The Clothiers’ Century, 1450–1550
Pastoral agriculture and cloth production accounted for approximately a third of the economy, so the steady growth in rural cloth production was an important economic stimulant from 1470 onwards. Complete clothiers were those who controlled the total business system from beginning to end, making quality cloth with high margins that justified investment in production. Lesser clothiers with limited capital made cloth but relied on complete clothiers to market it. Merchant clothiers assembled clothiers’ cloth, sometimes finished it and then sold it. They tended to market coarse and cheaper narrow cloths with lower profit margins, and northern cloth which was far from the London market. Complete clothiers bought and organised yarn preparation, and if they were making coloured cloth owned dyehouses, and they often finished the cloth. They combined some in house production while also putting out some processes to independent artisans. They needed considerable capital to finance inventory, work-in-process and offer credit to merchants. Clothiers’ great achievement in the West Country was to more effectively organise production to produce a consistently high-quality cloth. This was re-enforced by the clustering of clothiers, cooperating and competing with one another. The high reputation of English cloth at Antwerp and other places combined with the lower cost of wools and rural clothmaking allowed leading clothiers to make excellent returns on their investment. The market tended to consolidate, favouring a few leading clothiers and putting cost pressures on independent weavers.