Popular Science Monthly/Volume 2/December 1872/Cotton Fibres and Fabrics

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COTTON owes its kingship quite as much to the tenacity with which its fibres adhere to one another, as to their length or fineness; and were it not that the fibre produced by the bombax, or silk-cotton tree, is too smooth, cotton would find in it a powerful rival. Cotton-wool is the downy bed in which the seeds of the cotton-plant are enveloped, and is the product of hot countries. It has several varieties, that cultivated in Algeria and in Southern Europe seldom attaining a height of over twelve inches, while at the equator the plant grows as high as an apple-tree, and bears a fruit twice as large as that of the Algerian species. The cotton grown in the East Indies is of very inferior quality, its fibre being short and hard; yet it was largely used in manufacture, during the war in the United States. Chinese cotton is yellow, and hence the peculiar color of the fabric called nankeen.

The cotton-plant is probably a native of Africa, and Livingstone found it in the interior of that country along the banks of all the rivers. The ancient Egyptians doubtless imported from Abyssinia their cotton cloths for mummy-wrappings and for the garments of priests and nobles, and from them the Jews inherited the employment of that texture for the robes of their priests: for, where the Bible makes mention of/me linen, we must read cotton, as flax does not grow in hot climates. From Africa cotton-culture passed into Persia and Georgia; then into India, and from India into China. In the latter empire all the clothing of the poorer classes is of cotton, of extremely firm texture. Indeed, so strong is the cotton cloth manufactured by the Chinese, that it is impossible for a man to tear a piece of it across; and the people of China and India refuse to buy European cotton manufactures, calling them mere spiders' webs.

If the true aim of prudent industry be to produce good fabrics at the lowest price, then the cotton manufacture is a failure. Instead of even studying to improve the fabric, manufacturers have, ever since the manufacture of carding and spinning machines, thought only of the problem of cheapness. The fabrics they produce are of the worst quality, and quickly wear out; and it may be doubted if there can be found in all Europe, to-day, a single piece of such cotton cloth as used to be manufactured twenty years ago, which gave many times as much wear as the present textures.

The United States annually produce 4,000,000 bales of cotton for the European market, or 1,200,000,000 of pounds, which sells at an average price of one franc per pound. Europe thus pays to the United States 1,200,000,000 of francs every year, simply for cotton, and the 1,200,000,000 pounds of cotton is spun by 50,000,000 of spinning-jennies and wove by 625,000 looms. In, the process of manufacture there is a waste of 25 per cent.; hence 1,200,000,000 pounds of raw material give only 900,000,000 pounds of manufactured cotton goods, worth two and one-half francs per pound, being a total of about 2,250,000,000 francs. The process of manufacturing, therefore, does not even double the value of the raw material.

If, now, we estimate the number of workmen engaged in the cotton manufacture from beginning to end, on the basis of six workmen to every 160 spinning-jennies, we shall have 1,875,000 hands so employed. Add to this the number of those employed in raising the cotton-crop, and the crews of the ships which bring it to Europe, and it will be no exaggeration if we estimate the number of employés at 3,000,000, and the amount of capital at 3,000,000,000 francs. No other industry can compare with this for magnitude, and the epithet King Cotton is well deserved. If we do not take care, this industry will prove the ruin of Europe, whence it annually drains 1,200,000,000 francs, without making any return. Cotton alone is answerable for the ever-increasing wealth of the United States, and the relative misery of European countries. It is full time to put an end to this state of affairs, by compelling the manufacturers hereafter to produce only firm and durable textures. But, inasmuch as the state can scarcely interfere in such questions, it remains for individuals to apply the remedy. It is in the power of the consumer to apply this remedy, as he alone is accountable for the present painful crisis of the cotton-manufacturing industries of Europe.

We have grown so accustomed to cheap cotton fabrics, that, when prices are advanced, we turn to linen, hempen, or woollen textures, and then the manufacturer is forced to adulterate his products, the consumer shutting his eyes to all defects, provided the article is cheap. It will scarcely be believed, and yet it is the simple truth, that, whereas ten years ago the piece of cotton weighed eight pounds, it now weighs but six, or even less, and thus is 25 per cent, less strong than it used to be. But, further, instead of employing good United States cotton, which is high-priced, the manufacturers make large use now of the wretched cottons of India, which are cheap, but which make a weak texture, mere cobweb. An appearance of firmness is given to these worthless fabrics by a liberal use of sizing, which deceives the eye; but, apply a little lye-water, and the material will be found to be mere lint.

The evil consequences flowing from the false principles which govern the manufacture of cotton are enormous, and it is time to apply a remedy. If Europe goes on thus, ever giving, and receiving from the United States nothing in return, our material prosperity will soon be at an end. The ladies of Austria would appear to stand alone in justly appreciating this danger, and have resolved to eschew cotton fabrics, and use linen in place of muslin. Let Europe follow their example; let muslin be banished from our households, and the immediate result will be, that Europe will stand at the head of civilized nations.

As it is at present carried on, the cotton industry is the opprobrium of humanity and the curse of Europe. Why is it that this manufacture has come to be regarded as a prime necessity of the civilized world? Simply because fashion has backed it, and preached it up: and fashion is a power before which we all bow in submission.

When Indian tapestries and those admirable Mosul textures were first imported into Europe, there arose a universal demand for them, nor could all the looms of the East furnish the supply required. In time the raw material was brought hither, and we spun and wove it by hand; we printed and dyed it. At first no evil consequences flowed from the new industry, because cotton goods, being yet too costly to be used by the poor, were bought only by the rich, who found them really cheap, on account of their great durability. It was only at the beginning of the present century that we first experienced the evils of which we here speak. Then it was that the invention of machinery for the manufacture of the raw material enabled cotton to drive all other textile fabrics out of the market, and forced on Europe the most deplorable of economies.

But our eyes are at last opened to see the calamities which threaten us, and there is now very little danger that this industry will expand any further. It has owed its past prosperity to frauds of the most consummate nature, and now it is undergoing a crisis which cannot fail to turn to the advantage of other textures, and from which it is not likely to recover. We have reason to rejoice at the fall of King Cotton; and now let us keep for Europe all its own resources, by purchasing only fabrics of hemp and flax, wool and silk, instead of muslin; thus shall we give a mighty impetus to home agriculture and home industry.

For certain purposes, however, cotton cloth is indispensable; thus printed fabrics will ever be of cotton, for no other textile fibre takes colors so well. This is due to the fact that cotton-fibre is flat, while that of flax and hemp is cylindrical; then, too, cotton is more readily bleached than hemp or flax. The manufacture of calico came, as the name implies, from India; and the first printed textures thence brought to Europe were very coarsely printed, with figures in black, red, or blue, the colors being dull, but very fast. Imitation calico was first manufactured at Bordeaux, and from that city the industry passed over into Switzerland and Germany, with the Protestants who were driven from France by the dragonnades of Louis XIV. It quickly attained exceptional importance at Neufchâtel and at Mühlhausen, which then belonged to Switzerland; but it is in Alsace that it has made most progress, and taken the lead of all other industries.

Chaptal, the famous Minister of Commerce under Napoleon I., said that the manufacture of calico is the most difficult of industries, for it requires most capital, most patience, the longest training, and the largest amount of good sense and intelligence. Chaptal was in the right; for all the great manufacturers of cotton-prints take rank among men of note. I need only cite a few names. In Switzerland we have our Dupasquiers, Bovets, and Verdans; France has her Haussmanns, Schlumbergers, Koechlins, and Dolfus; and this roll is sufficient to show the justice of Chaptal's assertion. Every year, every day, has witnessed some new improvement in the manufacture of calico; the dull colors of former times have been superseded by a series of novel shades, and coarse patterns have given way before artistic designs which may well compare with the finest designs on paper.

The fixation of colors was the result of chance, aided more or less by the manufacturer's experience, which was not unfrequently nonplussed by a change of the atmosphere, or by a variation in the quality of the drugs employed. In such a state of things, which threatened to ruin the manufacture, recourse was had to science, and the dyers became chemists and physicists. But then the charm was broken: there was no more chance, no more tentative; the fabrication of printed tissues was now a science, and soon, in addition to liquid dyes, we had our dye-stuffs in the shape of vapor, which yield brilliant tints indeed, but not very stable. Finally, besides cotton fabrics, we began to print textures of silk and of wool, or of mixed wool, silk, and cotton, which have given rise to an entirely new class of tissues called chalys or barèges, when they contain wool and silk, and cotton warp when they are comprised of cotton and wool.

In order to form some idea of the cotton industry, let us go back to the gathering-in of the crop. The cotton-wool, when it starts from the pod, contains three times its own weight in large oily seeds. These are separated from the cotton by means of machines which are in fact cards, and which seize the cotton, suffering the seeds to drop out. During this process the seeds will be more or less crushed, and give out an oil, which is absorbed by the cotton. If, now, there flows in a current of hot air, the cotton takes fire. This is the cause of the fires which so frequently break out in cotton-factories, always originating in the rooms where the raw material is set to dry. The minute quantity of oil contained in raw cotton is also the reason of its turning yellow in store, though it was white when gathered in. The fabric has, therefore, to be lixiviated and bleached before being printed. The process of bleaching begins by washing the cotton in lime-water, after which the fabric is passed through a weak acid solution, in order to remove the lime, which else would burn the tissue. It is then thoroughly washed, treated anew with soda, then with a soap of colophony, and finally passed through water.

The cloth is then free from oily matter, but not yet bleached, and it must yet pass through a solution of chloride of lime, and then through another solution of hydrochloric acid. These last two operations take but a moment, and they constitute the very crisis of the process; for, if the solutions be too strong, the tissues are burnt, and considerably weakened, a thing of very frequent occurrence. Formerly, the cloth used to be bleached in the sun; but this tedious and costly process, where the present one requires only a few days, took up weeks, and yet did not bleach the fabric so thoroughly.

Next the white cloth is sent to the printer, who gives it the figures desired. At first plates of wood with the figures in relief were employed in the printing; this was the infancy of the art. Later, plates of copper were used, having the figures cut into their surface; this was a step in advance. Finally the English, whose industrial genius is most fruitful of useful applications, originated the idea of printing with copper cylinders, beneath which the cloth would pass, receiving impressions ad infinitum.

Dupasquier introduced from England into the Continent this beautiful invention, which is even yet in process of improvement. From that moment printed cottons grew ever cheaper, although the printing was executed far better than formerly; and the fall in prices became simply enormous when machinery took the place of human hands. Then calico came into universal use, without, however, superseding textures of hemp and flax, which were still employed for table and body linen; it was only at a later day, and when prices were still further reduced, that the less opulent classes began to wear muslin instead of linen. This example was soon followed by the wealthy classes, who little suspected the snare that they were walking into, nor understood that, in substituting cotton for flax and hemp, they were selling out to America one of our most abundant sources of wealth, and of agricultural and industrial prosperity.

Such was the state of the textile market in Europe, when the United States war broke out; a war brought about by Palmerston, who wished England to receive the 1,200,000,000 francs annually paid by Europe for cotton. We know too well how far he was successful in his hateful design; for, ever since that time the East Indies share with the United States in the privilege of carrying off our millions, under the pretext of selling us cotton. Never was there a more perfect act of piracy; never was piracy better organized than this, or more kindly received, to our shame be it said.

As now the price of cotton was increased, muslin was rejected, and fabrics of hemp and flax used instead; for the latter textures could be had for the same price as cotton goods, while they were of far better quality. Then it was that certain ingenious swindlers conceived the idea of weaving the threads wider apart, so as to yield an increase of 25 per cent, of cloth, with the same amount of cotton; and, to conceal this base fraud, recourse was had to a paste of starch, soap, and pipe-clay, stopping up thus the interstices, and giving the article the appearance of a first-class fabric.

This abominable invention once introduced, cotton fabrics fell to their former price, and found a market. During the ten years which have passed away since public credulity was first duped in this way, every one has to his cost learned of the trick. Hence I suppose I am addressing an audience already convinced; and I repeat again my advice, Buy only linen.

Textures intended for printing were deteriorated in the same proportion, and hence it became very difficult to print or to wash them, and they had to be heavily starched in order to find purchasers, so flimsy were they. But people soon quit using them, and bought mixed textures of wool and cotton, or wool and linen, which came into fashion, and which gave such satisfaction that they will not again be laid aside.

We now come to speak of the lighter tissues—the finest grades of muslin, jaconets, and organdies.

All these tissues are very costly, because they require cotton of the best quality, and it is upon these that the manufacturer of printed goods displays all his artistic skill—all the magic of design. He stops at nothing, for these brilliant artistic effects give him a reputation, and serve as a letter of introduction for his products. I have seen as many as thirty-five different colors, or shades of color, in the large bouquets printed on certain fabrics. But, like natural flowers, these printed flowers quickly fade.

Only the very costliest of textures are now printed by hand—that process being so tedious and so difficult that but few workmen are qualified to perform it. The printing, therefore, is usually done by means of a roller of copper or brass. This roller has the figures cut into its surface either directly by the burin, or by an acid; or, as is more usual, it gets the required impress from the molette. Engraving with the burin being very costly, it is employed only in the manufacture of the very choicest fabrics. Engraving with acid is done as follows: The roller is first coated with asphaltum, and on this is counter-drawn with the burin the figure required. The burin may be worked by hand, or may be guided by means of a pantograph. The figure having been thus traced on the roller, the latter is plunged into a bath of nitric acid, which cuts into the metal at all points where the asphalt coating has been displaced. Finally, the asphalt is washed off with essence of turpentine.

But the figures are usually produced on the roller by means of the molette. This is a small cylinder of steel, into the surface of which the engraver first cuts the design. This cylinder then gives to another an impress in relief; and, finally, from this latter a concave impress is taken on the large copper roller of the printing-press. It is plain that as many rollers will be required as there are colors to print; and, owing to the difficulty of preventing the colors running into one another, not more than four are commonly employed—black, red, rose, and violet; or black, brown, red, and cashew. In twelve hours, 100 to 120 pieces, of 50 yards each, may be printed in one color, though not more than 60 to 80 could be printed in four.

The capital employed in the manufacture of printed goods of mixed fibre is enormous, and yields a large return. This manufacture gives also good remuneration to the operatives, and there is every reason why it should be as zealously fostered as the manufacture and employment of muslins and calicoes are to be discouraged, as tending to draw off to America all the wealth of Europe.

  1. Translated and abridged from the Annales du Génie Civil. Dr. Sacc is the grandson of Dupasquier, who introduced into Switzerland the English process of printing calico. The author is responsible for his own political economy.