Enslaved Africans in the Americas might never have heard of Wales but they probably knew the adjective Welsh. 'Welsh plains’, also known as “Negro Cloth”, was the fabric in which most of them were clothed.
Like many other European regions, mid-Wales witnessed a growth of rural textile production in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The weaving of broad cloth was carried out in the households of small farmers and peasants in Montgomeryshire and Merionethshire; the finishing processes were organised and onward sale handled by merchants in Shrewsbury. In the early seventeenth century the major overseas market was France. By 1700, however, much had changed. Lighter fabrics – flannel or 'plains’ – were now being made, and these were destined for colonial markets. 'The exportation of flannels to America and the West-Indies, by the Merchants of London and Liverpool, is much more considerable than the home consumption’, wrote one eighteenth-century observer. Another elaborated: the coarse local cloth was for 'covering the poor Negroes in the West Indies’.
Clearly, a fundamental turn towards the Atlantic took place in the century preceding the American Revolution. But how this shift was achieved is something of a mystery. The weavers of upland Montgomeryshire were geographically dispersed, impoverished and tenuously connected to the pulsing Atlantic marketplace. For their part, New World planters knew little of the origins of 'Negro Cloth’; they obtained supplies from London wholesalers. Nevertheless, commercial links grew to sufficient strength for immense quantities of 'Welsh plains’ to be shipped across the Atlantic annually between the early eighteenth century and the mid-nineteenth century.
A grant from the Pasold Research Fund will allow Chris Evans to find out more about the production and marketing of “Negro Cloth” from mid-Wales. 'Welsh plains were used to cloth some of the most savagely exploited human beings of the age’, says Evans; 'yet the fabric was produced by small farmers and downtrodden labourers who were themselves subject to cumulative social and economic degradation. The rural population turned to woollen production in a desperate effort to meet the increased rental demands of an avaricious landlord class. But with only poor quality wool with which to work and with only basic technology at their disposal the cloth they made found few buyers.’ No surprise then that cheap 'Welsh plains’ was the costume of people who had little choice in what they wore.