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9-08-2015, 15:47

Cloth and commerce

Metal products formed a signifi cant share of the goods handled by European merchants, who bought and sold many other types of merchandise as well. Their most important commodities were raw wool and fi nished cloth. Merchants from Venice and Genoa traded silk, velvets, and fi ne woolens produced in northern Italy eastward to Constantinople and westward and northward to wealthy nobles in Spain, France, and Germany. During the sixteenth century, they were joined, and sometimes supplanted, by Dutch, English, and French merchants handling what were called “new draperies”: cheaper, lighter cloth made of wool, cotton, linen, or blends. Responding to – and creating – changes in fashion, merchants added new types of textile products to the cloth they traded. Knitting had been introduced into Europe from the Islamic world through Spain in about the thirteenth century, and knitted hose and stockings, of both silk and wool, gradually replaced bias-cut woven stockings among the upper classes. Knitted materials cling to the body and stretch more easily than woven ones, making them more practical and fl attering. With the introduction of knitted stockings, men’s jackets and doublets became shorter and shorter, showing off a greater expanse of often brightly colored leg. They grew so short that fashionable men began wearing elaborate “cod-pieces” to cover their private parts, often stuffed and decorated with bows and embroidery. Stocking knitting became a common occupation for the poor in many parts of Europe, as it required almost no capital investment; knitters used yarn from their own sheep or yarn supplied by merchants, who then paid the knitters for their labor and sold the stockings both regionally and internationally. The knitting of stockings was speeded up with the introduction of the knitting frame – in which double-pointed needles are arranged on a stand, and the knitter works around the needles – and in some towns guilds of stocking-knitters formed to control production, modeled on the craft guilds in other products. As in other guilds, master stocking-knitters were predominantly male, as were the merchants who organized stocking-knitting in rural areas where no guilds developed. Pressure from merchants, the relative availability of the raw materials, and the simplicity of the equipment prevented the establishment of strong guilds of stocking-knitters in most parts of Europe, however, and knitting remained a “free art,” open to anyone in terms of both production and trade. Lace-making also remained a “free art,” and lace became a major commodity for merchants in the southern and northern Netherlands. Here urban craft guilds had lost much of their power in the religious wars of the 1560s–1580s, when Antwerp and other cities and towns were besieged and sometimes destroyed; after the wars, city governments were dominated by merchant-entrepreneurs. These merchants hired urban residents as well as villagers to make ribbons, trimmings, and even cloth as well as lace, lowering their costs by subdividing and simplifying the steps of production so they could hire less-skilled workers at lower wages. In the Ottoman Empire, Italy, and southern France, merchants expanded silk production, growing the mulberry trees that silkworms eat and hiring large numbers of young women to unwind cocoons, spin silk thread, and weave. Turkish and Italian silk was never quite as good as Chinese, but it was much cheaper, and wealthy people throughout Europe could afford luxurious fabrics made of silk such as velvets, brocades, and satins. Clothing styles in the sixteenth century often included many layers of fancy silk, with slashes cut in the top layers so that the bright colors of the layers underneath showed through. Silk was so profi table that investors even tried to develop silk production in England and Germany, but the winters were too harsh for silkworms. Particularly in the northern Netherlands, which became the Dutch Republic, new technology enhanced organizational changes to increase production. The “Dutch” ribbon loom, for example, allowed a single worker to weave up to twenty-four ribbons at a time. Wind power was tapped to full cloth, and fulling mills similar to the one that startled Don Quixote were built in many parts of the Dutch countryside. Because the Netherlands is so fl at, falling water was not a common power option, but the Dutch adapted technology developed for watermills to wind power, using windmills to grind grain, crush seeds for oil, saw wood, and for many other uses. These technological innovations required large amounts of capital, much of which was provided by the partnerships and companies that had originally been established to share the risk in trading ventures. The Dutch combined new technology, a simplifi cation of production processes, and a sharper division of labor in ship-building and textile production. In the early sixteenth century, Dutch shipyards were producing many types of ships, from small fi shing yawls to huge galleons, supplying a merchant fl eet that at its height in the seventeenth century may have numbered over 15,000 ships. Toward the end of the century Dutch ship-builders invented the fl uyt , or fl y-boat, a long, fl at-bottomed ship made of pine or fi r, soft woods that could be cut by wind-driven sawmills. Because there was little piracy in the North and Baltic Seas where the Dutch primarily traded, fl uyts carried no guns, but could be crammed with bulky cargos such as grain, fi sh, lumber, wine, and metals. Fluyts were mass-produced quickly and cheaply in the area just north of Amsterdam, a district called the Zaanstreek. Because they were rigged simply, they needed only half the crew of other ships for the same amount of cargo, making them much cheaper to operate as well as produce. Dutch ships brought raw materials from all over Europe and later from around the world to the Netherlands, where merchants invested in “traffi cs” ( trafi eken in Dutch), fi rms that specialized in processing and refi ning products for reexport. Raw sugar was refi ned into white table sugar and raw diamonds cut into gems in Amsterdam, gin distilled in Schiedam, tobacco cut in Rotterdam, whale blubber boiled into whale oil in the Zaanstreek, clay made into ceramics at Delft, and paper, leathergoods, and glass produced in many Dutch towns. These products were shipped internationally, and also sold locally to prosperous farmers and city residents over the canals and rivers that crisscrossed the Dutch countryside .

 

 

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