Early Rhode Island Cloth & Fur Trade Industries

Rhode Island’s Cloth Industry

Rhode Island produced a small but impressive cloth industry that continues to this day. The wool weft industry in this region, however, reached a stage of rapid advancement where a sizable population had to take a step back in the mid-19th century due to its high rate of clothing needs. The fledgling industry had a penchant for buttonholes, large patch pockets, and an abundance of boots (with no looking backwards). All in all, the state was divided between leading manufacturers in the south and small ones that could not compete with major chains such as Watson & Brothers and Patterson. The Carolinas were one of the last resorts of small factory owners who could not hold off the attack of the giant chains.

Despite the relative lack of wool textiles in the early period, the New England textile mills had a monopoly in the textile milling business in the state. Because New England mills are not dependent upon the wholesale export trade for their clothing, these mills can remain profitable for many years without having to necessarily set up extensive processing operations.

Fur Trade

The use of fur in clothing is a different story. For example, silk and wool clothing, with their rigid made-to-order designs, have long been supplanted by fur, which, because of its low mechanical properties, can be easily sewn. It is also more prevalent than wool in indoor climatic conditions, and more expensive, which has further reduced its share of the fur market.

Fur once had a fairly steady market share in North America, but it began to decline sharply from the late 1940s to the mid-1970s. In that period, wool started becoming more of a factor, because of its more economical uses and the introduction of strong, high-quality synthetic fibers and synthetics such as acrylic, which can take the place of animal-based synthetics and therefore save fur manufacturing costs. At the same time, the factory content of fiber got higher, and the use of imported animal byproducts as inputs increased. Some of this decline is due to increased competition from domestically produced fur, some to the decline in international demand, and some to this country’s slower economic growth.

Although domestic demand has waned, it has been a weak spur in the retail fur trade. North America, Europe, and the rest of the world have used different strategies in marketing, manufacturing, and distribution. European and Asian brands have generally sought to be comparable to American brands by using the same or similar lines and marketing strategies, but have always preferred inexpensive or specialist designs. High-quality European brands such as Patons have sold high-end plush in the United States. When the average price for the average amount of fur in one big coat increased by a dollar, European and Asian retail-fur producers took a hit.

That should not be surprising, since they use animal fur to produce the plush, and to make padding, which is used to make the fur plush. Nevertheless, average-priced pelts rose by 7% from 1994 through 2002. At the same time, demand for (expensive) fur plush rose by 16%, which means that higher-priced plush has had a greater impact on domestic demand. Most serious competitors in North America have focused on these smaller markets.