Manchester is built on cotton. Our Textiles Gallery tells the story of the people, places and products that made it and their continuing legacy in our city and our world today.
Dubbed 'Cottonopolis', Manchester was once the international centre of the world’s cotton industry. The city imported up to a billion tonnes of raw cotton a year, towns like Bolton and Preston became manufacturing centres and Oldham’s Platt Brothers & Co. Ltd. built textile machines for mills across the world.
Manchester’s textiles industry brought some people great wealth. However, innovation and profits went hand in hand with inequality and exploitation, on a local and global scale. In 1860, over 80% of the cotton processed in mills in and around Manchester was grown by enslaved African people on plantations in the southern United States. Manchester’s manufacturers only got the cotton in the quantities and at the prices they desired because of this system of human exploitation.
Our Textiles Gallery paints a vivid picture of how cotton transformed Manchester into an urban metropolis. See everything from world-changing innovations like an original Richard Arkwright Water Frame—one of the machines that kick started the Industrial Revolution—to surprising, everyday objects like a pair of child-sized clogs from Charter Street Ragged School, a local charity that helped some of Manchester’s poorest inhabitants.
Follow the textiles story through innovations in design, printing and finishing, adventure through life in industrial Manchester and find out how the city’s cotton spread around the globe.
Meet the machines, people and stories that made Manchester the first industrial city and find out how ‘Cottonopolis’ changed the world we all live in today.
Look out for our expert Explainers while you explore this gallery. See them in action as they take care of our historic working machinery and get a taste of what it was like to work in a cotton mill amongst all the noise, dust and elbow grease. Talk to them about the cotton industry and discuss the stories of those whose lives it impacted, both for better and worse.
Share your stories with us in the Conversation Space. This space for changing displays and activities gives you a chance to get involved with current projects and have your say on shaping our future.
If you're visiting with children, pick up a free activity trail and guide yourself through the gallery. With fun games and challenges, the activity trail will help you explore the objects in a fun and different way.
Through research, partnerships and consultation, we are working to reveal the links between Manchester and slavery in the museum.
Global Threads is a public history collaboration between the museum, UCL’s Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slavery and a team of talented young researchers. The project draws out new and previously under-represented stories related to Manchester’s cotton industry, particularly those connected to colonialism, enslavement and global movements of people and goods.
Explore the project on the Global Threads website.
Listen to some of the recordings and read the transcripts from some of our audio interactives in the gallery below.