From Hand to Machine Interview: Alka Raman in Conversation with Prasannan Parthasarathi, Patrick Wallis, and Stefan Hanß

by | Mar 13, 2024 | Uncategorised | 0 comments

alkaramanDr Alka Raman is Hallsworth Fellow at the Department of History, University of Manchester, and an active member of The Bodies, Emotions and Material Culture Collective. She has present path-breaking work on textile studies, most recently in the journal article “From Hand to Machine: How Indian Cloth Quality Shaped British Cotton Spinning Technology”, Technology and Culture 64, 3 (2023): 707–36. The Collective has invited Alka to comment on her work in this interview, in conversation with Professor Prasannan Parthasarathi (Boston College), Professor Patrick Wallis (LSE), and Professor Stefan Hanß (University of Manchester).

The article is available here,

To learn more about Alka’s pathbreaking research, see


Stefan Hanß: Your article features pictures taken with a microscope. Why has the microscope been so important to your research on textiles, and what do you consider its wider innovation potential? 

Alka Raman: To say that extensive work has been done on textiles within economic history, especially on the prodigious rise of the cotton industry in Britain during the 18th and the 19th centuries, would be an understatement! A variety of Britain-centred perspectives have been deployed to analyse the remarkable rise of this industry, but product quality has remained underexplored. The materiality of the product became central to my work because I approached it from a zoomed-out global perspective, exploring the connection between the British cotton industry and its precursor in global history, the Indian cotton industry. If a connection between the Indian and British cotton industries is significant, then could we possibly look at this as the global evolution of the cotton cloth and its making, sans the labels ‘British’ and ‘Indian’? What would such an evolution look like? Again, the product, the cotton cloth, was at the heart of the issue and it was essential for me to find a way of extracting information and data from this material historical source.

The microscope was the tool that allowed me to extract this information and chart it over time. Fundamentally, it allowed me to inspect and assess the product up close, very very close! And at that level of proximity, the product revealed information which would otherwise have been impossible to even conceive. When I first looked at a historic textile up close through the microscope at the Victoria and Albert Museum, it was an extraordinary moment! But I didn’t know what I was looking for. At this stage, my advisor’s words rang solid in my mind, ‘the evidence will guide you towards the methodology.’ So, I looked again, looked closely, compared the different images before me, and before long a methodology had begun developing in my mind, led by the source.

I must state upfront that I was standing on the shoulders of a real giant when I chose to use the microscope. John Styles’ work on the microscopic analysis of cloth composition of samples from the Foundling Hospital was innovative and hugely inspiring. My first question after reading that study was – what else can we do with the microscope? With my doctoral training in the Department of Economic History at the LSE, it is hardly a surprise that I sought to quantify the information that the microscope revealed, the result being this paper and the one before.

Microscopic product analysis has been underutilised by economic and business historians. Products contain information that can be used to corroborate, or challenge received views. Technological advances of our times have made microscopic analysis easy and affordable. Every product is different and would require a different investigative lens. Distinct questions may motivate innovative new ways of using information gathered microscopically or in conjunction with microscopic and other investigative techniques. I hope to see more studies utilise the microscope’s vast potential.


Initial cloth quality studied with the microscope. These are magnified images of fabrics used by a middle-class English woman, Barbara Johnson, in 1746 and 1768, to imitate Indian printed and painted cottons. Magnification shows that the warp is linen. In sample 4a, the weft is coarse and highly uneven, indicating the low quality of British cotton cloth predating the mechanization of spinning. The fabric has a low thread per inch (TPI) count of 115. Sample 4b is more uniform, possibly spun on the spinning jenny. The fabric has an improved TPI of 141, showing that the very first mechanization of cotton spinning improved yarn quality. Alka Raman, “From Hand to Machine: How Indian Cloth Quality Shaped British Cotton Spinning Technology”, Technology and Culture 64, 3 (2023): Fig. 4.


Stefan Hanß: Your article widens the economic perspective on technology and innovation by foregrounding aspects of labour and skill. Both labour and skill are very much bodily-grounded experiences, so I was wondering if you could say a bit more about how lived, bodily experiences of spinning changed in the contexts of your study, and how that affected innovation? 

Alka Raman: Labour and skill are at the very heart of technological change in cotton spinning in global history. And the fact that they are bodily-grounded experiences shaped the trajectory of innovation in very specific ways. In the British context, the disconnection between the spinner’s bodily engagement with the process of spinning and, instead, their tactile engagement with the mechanical apparatus is crucial. This disconnection implies that the actual act of spinning was being done by the machine, operated by the spinner/machine operator. If spinning had to be refined, as in the final product or spun yarn had to be finer than previously possible, then, the mechanical apparatus had to be refined, as it was the mechanical apparatus that was conducting the act of spinning. The skill of the spinner was connected to the process of spinning, to the improved handling of the mechanical apparatus. We see both these changes materialising in the context of the British cotton industry. Finer yarn was achieved through improvements to the machinery and labour skill development involved the ability to handle more and more complex machinery deftly and with greater mechanical skill. The nature of innovation and the nature of skill development are both impacted by this trajectory of an initial bodily disconnection between the spinner and the spinning process. So, product quality and skill development are inter-related – the machinery is modified and refined to enable better product quality while the spinner is improving his/her mechanical ability per the requirements of the improved machinery, in tandem, to operate the machinery for the execution of fine yarn spinning.

In the Indian context, the process of spinning was done by the spinner, with her body and mind constituting integral parts of the mechanism of spinning. The body and the mind were the main ‘machines’ enabling what I have called ‘intelligent spinning’ with rudimentary tools. In order to make fine yarn, therefore, the skill of the spinner had to be improved, with investments via time, effort and attention into refining the process of spinning by feeling the fibres and the spun yarn and registering that feel into the brain and entering into a constant feedback loop between the brain and the hand to enable the refinement of the spinning process. Product quality and skill development, in this case, are directly inter-related – improved skill leads to improved product quality. In other words, improving the quality of yarn was equal to improving the skill to produce better yarn.

Patrick Wallis: How generalisable is this argument? Do we need to distinguish between ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ motivators for technological innovation in other areas, in the way you suggest, and if so why would quality be a primary driver more generally?

Alka Raman: When considering economic development via manufacturing within an import substitution framework, then this argument is generalisable. Import substitution implies the existence of new products imported within an economy leading to domestic attempts (state or entrepreneur-led) to substitute the availability of said products within the market via domestic production. The import of said goods implies pre-existing demand for the products within the market. This demand is for the specific characteristics and features of the products, which the domestic manufacturers must be able to first replicate and then advance if they are to successfully compete with the imported goods of the same category. Next, they must be able to produce goods of a certain quality in sufficient numbers to ensure adequate supply within and control of the markets. Getting the product right, including its characteristics, features, working mechanisms etc, all subsumed within the broad category of ‘quality,’ therefore, is fundamental to successful import substitution.

In the case of cotton textiles, these were novel, exotic goods flooding British and Europeans markets, acting as benchmark products for import substitution in these economies. In the British case, these were also goods previously not made in Britain, implying that there did not exist the skill within the workforce to make said textile goods. The first challenge was to be able to make the all-cotton cloth, followed by the next, to make the fine all-cotton cloth. These challenges emerged because of the standards of cloth quality set by the benchmark Indian textiles around global markets. Only once it became possible to make adequate all-cotton cloth could productivity innovations be pursued to make the all-cotton cloth. Similarly, only when it was possible to make the fine all-cotton cloth could productivity be enhanced for this product category. Therefore, for successful import substitution, the primary driver must necessarily be product quality, the ability to make specific products with specific characteristics, followed by the secondary driver of enhanced productivity. The quality of the product must first reach a market-approved threshold before productivity gains may be realised.

A counter to this view would suggest that products of lower quality, when produced in significant quantities, may also accrue productivity gains. Such a scenario does not negate the central argument of the primacy of product quality as the motivator of innovation. Quality may be low, but it must be adequate to comprise a viable product. Indeed, evidence from the British cotton industry corroborates this, since despite not being able to make the highest quality cotton cloth (which remained Indian) the British cotton industry was able to expand into global markets by supplying cotton goods of good-enough quality at prices where periodic replacement of product did not pose an economic constraint for the consumer. This specific dynamic of good-enough quality at lower prices is at the core of the multi-billion dollar modern fast-fashion industry which capitalises on cheap and fast-changing substitutions of high-quality textile goods via low quality cloth and print.

Patrick Wallis: You argue that these skills could not be transferred or emulated. But in other products, and particularly within Europe, skills of great complexity are transferred and emulated. Consider painting, watch-making, diamond cutting etc. And spinning is an industry in which formal institutions for training (pauper) children are established across Europe. So what are the key barriers?

Alka Raman: Knowledge and skill development in the early modern world was a combination of fixed and variable factors. Fixed factors included the local geography or environment, including natural resources that enabled engagement with certain materials and therefore a greater understanding of their properties and the development of skills related to these specific properties. In the context of textiles, examples of these would include not only specific raw materials like cotton, flax, wool or dyestuffs but also knowledge and skill related to the types of soils, ecology, including elements such as sunlight or rainfall. These factors I consider largely fixed for the early modern world, as they are geographically inherited and shape the sweeping landscape of local knowledge and skill development within a region.

The variable factors may be attributable to human interventions. These would include institutions such as the societal structures in place for knowledge acquisition and skill development, importation of resources not local to the region (making some fixed factors variable over time thanks to trade and exchange) and other interventions to overcome geographical restrictions/peculiarities that lead to specific skill developments. Again, in the context of cotton textiles, some examples would include work organisation/specialisation along the caste lines in India or the importation of indigo from India into Europe for blue dyeing or the establishment of formal institutions for training of pauper children in spinning in Britain. These factors are variable because they are shaped by human manipulation of the natural and human environment.

Knowledge, and related skills, develop within specific structures created within specific combinations of the fixed and variable factors. The issue of transfer of knowledge and development of related skills gets complicated as it must account for both fixed and variable factors and their multitudes of combinations. I have recently looked at this issue through the lens of transfer of printing-dyeing knowledge from India to Europe via historical reconstruction. My findings suggest that it is difficult, and in some instances impossible to transfer knowledge (and its related skills) developed in a tropical, labour-intensive setting to a temperate, capital-intensive setting. Geography influenced the generation of knowledge and skill in the early modern period in fundamentally significant ways.

Historians tell us that there were two main means of knowledge transfer in the early modern period – codified knowledge and migration of artisans. Codified knowledge allowed for the transfer of knowledge from India to Europe, but this knowledge then had to be interpreted and adapted to European methods and production processes. Aspects of the knowledge that did not fit within indigenously developed European systems of knowledge generation were discarded as unworthy or labelled wrong. Equally, while the success rate of migration as a means of knowledge and skill transfer appears to be higher, recent works (Bertucci, 2021) have shown that transplanting artisans does not necessarily transplant knowledge or skills, often failing to transfer both, because knowledge growth within specific combinations of structures created by the fixed and variable factors. While it might be easy to transplant humans and raw materials, replication of institutions and fixed ecological factors renders such an exercise susceptible to failure and we have plenty of examples in history which support this position.

Certainly, skills of great complexity were transferred and emulated within Europe. Clockmaking and the work of millwrights are highlighted in the historiography as exceptionally skill-intensive, and this skill as having contributed to the growth of machine-making during the First Industrial Revolution. There is a difference, however, in knowledge and skills moving within the largely same socio-economic-ecological region (Europe) versus knowledge developed in entirely different regions with distinct socio-economic-ecological mapping entering Europe. Two complex production processes from the East – cotton cloth making and porcelain making – were both import substituted and adapted to European ways of production despite the transfer of substantial codified knowledge about the Indian and Chinese ways of cloth and porcelain making, respectively. The key barrier, therefore, is that of the knowledge-skill nexus, which must be absorbed as a whole for successful transplantation of knowledge and skills from one region to another. If one is missing, as in the case of cotton cloth making the knowledge existed but not the skill, then locally viable adaptations are necessary if import substitution is to be successful. Others will argue that even with both knowledge and skill being transferred simultaneously, the absence of the local environment where the knowledge and skill evolved has the capacity to render the transfer unsuccessful.


Mechanized Spinning. The mule or muslin wheel specifically invented by Samuel Crompton in 1779 enabled Britain to manufacture fine cotton goods like muslins. The mule was a refined spinning jenny, operated by mule spinners. As the image shows, human interaction with the mule’s mechanism had shifted from bodily engagement to mechanical calibration. The machines made the yarn while the mule operators ensured smooth operations and consistent yarn quality. (Source: Drawing by Thomas Allom, 1834, Museum of Science and Industry). Alka Raman, “From Hand to Machine: How Indian Cloth Quality Shaped British Cotton Spinning Technology”, Technology and Culture 64, 3 (2023): Fig. 2.


Prasannan Parthasarathi: Why have questions of quality and Indian competition not figured more prominently in accounts of technological change in eighteenth-century British cottons?  

Alka Raman: I have asked myself this question nearly every day for the last 7 years now! There are several reasons for this, I would say. Firstly, to understand quality, we must grapple with the materiality of products. In the case of cotton, it is not possible to comprehensively evaluate the growth of the industry in Britain without examining the evolution of the products, the cotton textiles. While there is some archival evidence regarding the yarn counts produced by certain manufacturers, such evidence is not enough to paint a meaningful picture of the industry’s evolutionary trajectory. For this, it was essential to look outside of conventional sources, in this instance to material sources, and devise methods to quantify data from these historic textile sources. This meant building real bridges with adjacent disciplines of textile history and material studies. I was fortunate to have at my disposal advances in microscopic technology which allowed me to conduct this analysis, which perhaps other economic historians before me would not have had. We are all, of course, only as advanced as the technologies of our times!

Secondly, the discourse on the First Industrial Revolution remains highly Britain or Europe centred, despite growing works within economic history showing irrefutable global connections to economic growth in different parts of the world. The search for something special about Britain, or Western Europe, whether via natural resources or a wage structure as a legacy of the Black Death or religion or the more nebulous idea of ‘culture’ have all been put forth to highlight the exceptionality of Britain and Western Europe. Recently, however, Maxine Berg, Beverly Lemire, Giorgio Riello and, of course, you yourself have highlighted the significance of the pre-industrial Indian cotton textiles to the growth of the British cotton industry connected intimately to the First Industrial Revolution. As historians, we put limitations on ourselves and our abilities to explain the past if we continue to view the First Industrial Revolution through the narrow lens of easily quantifiable attributes of Western European exceptionalism. Expanding the discipline to include a multitude of methodologies and multi-disciplinary perspectives can only serve the discipline and its ability to inform our understanding of the past.

And lastly, following on from the previous point, the discipline of global history is in its infancy. Historians have recognised the significance of the interconnected early modern world to the making of our modern landscape, but quite precisely what were the pathways through which this connection moulded the world that we inhabit, via the route of the First Industrial Revolution, remain debatable. This is because new methodologies must be developed to explore this connection, which some of our current methods may not serve as well as we would like, paving the way for new interdisciplinary research and opening the doorways to incorporating new forms of historical evidence. Including material evidence from commodities traded in the early modern period is one key way in which we can expand the discipline, but only one of many other ways in which we can incorporate new evidence and methods. As the discipline itself evolves and contributes via novel approaches to studying our connected past, I am hopeful that product quality, for cotton goods as well as other commodities, will earn the place of importance it deserves within economic history.

Prasannan Parthasarathi: Why have economic historians been committed to their focus on productivity gains as the driver of technological change?

Alka Raman: I agree with you, there is a strong commitment within economic history, as the discipline currently stands, on productivity gains as the driver of technological change. So much so that when I started my doctoral research, I too was talking about products but still thinking in the language of productivity! It was only when I engaged with the products under the microscope and was faced with their tangible physicality that I understood that the problem I was attempting to investigate was primarily material and only secondarily productivity related. Even so, it took me a while to disengage from the quantity narrative to develop the language of a quality narrative. It helped immensely to have the multitude of works on the British cotton industry as well as on technological change, from the historical-material perspective, the technical-mechanical perspective as well as from the economic-commercial perspective, at my disposal. Once again, I was building on the works that have come before mine but viewing my questions through a lens combining the global and the material.

The focus on productivity gains to explain technological change is fostered by two trends within economic history – the reliance on conventional sources and the preference for econometric techniques. Quantifiability matters to the ways in which the discipline has evolved, and prices, wages and customs records provide easily quantifiable data sources. We have gained plentifully through the use of econometric techniques in economic history. Yet these techniques too were new at one point in the evolutionary story of economic history. And the discipline was open to adopting them. In the same vein, the discipline stands to gain by the further diversification of our sources and techniques. One fairly straightforward way of doing this is to develop genuine interdisciplinary partnerships. New sources necessitate new methods, a combination of the two allows new insights that can only further the cause of economic history.

The Collective thanks all the interviewees for their time and comments!


© Feature Image: Basic Spinning Mechanism. Fig. 1 in Alka Raman, “From Hand to Machine: How Indian Cloth Quality Shaped British Cotton Spinning Technology”, Technology and Culture 64, 3 (2023): The Indian spinning wheel, commonly known in Europe as the jersey wheel, was the basic technology for spinning cotton yarn in the preindustrial period. Its two processes, drafting-twisting the fibers then winding the spun yarn back on the spindle, each require well-honed skills to handle the wheel and short-staple cotton fibers. As the image shows, the spinner’s body is a key part of the mechanism, her skill integral to the yarn-making process and her mind-hand-apparatus connection fundamental to working the spinning wheel. (Source: Drawing by Frederick William Alexander De Fabeck, 1860–1890, V&A Museum)”.