When we think of the Industrial Revolution, we often imagine tall smokestacks, railroads, and huge factories filled with machines churning out mass-produced goods. However, it was actually the ancient craft of weaving that underwent the most dramatic transformation in the second half of the 18th century.
A 'Thirst' for Cotton
Although England had been the world's leading producer of woolen fabric for centuries, by the mid-1700s, more and more of Europe's rapidly growing population wanted cotton. At the time, most of the world's cotton fabric was made in India. English cotton cloth was both poorer in quality and more expensive than the Indian version. As demand for cotton on the world market continued to soar, British merchants, industrialists, and craftsmen searched desperately for ways to make domestic cotton cloth production more efficient.
Perhaps the most difficult problem facing those producing cotton cloth was that weavers used up thread at three to four times the rate that spinners could make it. In the 18th century, spinning and weaving usually took place in individual homes. Every family member had a role to play: Children carded the cotton fibers (that is, combed them so that they all ran in the same direction); women spun the fibers into thread using a spinning wheel; and men, often assisted by their children, wove the thread into cloth.
The bottleneck in the production process became even more severe when inventions such as the carding machine and the flying shuttle made the work of combing fibers and weaving thread even faster. The only way that the British cotton industry could compete with India was to somehow speed up the spinning process.
Necessity--the 'Mother' of Invention
It was an English weaver and carpenter named James Hargreaves who solved the problem. As with most weavers at the time, Hargreaves could not make enough money to support his family on weaving alone. So, he also worked as a carpenter. Most families in the industry farmed in the warmer months and spun and wove in the winter.
Sometime between 1764 and 1767, Hargreaves invented a simple, hand-operated machine. With it, a woman was able to spin eight spindles of thread or yarn simultaneously, rather than the customary single spindle of the spinning wheel. The device, called a "jenny," was soon expanded to 16, then 80, and eventually more than 100 spindles. Because the jenny was small and inexpensive, and could be operated easily by a single person, many weaving families were able to buy one to use at home. Soon English production of cotton cloth soared as yarn supply now matched the demand of weaving. Use of the jenny quickly spread. By 1788, approximately 20,000 of them were being used in England's weaving districts.
Still, the Problems Exist
The jenny did not solve all of the problems of the cotton textile industry. For one, the yarn produced by the jenny was soft and not very strong. As a result, it could only be used for weft (the threads woven over and under the lengthwise warp threads). The warp threads still had to be spun on the spinning wheel. In addition, the spinning jenny was designed to be used by families in their homes. Because it was relatively cheap and simple to use, its main impact was to increase the productivity of household weaving. Toward the end of the century, large jennies were built and used in workshops and factories.
The possibility of mass-producing cotton cloth opened up with the invention of the water-frame in 1768. The inventor, Richard Arkwright, was a barber and wigmaker. Together with watchmaker John Kay, who had created the flying shuttle in the 1730s, Arkwright developed a machine that could quickly produce cotton thread strong enough to be used as warp (BEE BELOW). Unlike the jenny, however, the new "frame" could not be operated by human power alone. For this reason, it could only be used in mills or factories. In 1771, Arkwright established England's first cotton textile factory using water-powered frames. Soon, about 600 people, most of them children, were working there.
Over the next few decades, several other inventions led to further improvements in the quality of British cotton and the efficiency of its production. New machines improved the processes of carding fibers and dying yarns. Steam power allowed manufacturers to build factories anywhere they wanted. By 1812, about 100,000 spinners and 250,000 weavers worked in the cotton industry, and cotton textiles accounted for about 40 percent of British exports.
Credit Due the Nameless
The rise of the British cotton industry is one of the great success stories of the early Industrial Revolution. To be sure, inventions such as the spinning jenny were very important. Yet, we must not forget that the industry could only have thrived because of the ceaseless labor of hundreds of thousands of workers. It was their low pay that allowed industrialists to expand their factories. The rise of the cotton industry is as much the story of these nameless men, women, and children as it is the story of Hargreaves's spinning jenny and Arkwright's water-frame.
Caption: The year is 1747--before the first wave of the Industrial Revolution. An overseer (RIGHT) makes sure two loom workers keep at their tasks. Note the cat playing around the loom, which could not have been moving too quickly!
Caption: SPINNING JENNY Use this diagram of a spinning jenny to locate each section on the German museum model below.
Caption: A reconstruction of Arkwright's water-frame
Caption: Take a look inside Britain's largest water-wheel (TOP LEFT). To see it, visit Quarry Bank Mill, where it still powers looms, including the huge one below known as a mule spinning machine.
Illustration by Victoria Marcelino
Katrin Schultheiss is the director of Graduate Studies and associate professor of history at The George Washington University.