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Cloth to Clothing

Linking Cotton Objects in LMG Collections to Enslaved Labour

Everyday cotton items can be found in the dress and textiles collection of Leeds Museums and Galleries. This includes cotton pockets, plain gowns, and decorative domestic textiles. In its varying degrees of thickness and decorativeness, this cotton would have been seen in the houses of all social classes during the transatlantic trade route period.


printed cotton, late 18th century
Printed Cotton, Late 18thC

This cotton textile fragment may have been used as a valance on a bed. Printed cotton such as this would have been purchased by wealthy individuals. It was produced by the well-known French manufacturer Christophe-Phillip Oberkampf and forms one of the many toiles in the Leeds Museums and Galleries collection. Although we usually speak about the famous manufacturer when discussing this textile, to tell the whole story, we should also be talking about who grew the cotton the textile is made from. In this case, due to the date of manufacture, we can be confident that the cotton was grown by enslaved individuals working on plantations thousands of miles away.

Similarly, we have much simpler textile pieces made of cotton, used by perhaps a working or middle-class individual. This is a pocket, used underneath the petticoats of women to store objects safely when moving or travelling around. The pocket is of a plain weave, with no decoration.


pocket, early 19th century
Pocket, Early 19thC

These two examples show how intrinsic slavery was in the production of cotton goods. People from all social classes in Britain would purchase, use and own cotton products, whether a pair of pockets or a bedcover. Although the final product was not created by an enslaved man, woman or child, the brutal reality of slavery is inescapable when we discuss textiles made of cotton during this period.


Toile - Toile is a fabric, from the French word meaning 'linen cloth' or 'canvas'. It is usually characterised by detailed scenes usually in one colour.