Of Making Cloth: Some Epistemological Lessons



Cornelis Pietersz. Bega, Weaver’s Family. Early 1650s.
Wiki Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bega_Weavers_Family.jpg.




On November 27, 1661, William Petty presented a “history of clothing” at a meeting of the Royal Society as part of a collective endeavour to collect information about various trades.[1] First  asked to “communicate the history of some trade at his own choice” at a society meeting on 16 January, 1661,[2] then commissioned to “offer his thoughts concerning the trade of clothing” 23 January,[3] and repeatedly reminded to complete the task in March, August, and September,[4] Petty finally delivered in November. This brief history includes some forty-five paragraphs systematically recounting the various “operations” that wool undergoes in the fabrication of clothing and descriptions of the “instruments” employed. Operations include sorting, washing, dying, mixing in locks, oiling or sayving, carding, combing, spinning, knitting, twisting, reeling, warping, stiffening, untwisting,  passing through the harness, slaying and knitting together, quilling, burling, scowring, milling, tentering, sheering, cottoning, and pressing, fonding and pressing, fulling, racking, raising, roughing and shorning. Instruments include, among others, the harness, slay, shuttle, wheel and band, spindle, whur and beards, and quill box, swift or tympanum, sheers, boards, and ointment. The paper forms the history of an art in the Baconian sense. Indeed, Bacon’s own “catalogue of particular histories” already included a prospective chapter dedicated to the “History of weaving, and of ancillary skills associated with it.”[5] Petty, it seems, simply set out to write it.

It is only too easy to simply understand this text in the context of Bacon’s general promotion of useful knowledge with a practical purpose beneficial for mankind. However, on closer inspection, Petty wanted to address a subtler question about the way that a history of the arts can inform a general inquiry into the fundamental forms of nature: “I have been perhaps too long in describing the minutiæ of very ordinary and small operations; but I hope no philosopher will despise this, no more than he would the anatomy of a mouse or frog; for as small, and as common, and as cheap as they are, I do not doubt but the invention of them was very difficult and curious at the first.”[6] But why, exactly, should the “philosopher” take an interest? In the event, Petty explains, when contemplating the process of making a cloth, to consider how the artisans “perform all these compounded operations with some one simple regular motion, as that of carding, and spinning, and weaving are, is not contemptible, nor easy for a very inventive wit, without deep and long meditations to excogitate.”[7] That Petty should stress this broader natural philosophical interest of an art specifically in relation to the fabrication of cloth is not surprising. Bacon himself places “weaving” among those arts which “should in no way be overlooked, both because many things crop up in them which relate to alterations of natural bodies, and because they give you accurate knowledge of local motion.”[8]

Now, Petty’s history itself includes little that invites philosophically informed reasoning. However, among the paragraphs dedicated to operations, we find a detailed description of how a “series of continual twistings and interposings” form “the very essence and ratio formalis of spinning.”[9] This curious occurrence of the scholastic notion of ratio formalis is not in itself remarkable. Petty frequently uses the term loosely in relation to even the most mundane natural, social, or moral phenomena. His 1662 Treatise of Taxes and Contribution indexes a section about “The Description and Ratio formalis of Usury,” asserts that “the Ratio formalis of Riches [lies] rather in proportion than quantity,”[10] and inquires about “the Ratio formalis of the sin of concubitus vagi” in a discussion of the relation between promiscuity and childlessness.[11] A 1674 discourse presented to the Royal Society discussing “musical strings” observes that “the Ratio Formalis of Tones lieth in the number of the Vibrations.”[12] It would be unwise to try and correlate such occurrences with any technical sense. It is however allowed to inquire about the sort of epistemological ambition it reflects, and Petty’s reference to “formal reasons” here finds an apposite frame of reference in the Baconian theory of “forms.”

According to the Novum organon, forms are “those laws and determinations of a pure act which regulate and constitute any simple nature,”[13] i.e. the characteristic action or operation of a thing. However, as we are in Petty’s history of clothing dealing with “compounded operations,” what concerns us here is specifically what Bacon calls “compound forms,” i.e. such “complexes of simple natures” that Bacon’s cautions must be dealt with specifically in the context of “the hidden processes and hidden schematisms and their discovery.”“[14] Such forms are hidden, Bacon explains, because “since every body is capable of taking on many compound forms of natures in its concrete state, they check, depress, break and tie up one another so that they mask the individual forms.”[15] In ordinary experience, we do not distinguish individual forms, but rather compounded blocks of naturally associated ones. It is in the breaking up and re-composition of blocks of several operations that the work of the artisan can help the natural philosopher to better distinguish individual forms and their potential. For in manipulating and transforming natural materials, artisans “strip the mask and veil from natural things which generally lie concealed or hidden beneath a variety of shapes and outward appearances.”[16]

In order, however, for a history of arts to serve this more general natural philosophical aim, Petty explains, two conditions must be fulfilled.  First, we must dismiss any prejudicial notion that we are dealing with matters that are “small,” “common,” or “cheap,” and for that reason not worthy of more lofty reflection. The observation echoes Bacon’s caution that the history of arts “seems mechanical and illiberal, we must stop being arrogant and superior, and devote our best efforts to it.”[17] Second, it requires an approach to the art different from that of the purpose-oriented approach of its practitioners,  apart perhaps, as Bacon admitted, from “the occasional artisan who, more clever than most and hankering for glory, devotes himself to some new discovery.”[18] More precisely, extracting natural philosophical lessons from a history of the arts requires adopting a more neutral and less purpose-oriented approach by considering each and any operational part of the art (such as spinning, carting or weaving) not only from the perspective of what it contributes to the production of the intended final form (such as a piece of cloth), but in all of its potential applications. As the Novum organum explains, we must abstract from the “particular purpose,” and “adopt not just Experiments of the Arts which lead directly to the purpose of the art in question but also those that in any way crop up in the process,” for “the experiments of the arts “ should not be “gathered together for the sole purpose of bringing each art to a better condition.” In this way, “streams of experiments of the mechanical arts should flood on every side into the sea of philosophy.”[19]

It is in this spirit, for example, that Petty declares, without further explanation, the intermediary use of the “harness” and the “slay” to be “the most curious enquiry in the whole business of weaving.”[20] The idea is to observe the operations performed by the artisan as if they were made not for a specific purpose but out of curiosity about unknown effects. In other words, in contemplating the artisan’s operations on natural things in the discovery-oriented mode dissociated from already assigned purposes, otherwise reserved for contrived experiment, the natural philosopher can learn about the limits and transformations of natural forms, exactly because the artisan recombines forms and reconfigures operations in ways not ordinarily found in nature. And, as Bacon noted, “human power can never throw off the shackles of nature in its ordinary course, and stretch out and lift itself to new efficients and new modes of operation, unless it does so by unmasking and discovering forms of this kind.”[21]





[1] W. Petty, Of making cloth with sheeps wool, Meeting of November 27, 1661, in T. Birch, The History of the Royal Society (London: A. Millar, 1756-1757), vol. I, 55-65.

[2] Meeting of 16 January, 1661, in Birch, I, 10.

[3] Meeting of 23 January, 1661, Birch, I, 13. 

[4] Meetings of March 20, 1661, August 7, 1661; September 7, 1661, in Birch,  I, 19, 41, 46.

[5] F. Bacon, Catalogus historiarum naturalium, in The Instauratio magna Part II: Novum organum and Associated Texts, ed. G. Rees and M. Wakely (Clarendon Press: Oxford, 2004), p. 483. All references to Bacon are from this volume.

[6] Petty, Of making cloth, 60.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Bacon, Distributio operis, 463.

[9] Petty, Of making cloth, 56.

[10] W. Petty, A treatise of taxes and contributions (London: N. Brooke, 1662), II, sect. 26.

[11] Ibid., chap. X, sect. 17.

[12] Petty, The discourse made before the Royal Society the 26. of November, 1674, concerning the use of duplicate proportion in sundry important particulars together with a new hypothesis of springing or elastique motions (London:  John Martyn, 1674), 89-90.

[13] Bacon, Distributio operis, 16

[14] Ibid.

[15] Bacon, Novum organum, 279.

[16] Bacon, Parasceue ad historiam naturalem, 463.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Bacon, Novum organum, 82.

[19] Bacon, Parasceue ad historiam naturalem, 464-5.

[20] Petty, Of making cloth, 58-9.

[21] Bacon, Novum organum, 287.

OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
Mogens Lærke (February 5, 2024). Of Making Cloth: Some Epistemological Lessons. NOTCOM. Retrieved July 22, 2024 from https://notcom.hypotheses.org/3042

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