The Significance of the Textile Industry in Georgia

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From beaches to mountains, islands to gorges, and bustling cities in between, Georgia is a study in growth, contrast, and change, and its economic and industrial history can be summed up by a popular motto: When one door closes, another door opens. Although the state maintains a place in its early agricultural and textile industry origins, its economy has taken long strides toward innovation in sectors including aerospace, fiber optics, internet technology, tourism, education, and the arts, among others.

Georgia is flourishing today despite — or because of — several centuries of doors closing and opening. And it all started with cotton and the textile industry. Let’s take a look.

In the Beginning: Silk, Cotton and the Textile Industry

Cotton has been cultivated and woven into fabric and other items around the world for some 7000 years. It had its start in the U.S. when early settlers planted cotton in Florida around 1556 and later in Virginia in 1607. In England, the cotton textile industry was already established when Georgia, the last of the thirteen original colonies, began cotton cultivation around 1734. 

Every step of cotton production was done by hand, from planting and harvesting to separating seeds from cotton fiber, spinning it into thread, making “homespun” fabric on looms, and sewing clothing and other items. Cotton textiles were also in demand in England, and it wasn’t long before farmers in Georgia and other states produced enough cotton for export.

Around the same time, silk had become popular among the wealthy, and experiments in cultivating mulberry trees for silkworms began in the Savannah area. Despite climate difficulties — silkworms couldn’t tolerate winter cold spells — the colonists had limited success by 1735. Over the following decades, attempts at silk production continued, especially around Canton, named after the Chinese city known for its silk. Ultimately, however, the effort was a failure. That door closed, and the door to cotton production was flung wide open.

By the mid-and late-1700s, cotton was well-established in Georgia, but production was relatively low due to labor-intensive processes. But three factors changed everything.

Silk thread - Georgia

Machinery, Land, and Slavery Created a Cotton Boom in the Antebellum South

In 1793, Massachusetts native Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin (short for engine) while visiting Georgia and learning about the time required to separate cotton seeds from the fiber. Others improved the gin, and modifications to the original continued for decades. These simple machines quickly separated cotton fibers from seeds and brushed away lint, and the tedious task became a more efficient process that allowed production to increase rapidly. 

The spinning jenny, which transformed fiber into thread and yarn, had already been invented around 1765, and ongoing improvements sped up the transformation of raw cotton into textiles. As other tools and machinery were invented and techniques perfected, the first cotton thread, yarn, and cloth factories in the U.S. started production, and enthusiasm spread.

Cotton became a booming trade in the U.S. by the 1830s, and as a major export, it exceeded all other exports combined. In fact, “the US was second only to England in the amount of cotton it consumed.”

In addition to an ideal climate and fertile soil, cotton’s success as “king” relied on three primary factors: machinery, westward movement, and slavery.

Machinery underwent constant improvement, and new tools decreased the time required for all facets of the cotton textile industry, which increased production and profits. Mills and factories were built for processing, and mechanized looms to weave fabric replaced handlooms.

Moreover, the acquisition of land for additional crops also meant proximity to the rivers and creeks that flowed rapidly downhill from the Piedmont Mountains to power mills and factories. Westward movement, however, also included “forced removal of the Creeks in the 1810s and the Cherokees in the late 1830s.”

But the primary factor in Georgia’s early textile industry success was slave labor backed by “strong legal and political institutions.” Even though machinery improved production, cotton still required hard work, especially in the fields, and Georgia didn’t have the workforce to support growth. Slavery was the solution for cotton farmers with high aspirations, as they saw it, and it opened the door to great wealth among plantation owners. Later on, however, it would also be their downfall.

Search for interesting textiles, woven cotton items, or fabric

The Effects of the Civil War on Textiles

By the start of the Civil War in 1861, Georgia was a major cotton producer, along with Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi. These states grew “more than half of the world’s cotton.” But with the war’s interruption of cotton production, Great Britain and France looked elsewhere for their cotton supply, specifically India and Egypt. On top of that, Union soldiers destroyed plantations and mills, especially in the Atlanta area.

When slaves were freed after the Civil War, plantation owners lost their workforce. And after so many years of focusing mainly on cotton, Georgia’s economy slowed, and it seemed the doors were closing in on cotton. But new systems, such as sharecropping and mill villages, soon replaced slavery and not only kept the doors open, they were key to post-war reconstruction, increased production, and ultimately, profit and recovery.

Sharecropping allowed both freed slaves and whites to rent land and farming equipment from plantation owners. Sharecroppers paid for the use of the land with a portion of their crops, often as much as half. Money earned from their crops went toward other debts, as well as living expenses. The system worked fairly well in many cases, but workers were often exploited and dependent on owners plus the weather and crop success.  

Despite problems, cotton remained as Georgia’s main crop, and textile manufacturing continued as the state’s main industry through the early 1900s. By 1914, “over 5.2 million acres of land in Georgia was planted in cotton.” But challenges were on the horizon yet again, and this time, a different kind of army marched toward Georgia.

A Small Beetle Becomes a Big Problem

By the early 1920s, the boll weevil, first seen in Thomasville, Georgia, in 1915, had nearly decimated Georgia’s cotton crop. This small beetle, believed to have come from Mexico, had such a voracious appetite for cotton that production dropped from 2.8 million bales in 1914 to 600,000 bales in 1923.

The war against the boll weevil began, and although insecticides and other eradication methods produced sporadic success, the door was closing on cotton and the textile industry in Georgia. 

Although cotton remained a top crop, by 1944, other crops such as peanuts were replacing it. And by 1983, a mere 115,000 acres of land produced 112,000 bales of cotton. 

Recovery wasn’t complete until the 1990s, but by then, cotton was nothing like it had been. Its heyday was over, and Georgians had turned to other crops and industries. Georgia now grows over a million acres of cotton annually — about 20% compared to a century ago — and cotton is no longer king. 

Textile machines

The Door Opens to Other Industries

Cotton remains a significant contributor to Georgia’s economic base and U.S. global exports, but the profit and number of people it employs in Georgia is small compared to other industries. The way cotton is grown and produced has changed radically. Instead of privately owned farms and plantations, cotton is now managed by large agribusinesses. Little is done by hand; instead, GPSs guide the planting, and computers run the machines instead of people.

Nationally, Georgia now ranks second in U.S. cotton production behind Texas and provides about 53,000 cotton-related jobs. But other industries, such as scientific and technical services, retail, construction, healthcare, and social assistance, transportation, finance and insurance, information, education, and others, provide far more. However, jobs like these are more likely to be found in large cities like Atlanta, Augusta, Columbus, Macon, Athens, and Savannah. Rural areas are not nearly as prosperous, and poverty exists in the state much as it has in times gone by.

As Georgia’s cotton production and textile industry grew, the nation as a whole grew with it. Railroads expanded to transport cotton, and shipping companies profited and grew. Bankers and merchants prospered directly as farmers and plantation owners purchased other goods, which, in turn, helped others prosper.

Products made from cotton include cottonseed oil, a primary ingredient in margarine and shortening. It’s also used in potato chips, bread, and snacks, as well as animal food. Money is made from cotton, along with carpets, tires, auto upholstery, tents, coffee filters, and even fishing nets. 

On top of all that, farming equipment also evolved, and even if it was designed specifically for cotton, inventors modified the machinery for other crops. Even boll weevil control turned into insect management, and an entire branch of entomology was established. The list could go on and on.

While cotton continues to be one of Georgia’s important crops, the textile industry it supported is no longer Georgia’s shining star or the lifeblood of a culture as it once was. But although the door is partially closed, it has made its mark.

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