Thankfully for us, Morris was a prolific public speaker, writer, and a prolific letter writer to boot.  So we know a lot about  his business as well as his world views and political ideas.

His correspondence with Thomas Wardle during the time the two experimented with natural dyes for Morris & Co prints at Wardle’s dye-works in Leek gives us a fascinating glimpse of the way he pursued his vision of manufacturing processes and product quality. Morris was totally obsessed with quality,  as poor  Wardle found out during their collaboration. 99% was just not good enough – Morris would not rest until he was 100% satisfied. What Morris does NOT mention in this context is any issues relating to the grey cotton cloth used for his prints. I think this is significant –  if he had been unhappy in any way about the quality of the cloth he would have been quick to point this out to Wardle. So we can conclude that obtaining sufficient supplies of the types of cotton cloth he wanted was not a problem.

Morris was, of course, also a passionate campaigning socialist, and it was the poor, exploitative working conditions and miserable, unsanitary worker housing in Victorian England’s industrial heartlands that epitomised the ills of capitalism for him. So why did he never discuss the fact that his own business  depended on the very system he was fighting?

One reason becomes evident once we compare his position with that  of modern textile retailers: The big clothing  brands that dominate our high streets did not suddenly, out of the goodness of their hearts, become concerned about poor working conditions in the factories that were making their clothes – they became concerned because they were getting bad press and were attacked in high-profile anti-sweatshop campaigns. So for modern retailers, attention to working conditions in supplier firms makes good business sense:  they  do not want their reputation tainted by being linked to sweatshops. Morris did not have this problem. Sure, many of his customers would have been aware that life was tough as a mill worker, and some may have been very supportive of legislative and/or philanthropic (“CSR” in today’s speak) measures to curb the  excesses of industrial mass-production, but people did not appear to expect retail companies  to use their business relationships to bring about change in their supply chains.

Given Morris’ strong socialist convictions and in particular his vision of meaningful, decent work as opposed to “useless toil” in “temples of over-crowding and adulteration and overwork”, let’s assume for a moment that he did indeed consider whether he should  try and reduce his firm’s dependence on the mills he hated –  maybe by trying to get his supplies  from mills that offered better than average conditions (because there was undoubtedly a variation of conditions between individual mills, depending on the degree of the owner’s paternalism).  What, if anything could he have done?

One thing is certain: as a small business, he would have had no leverage whatsoever to ask a spinning of weaving mill to change the way they  treated their workers. He would have been one of a large number of customers, so if a  mill lost Morris & Co’s business for not meeting Morris’ standards that wouldn’t have had any impact on its profitability. Plus the presence of the  cloth agents as middle men meant Morris would have difficulty even finding out which mills were producing the cloth he wanted.

In theory, he could have travelled around Lancashire, visited factories and possibly identified those that offered comparatively better conditions to workers, but the cost, time and effort involved in this would have been completely disproportionate to the impact he would have had. In fact, he would not have changed anything amongst suppliers   – his only achievement would have been to be able to say that his company was not benefiting from the worst practices in the  industry.  But most importantly, Morris would have had no interest in rewarding individual “less bad”  mills – he wanted the whole system to change. That’s why he chose to spend a huge amount of time campaigning for the overthrow of capitalism, rather than demanding  a “somewhat nicer capitalism”.

Of course, there is another way of reducing dependence on suppliers that do not meet your standards: bring it in-house. And this is what Morris did when he set up his production facilities in Merton Abbey,  which housed not only dyeing and block-printing, but also carpet weaving and weaving of specialist fabrics such as silk brocades, silk/wool and silk/linen damasks, and Utrecht velvet.  Morris brought dyeing and printing in-house because (a) he disliked the look of chemical dyes (b) he wanted to use traditional  hand block printing techniques that had largely been displaced by industrial, multi-colour machine printing and (c) he wanted complete control over the process and outputs.

Hence, process and quality control  – not working conditions – were the primary drivers for bringing dyeing and printing in-house. However, for Morris these  aspects were intimately linked: the production of genuine, top-quality products in smaller quantities, using natural materials and craftsmanship, would by definition offer better work than factory mass production. Good working conditions in production certainly contributed to the  ‘special’  image  of Morris & Co prints –  visitors would remark on this when they were shown round the   Merton Abbey workshops: They were not nearly as cramped as an industrial shop floor, they were light and airy and the work, whilst often repetitive, did not approach the level of drudgery in the mills. Morris also prided himself of paying higher than average wages to all his employees. However, his correspondence, e.g. with Emma Lazarus,  shows that he considered even his own workshops  as falling  short of his ideal of “useful work” and that he was frustrated that his firm was part of the capitalist process.

In many ways, Morris & Co was not unlike many  modern-day ‘ethical’ textile entrepreneurs’: a relatively small business producing high-quality , relatively expensive products for a niche market, using excellent materials and environmentally friendly processes, and offering decent jobs. What is new today is that textile retailers are expected to look beyond their own production facilities and not use suppliers with bad labour practices. Morris’ customers did not have that expectation.

Morris’ challenge was not that labour issues might affect the brand reputation of Morris & Co (although some of his contemporaries  argued he could have done more in his own workshops e.g. offer profit-sharing to employees). It was  almost the reverse:  the fact that he was a well-to-do capitalist could at times affect the credibility of his socialist campaigning work.  On the other hand, his wealth allowed him to finance his activism, and his status added weight to the struggle. Morris acutely aware of this dilemma.

PS:  If Morris & Co  had been selling dresses, Morris might have had to consider reputational risk associated with immediate suppliers.  The plight of  Victorian needlewomen received much media attention in its day; this included including exposing the greed of retailers who paid self-employed seamstresses a pittance. Garment making is  of course  exactly the stage of the textile supply chain that also gets most of the attention today;  the 19th century needlewoman in the garrett is now a  garment factory worker in Bangladesh.  I think there is something about the physical closeness of the clothes we wear that maybe makes us more thoughtful about who sewed them.  Victorian consumers were ready to pity the poor, exploited, starving seamstresses  and hope for their ‘salvation” by a do-gooder (usually a man), but much less likely  to call for real measures that would systematically improve their conditions.  And they would still expect the lowest price for their dresses.  Plus ca change…




The block prints are on my Gandhi piece, the exhibition guide is off to the printers,  i.e. no more agonising over all of this (see previous post) so I now have bit of headspace to start writing about my quest to trace the supply chain of Morris & Co’s famous cotton prints during William Morris’ lifetime..

My idea was to apply modern principles of  responsible supply chain management to Morris & Co and see where it would lead. This would include:  knowing your suppliers, traceability of raw materials along the supply chain, adopting standards (e.g. labour or environmental standards)  that suppliers are expected to meet, assessing the risk of these standards not being met throughout the supply chain,  monitoring key suppliers’ actual performance, and supply chain transparency .

Morris used three types of cotton cloth for his prints: a medium-grade plain weave cloth, a heavier twill weave called “Bolton cloth”, and  equally heavier English cretonnes which he used instead of  the Bolton cloth from about 1879.  We know this from the Wardle Pattern Books, held by the Whitworth Art Gallery . A digitised version is  normally published on the Whitworth website but has  just been taken offline whilst the website is being redesigned. All of these were widely used types of cloth. You can read more about Morris’ print cloths and finishes here.

Having done trials with bleached and unbleached cloth Morris opted to use only  unbleached or “grey” cottons for his prints. Although Morris does not talk about this in his correspondence, we can be pretty certain that this grey cloth was coming from mills  in Lancashire – this was simply the largest and closest (hence most economical) source,  with hundreds of spinning and weaving mills competing for business.

But is it possible to narrow the source down to specific mills, or perhaps a town? The Pall Mall Gazette reporter who visited Morris & Co’s print works at Merton Abbey in 1888 referred to the grey cloth as “Manchester cotton”, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the cloth was woven or spun in Manchester, as “Manchester” was often used interchangeably with “Lancashire” to describe the region. One reason for this might be that most of the cloth merchants  and agents were based in Manchester, and businesses like Morris & Co would typically order through  them rather than directly from the mills.  The agents and merchants would jealously keep their  sources secret to prevent their customers from “cutting out the middle man”. For example, H.S Gibbs describes, in his  1887 Autobiography of a Manchester Cotton Manufacturer that the  cloth warehouse he was running at some point of his career benefited from a second back street entrance, so he could get all the  deliveries “away from inquisitive eyes”.

Then there was the matter of “Bolton cloth” – could that be cloth made in Bolton?  Alas, no –  the term “Bolton cloth” or “Bolton sheeting” denotes a type of cloth: a twill cotton fabric with a condenser waste weft, typically used for curtains or lining.

My next step was to check  Hosking’s Guide to the Manchester Trade –  a kind of yellow pages from 1877  –  to get an idea how many companies  could have potentially been spinning or weaving the grey Bolton cloth used by Morris & Co, and how many cloth agents might have sold it. Looking at the descriptions of companies’ business and products, I counted  over 60 mills from all over Lancashire, and over 50 cloth agents (mostly in Manchester)! I did try and narrow it down for the weaving mills by looking for companies that listed more than one of my ‘key words’ in their activities, e.g “Bolton sheets”, “grey cloth”, AND “waste twills”,  identified 4 companies that looked promising  and tried to find out more about them, particularly anything related to the workers or working conditions  – but to no avail.

In summary: No success in tracing the grey cloth used by Morris & Co to any  particular suppliers or even a particular town in Lancashire, nor in  finding information about working conditions at potential suppliers. Suppliers were plentiful and transparency was actively discouraged in the Victorian textile supply chain.

Morris was abhorred by the working and living conditions associated with industrial mass production in the Lancashire cotton towns.  From the perspective of modern supply chain management, he should have been concerned that his products were depending on suppliers that most likely  did not meet his own standards of “useful”, decent work. Was he? That will be for the next post….








I was all set to start blogging about my quest to trace the cotton supply chain of Morris & Co during William Morris’ lifetime, but I am finding myself caught up in my first last-minute panic. It’s another 3 weeks till the work has to be delivered to the William Morris Gallery so why ‘last-minute panic’ now?  3 weeks should be fine to finish my last two pieces.

The thing is, we’re getting the exhibition guide ready to print now and the guide has a section on every work in the show, so it meant writing about  pieces I’m still working on. One is an embroidery piece that is all planned out so it’s just a question of putting the hours in, no problem. The challenge is with the other one, the one about Gandhi, the Lancashire mill workers and India’s struggle for independence (see previous post). I thought I knew what I was doing but now I’m not so sure. Adding block-printed wheels from the Indian flag still seems a great idea in theory, but I’m now questioning whether this would actually add anything in terms of form and composition of the overall piece. Of course I’ve been there before  and I know how to resolve this: try out different things (print outs of an image of the work in progress are a great help with questions of composition), maybe let the work sit for a bit and do something else, and a solution will turn up –  quite possibly while I’m running round Lloyd Park or brushing my teeth or something. Except now, I’m running out of time: if I’m introducing new media and a new element to the story of the work, this should really be mentioned in the exhibition guide  – which will go off to the printers next week, so I’ve only got a couple of days to do trials and wait for inspiration. Fingers crossed!


One of the things that fascinated me in my reading on the history of the textile/cotton trade was how cotton has linked the people and the economies Britain and the Indian subcontinent for hundreds of years, with changing fortunes:  Around 1700, imported Indian fabrics threatened British manufacturers (see previous blog post) ; in the 19th century, India became the largest export market for British mass-produced cotton piece goods; combined with crippling import and export duties imposed on  Indian cotton goods,   this led to the collapse of  the Indian hand loom industry. This is why in the 1920s Gandhi, in the struggle for Indian independence, called for a boycott of British-made goods, in particular cottons, and the hand-spinning wheel and hand loom became symbols of freedom. The boycott was perceived to be the main cause of the decline of the Lancashire cotton industry at the time. Post Partition, many people from Pakistan and India came to work in the remaining Lancashire textile factories when the industry was in severe decline and these jobs were no longer desirable for the locals. An then from the 70s, textile manufacturing for the UK market was progressively outsourced to  South and Southeast Asia because labour costs were lower there, accelerating the demise of UK manufacturing.

I was particularly intrigued by Gandhi’s visit to Lancashire in 1931.  During this visit he also met with workers at the Greenfield cotton mill in Darwen to explain why he championed a boycott of British cotton goods. Even though he was essentially a bearer of bad news (no end to the boycott) workers gave him a warm welcome, maybe understanding and sympathising with his cause even though it had the effect of hurting the local economy. There is a famous picture of Gandhi surrounded by mill workers, which I found really inspiring:

So then I started to look for other things with a connection to this story. First , I found,  at one of  the Textile Society‘s  Antique Textile Fairs,  an (allegedly) original 1930s English cotton print with a  great English/Indian hybrid pattern: paisley (a pattern originating from Iran and India) combined with the kind of little flowers that I associate with Liberty or Laura Ashley prints – i.e. quintessentially English.

This would not have been a pattern exported to India; it was designed  for the British market. The Museum of Science & Industry (MOSI) in Manchester has examples of textiles made for export to India:

When visiting MOSI I also noticed that companies were using  bolt labels (also called shipper’s tickets) and stamps that were stuck to the ends of bolts of cloth – a sort of company trade mark or brand logo. Each label was designed specifically for the market it was sent to, and the labels I vaguely remembered seeing at MOSI were these really colourful pictures of African scenery – designed for export to African markets.  So when I travelled to Lancashire again I asked the archives at MOSI and at Bolton Museum whether they had any bolt labels from the early 20th century, hoping to maybe find some that were designed for exports to India. And they did! Bolton Museum has a treasure trove of bolt labels, many with designs in the style  of orientalist fantasies or celebrations of Empire, whereas MOSI I also found examples of more abstract designs with a heavier emphasis on displaying the company name and export locations.

Now the fun started: How to somehow incorporate all these elements into an artwork? I was torn between wanting to show off these beautiful bolt labels in my work but also reflecting the decline of the British Empire, so I experimented with “decaying” transfer prints on my paisley fabric. I also made a block print of the spinning wheel that was at the centre of the Indian flag 1923-47 and played around with printing it like an ornamental border. Stupidly, I forgot to cut the print mirror image, ooohhps! So I’ll have to do it again.  Not to worry, still a month to go until the exhibition…..