The evolution of the world’s economy under the concept of globalization and the opening of markets have represented a big blow to the European industrial textile sector and consequently to each one of the member countries.
Even though it was slightly delayed, the crisis eventually reached Spain in the late 20th century, particularly in those regions with a long textile tradition, as is the case with Catalonia.
Once again the Catalan enterprising spirit, the legacy of their Phoenician ancestry, has started to overcome this crisis using the most adequate means for the present situation: design and new technologies. These are the result of research and development as much by universities as by technological centres created and sponsored by the Generalitat de Catalunya since the end of last century.
Catalan textile tradition was temporarily lost within the obscurantism of the Middle Ages, although some specific milestones or events continue to show its vitality and how historically important and significant it was for the local, regional and even national governments.
In the times of “Jaume I el Conqueridor”, around 1257, Barcelona’s Great Council was created and its “Illustrious Committee of Commerce” established the teachings applied to the industrial arts.
In the second half of the 14th century, a structure for the guilds and associations was created which included craftwork teachings and trades, followed in 1422 by “Les Drapades” in Barcelona and later, in 1648, by “Els Perayres i Teixidors” in Moià.
In the last third of the 18th century, Carlos III de España decreed the teaching of drawing for every “industrial art”, which included the “theory of fabrics”. In 1776, he also advocated for the creation of spinning schools for the “tuition of Master Spinners”.
The Royal Decree of 21 May 1786 ordered the establishment of Schools for Wool Spinning in cities with adequate conditions for sustaining them, amongst which Barcelona, Terrassa and Sabadell can be counted. These cities were located in the Vallés Occidental, where an extensive activity of woolen textiles workshops was flourishing.
In the 19th century, schools and teachings of industrial engineering and industrial survey were established throughout Spain in the cities of Madrid, Barcelona, Sevilla, Vergara, Béjar, Gijón and Valencia. These ceased activity due to lack of economic resources, except for Barcelona, which continued with the support of municipal resources, thanks to the significant textile activity in the city. The school of Barcelona offered the specialized studies for Textile Manufacturer Surveyor.
However, the core of textile industry had been shifting towards the Vallés Occidental region around Terrassa and Sabadell, two cities with populations of around 15,000 inhabitants each. Although the creation of Elemental and Superior Schools was approved in the Royal Decree of 17 August 1901 by the Regent Queen, María Cristina, on behalf of Alfonso XIII, the textile specialization was omitted and was granted later to the Superior School of Industries of Terrassa on 10 January 1902. This was made possible by a direct and personal intervention by Don Alfonso Sala, an illustrious citizen of Terrassa, who was also a member of the Courts of Madrid and chairman of the Citizens’ and Industrial Board of the school till the end of his days. The teachings began on 4 February 1902 at a provisional building.
The school moved to its current location in 1904, a beautiful modernist building by architect Luís Moncunill. In the same year, King Alfonso XIII created the Department of Industrial Textile Engineering at the Superior School of Industries of Terrassa, which offered a higher academic rank to engineers needed by an industrial sector in constant evolution, as much technically as in the areas of creation and design.
Before that time, several technicians and engineers who had studied in Manchester were in charge of the installation and direction of the Catalan textile industries, aided at stamping and printing industries by French technicians from Lyon. Even today traces of that “technical” colonization remain in the vocabulary of the facilities, such as “rapport” or “rongeant”. Nevertheless, this colonization helped to consolidate the industrial, commercial and design structures which lasted throughout the 20th century and are now being reborn.
The development of the textile industry in Catalonia refers to two developments, corresponding to the periods before and after the invention of the steam engine, although both developments coexisted after this event for more than 30 years.
The 19th century’s history was witness to the settlement of textile industries near rivers in order to take advantage of hydraulics for operating the machinery. The so-called “colonies” were created around these industrial plants, and in the end became small villages formed by the homes of the people who worked at the plants, be it the workers, the technicians or even the owners. In many cases, these villages offered services such as hospitals, restaurants, theatres and cinemas, amongst others.
The use of steam allowed new industries to be established amongst the existing cities and villages. Several industries would gather around the main steam producers at the so-called “vapores”, which covered areas equivalent to one or more blocks and were surrounded by urban streets with access to the political and commercial centres. Public transportation was scarce or non-existent and moving through town had to be done exclusively on foot, except in cities like Barcelona, where streetcars and underground trains contributed to its expansion.
The population figures between 1900 and 1950 show the growth of textile industry, but also the limitations due to accelerated growth in towns like Terrassa or Sabadell.
The living standards in these regions were rightly considered to be relatively high, compared to the standards in the rest of Spain. Although the consequences of the Spanish Civil War (1936 – 1939) and the political isolation from the rest of the world restricted the economic and social progress and development, the latter started to be felt in the second half of last century (growth factor of three in the first half and more than ten during the whole century). The golden years were during the 60s and 70s, which coincided with the expansion of production and productivity in the Catalan Textile Industry.
The technical and economic textile revolution of 1950 was led by the technical teachings of the five existing Technical Schools in Spain; Béjar (Salamanca), Alcoy (Alicante) and Barcelona and Canet de Mar and Terrassa (Barcelona), as well as by the engineers who graduated from the Superior Technical School of Industrial Engineers of Terrassa, the only one of its kind in Spain, which also offered superior textile studies. It was in this school where textile scientific and technical investigation was born, thanks to the aid of Prof. Daniel Blanxart, who created the “Laboratory for Investigation of Textile Fibres and Broom” in 1940. He had previously created and directed the “Laboratory for Textile Tests and Investigations of Terrassa” from 1908 to 1954, which was founded on the initiative of the industrial sector.
Amongst Prof. Blanxart’s achievements is the Metric System for numbering threads, which has been adopted worldwide by the ISO and uses the “TEX” as its base unit (g/1000m).
There were also other initiatives in order to support textile investigation, such as those of the “National Association of Industrial Textile Engineers” based in Barcelona and the representative Board of the Superior School of Engineers of Textile Industries of Terrassa, which contributed to the creation of the “Laboratory for Industrial Cooperation and Textile Investigation” in Terrassa (currently INTEXTER) in the mid 50s. There was also the creation of the Textile Department of the Superior Council of Scientific Investigation in Barcelona with the direct participation of Prof. José Cegarra Sánchez and Prof. Federico López-Amo Marín in Terrassa and Prof. Alberto Barella Miró en Barcelona.
These three engineers graduated from the Superior School of Terrassa and were all disciples of Prof. Blanxart and have been recognized worldwide thanks to their collaboration.
Although the path of the scientific and technical development of the Catalan textile sector is clear and includes specific and internationally recognized names and events, it seems surprising that no names are associated to textile design, especially when we consider that industrial manufacturing and production always work within the corresponding and necessary design structure.
Back in the time, when the term “export” did not only have the political and economic value given to it nowadays by all countries, the fine wool “paños” (cloths) from Sabadell and Terrassa were well known for their quality and design and were exported worldwide. This reputation has been decreasing through the years, perhaps due to the corporate “provincialism” and “individualism” of the Catalan textile industry, which was not able to take advantage of the prestige and recognition gained over half a century and did not use a commercially aggressive approach in order to create a brand image as the one Italy has successfully achieved for its textile products.
It might be possible to compensate for the decrease mentioned above due to the creation – about 30 years ago – of the School of Textile Design in Sabadell, which has the category of university. Some time might still be needed for Catalan designers to reach international success. Not only designers of textile structures, those anonymous “textile theoreticians” who have always been present in the industries, but also the designers of the final products that reach the consumer and bring recognition to their creator as well as to the local branch, be it a city (London fashion) or a country (Italian fashion).
In any case, it is ever clearer that the next generations of potential designers will have to work hand in hand with scientists and technicians from universities in order to innovate Catalan textile production by using new fibres and micro-fibres with end-user properties, microencapsulated substances for the fabrics, and of nanoparticles in garments and clothes. These will be the first smart-textiles that our children and grandchildren will be using in the not so distant future.
Textile Industrial Engineer (1970) by the ETSEIAT and Doctor Engineer (1973) by the UPC (Polytechnic University of Catalonia). Director of the INTEXTER-UPC from 1990 to 1996 and again from 2004 up to date. Co-writer of more than 250 publications in scientific and technical magazines. Emeritus Professor at AAQCT and visiting professor at the University of the Americas in Puebla, Mexico. Currently professor of Textile Engineering at the UPC.