The water frame was the first spinning machine that performed constant spinning of cotton yarn. Through the use of a series of rollers, the water frame was able to produce very strong, smooth yarn that paved the way for the weaving of all-cotton fabrics.
The water frame was invented in England by Richard Arkwright and was patented in 1769. At that time, James Hargreaves's spinning jenny was enjoying great success. However, the spinning jenny simply mechanized the actions of a hand-turned spinning wheel; it could not improve upon the actual quality of yarn produced.
Arkwright came up with a design that would produce stronger yarn by drawing the cotton fibers apart further and more evenly. The cotton was pulled through a set of eight rollers arranged in four pairs. In each pair, the top roller was covered in leather, a material that easily gripped the rough cotton. The bottom rollers were made of either wood or metal, and had flutes (scoop-bottomed grooves) cut into them that allowed the cotton fibers to pass through. The first set of rollers was designed to turn slowly, while each successive pair turned slightly faster; this pulled the fibers further and further apart, producing a roving that was even and free of lumps. As the cotton emerged from the final set of rollers it was twisted tightly into a strong yarn.
Arkwright's prototype spinner was powered by horses, but in 1771 he perfected a water-powered spinner, hence the name "water frame." For years, cotton yarn had been used in the weaving of fabrics. Unfortunately, the yarn spun using the "great wheel" or the spinning jenny was too weak for many applications, including hosiery. In looms, cotton yarn could be used as weft, but was not strong enough to serve as warp; in most cases, stronger threads of linen were used for this purpose. Arkwright's water frame produced the first yarn suitable for use as both warp and weft. For the first time in England, all-cotton materials could be woven.
Like many inventors, Arkwright possessed the inspiration but not the experience to construct his water frame. In 1768, he enlisted the help of two machinists, John Kay (1704-1764) and Thomas Highs (1718-1803), who built for him the important parts for his spinning machine. Years later, this partnership was the source of legal trouble, as Arkwright sought to enforce his patents upon a number of competitors in the yarn industry. He eventually lost the patent for the water frame, but remained a rich and powerful player in that industry. He was knighted in 1786.