced from other parts of the world might  have been a big seller in England. Alas, this does not appear to have been the case: Apparently one merchant had ‘announced in his bill heads that he was prepared to supply cloths made of free-labour cotton’ but did not receive a single inquiry in 10 years. (As quoted in Norman Longmate, The Hungry Mills, page 246/47).

The big question today is how to make cotton production environmentally and socially  sustainable. The report by the Open Society suggests that by removing state control and moving to a pluralist, open market system things could be much improved in Uzbekistan. Whilst this is undoubedly true I would be very wary of seeing the free market as a panacea here: One only needs to look at the  misery of many cotton farmers in (free-market) India, hopelessly indebted to (private sector) seed and agrochemical companies, to be reminded that given the opportunity, capitalism will always crush the little guy. To poor smallholder farmers, it makes little difference whether they are ruined by  private multinationals or by their government, and private labour agents have proven to be just as apt at forced labour exploitation as governments. I am looking forward to learning more about the case of India in Lea Borromeo’s Cotton Film. The difference between India and Uzbekistan is that in India  you could  farm cotton sustainably if you wanted to, whereas in Uzbekistan you currently couldn’t.

In our conversation during the interview, Lea and I  noted  that laudable efforts to produce cotton more sustainably do exist today (e.g.  organic or fairtrade certifications, Better Cotton Initiative, Cotton Made in Africa) but they have not reached critical mass and they all struggle with traceability, as cotton would typically be blended at the spinning stage to produce yarn. So if companies really want to trace where their cotton comes from they should be  controlling the spinning mill – i.e. vertical integration.

If all cotton was farmed sustainably –  i.e. in areas not needing much irrigation, minimising agrochemicals and pesticides, and paying farmers a fair price and labourers decent wages – there would probably be  less cotton, and  it wouldn’t be quite as cheap. But would this be such as bad thing? E.g. , other natural fibers such as hemp  don’t need as much fertiliser and pesticides, and apparently there has been a lot of progress in making  these into textiles with  a similar quality and ‘feel’ to cotton.  But I think most importantly, we  on our Western high streets clearly consume more clothes (in any material) than can be produced in an environmentally and socially responsible manner.

Maybe we all need to buy a bit less, and pay a bit more. That would indeed be progress: Back in 1866, John Watts, in his book about the Lancashire cotton famine, commented that “people want cheap calico… and it may safely be affirmed that if the annihilation of slavery had depended upon the people of this Christian land paying knowingly one farthing per yard extra for free-labour calico, slavery would have gone on for ever”.