Tracing our Global Threads

The warp and weft of Manchester’s history is woven together with the stories of people and places from around world. This project is about following these global threads to learn more about how we are connected.

In the 19th century, cotton shaped Manchester’s growth into the world’s first industrial city. The textiles industry transformed the lives of generations of people who lived and worked in and around Manchester, which became known as Cottonopolis.

But cotton’s impact was not limited to the steam powered mills, bustling warehouses and crowded streets of Manchester. The city’s cotton industry was part of a global network of manufacturing, agriculture and trade that connected people and places around the world.

Cotton brought about new ways of organising production, commerce and consumption, driving the spread of capitalism, colonialism, empire and slavery and bringing about huge environmental change.

From the cotton plantations of the southern United States to the mills of Mumbai, the textiles trade shaped and connected millions of lives across the globe. Global Threads explores some of these narratives across these broad themes:

Land, labour and exploitation

As global trading networks expanded in the 18th and 19th centuries, cotton took centre stage as one of the driving forces behind the making of the modern world. New technologies and forms of transport developed, and as the textiles trade grew, the moulding of human beings into units of labour intensified across Europe, Africa, the Caribbean, the Americas, and South Asia.

Land across the world was seized and laid out for intensive, often slave-driven, agriculture. The strands of fibre attached to the cotton plant’s seeds and the yarn and cloth they were made into in the mills of Lancashire became stores of capital, transported worldwide, driving even greater commodification.

Cotton boll.
Michael Bass-Deschenes, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY.

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Lived experience

The scramble for labour, land, and profit in the global cotton economy impacted the lives of people around the world. Stories about the experiences of people enslaved in the Americas and the Caribbean, indebted agricultural or industrial workers in South Asia, and mill workers in Britain are often told as separate histories.

Global Threads aims to explore the range of human experiences that were part the global cotton trade in the 19th and 20th centuries, presenting these diverse narratives as different threads of the same story, woven together in complex and sometimes surprising ways.

Model of a cotton gin, made about 1860.
Science Museum Group Collection.

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From Ancoats to Sea Islands

By Tiger Ritchie

Riots, rebels and rhymes

By Cameron Christie

Global shifts

By Sibia Akhtar

Resistance and solidarity

At the heart of the world’s textiles trade, Manchester also acted as a hub for global movements for change linked to the cotton economy. Global Threads traces the impact of African American abolitionists who campaigned in the city whose industry helped drive the expansion of the slavery system.

All over the world, people have used textiles as forms of resistance, subverting their value to enslavers, mill owners, and merchants by using them for creative and political expression in the face of dehumanisation and oppression.

Global Threads also traces some of the ways textiles have been used as objects of resistance and solidarity, from the items crafted and sold to raise funds to support abolitionists to the hand-woven Indian cotton cloth used by Gandhi as a symbol of anti-colonial resistance.

Harriet Powers’ Pictorial Quilt, 1898, in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Wikimedia Commons.

Explore case studies related to this theme:

Caribbean foodways

By Megan Bridgeland

Riots, rebels and rhymes

By Cameron Christie

Sarah Parker Remond

By Serena Robinson

A visitor in Lancashire

By Sibia Akhtar

This project has been supported by the UCL UK Office, supporting the development of collaborations and research impact across the UK.