Skill as the Lynchpin of Lancashire Women Weavers’ Identity
Jutta Schwarzkopf (Bielefeld University)
This paper focuses on the Lancashire cotton weaving industry, ca. 1875-1914, when the cotton industry as a whole was facing growing competition from former importers of British goods. As a result, the weaving workforce, among whom women predominated, had to contend with increasingly difficult working conditions produced by cost-cutting strategies. In order to maintain their level of income, skill was of the essence in continuing to produce faultless cloth. Drawing on the cotton unions’ press, trade-union records as well as women’s own accounts of their experiences as weavers, it will be shown that these women identified primarily as skilled workers, taking pride in their mastery of an increasingly difficult labour process. From exploring the difficulties involved in acquiring the level of skill aspired to by the women concerned and expected by the community at large, the paper moves on to consider the important ramifications of women’s skilled-based self-identification for the notions of gender forged in the working-class culture peculiar to the cotton-weaving district of Lancashire. It will be argued that competence in the workplace lost its exclusively masculine connotation, and by enabling women to make a significant contribution to family income, women’s property in skill led to a significant shift in the relations of power in the family.