Spinning Jenny


“Such  is the power of Mode as we saw persons of quality dressed in India carpets, which, but a few years before, their chambermaids would have thought too ordinary for them. The chintz was advanced from being upon their floors to their backs, from footcloth to petticoat.

No less a literary giant than Daniel Defoe, journalist, novelist, pamphleteer and creator of Robinson Crusoe. For a consideration, he had agreed to write this, and more in similar vein, making fun of the new fashion for wearing printed Indian cloth, a fashion which was doing much harm to the English manufacturers of wool and silk.

But all Defoe’s eloquence was in vain. Another writer, seeking to provide a better reason for God-fearing men and women to eschew the imported cloth, suggested no woman should wear the “tawdry, pie-spotted, flabby, low-priced thing called Callico, made by a parcel of heathens and pagans that worship the devil and work for a half-penny a day”; but no lady cared a fig whether the heathens and pagans worked for a farthing a day or nothing; the cloth was pretty, nothing else mattered. With each ship from the East, ladies appeared in brighter, more exotic “callico” and “chintz”.

And so, in 1700, a law was passed, forbidding the wearing of such things. Now women faced arrest and sometimes, more alarmingly, attacks in the street from enraged woollen workers who would rush at them, tear the hated foreign cloth from their backs. Gradually, under this twin threat, women stopped wearing cotton prints and the import, as the Government had hoped, almost ceased. It occurred to men that it might be worth trying to imitate the material, in England. True, this would be of little help to the woollen and silk workers, but at least good English men and women would be used for making the cotton thread and cloth from the imported raw material, and for printing some sort of design on it.

And now there were difficulties. Cotton fibres were exceedingly hard to spin on English spinning wheels and the resulting cloth difficult to weave on English looms, which in any case were too narrow to copy the wide India prints.

And men began, at long last, to realize that their techniques, even for the manufacture of woollen cloth, had scarcely altered in three thousand years: there were frescoes and cave paintings going back at least that far, which showed men and women spinning and weaving their cloth in almost exactly the way it was still being spun and woven. Now, with the introduction of this new and difficult material, was the time to think, think hard, about new, faster, more efficient methods of making cloth.

It was John Kay, son of a wealthy clothing merchant in Lancashire, who took the first step, started the ball rolling, the shuttles (lying and began the never-ending race between spinners and weavers. Within a few years, with his “Fly Shuttle” loom he would be using yarn far faster than spinners could make it: then, a little later, new methods of spinning would be making so much yarn that all the looms in England were unable to use it.

For years cloth had been made, as it is to-day, by holding, stretched and tight, a number of parallel strands of yarn, called the “warp”, and threading through them, at right angles, more strands called the “weft”. Before Kay, two men had been required for this: one man threading halfway across the loom, through half the warp strands and handing the end of his weft to a colleague at the other side of the loom who completed that strand of weft and did the first half of the next, and so on, painstakingly threading over and under, over and under, with his fingers.

Then someone realized that if all the alternate strands of warp, numbers one, three, five and so on, were joined to one part of the loom so that they could all be raised or lowered together, a strand of weft could be “shuttled” through, without any of the laborious threading. It was John Kay’s bright thought to make a springing hammer which would hurl the weft yarn through and back again, so that only one man was required. Cloth by this method could be made far faster with one man than with two, and as there was virtually no limit to the distance the springing hammer could be made to spring, there was no limit to the width of the loom and the cloth.

Within a year of the introduction of Kay’s “Fly Shuttle”, weavers found they were using up yarn faster than they could buy it; they were trudging from door to door in each village, buying whatever quantities they could at whatever inflated price the home spinners cared to ask.

It was now the turn, If there was to be any real point in Kay’s invention, of the spinners. Some new, better method of spinning, of making yarn from the short fibres of wool and cotton, had to be invented. For generations, ever since it had been introduced from Italy in the fourteenth century, the spinning-wheel had been slowly twisting out its spindles of thread or yarn. Then one day James Hargreaves, a weaver of Standhill, near Blackburn in Lancashire, knocked over his wife’s spinning-wheel and was struck by the idea as it lay on its side, that it could, if required, turn a number of spindles, not just one, at the same time. He began to work out the details and in 1767 he patented this “Spinning Jenny”. “This was an immense step forward. Hargreaves made first a “Jenny” which would spin on to eight spindles at once, then sixteen. Soon he was able to show that a Spinning Jenny was worth “not just eight wives, but one hundred and twenty”, for this was the number of spindles in his largest machine.

But Jenny had one great fault: she could spin only the soft threads of which the crosswise “weft” was made; she was incapable of making the tight, strong thread for the lengthwise “warp”. Once again, a bottleneck. The weaver had to stop and wait for the old-fashioned spinning-wheel to produce the warp yarn. Yet the speeding up was enormous: of one hundred and twenty old-fashioned spinning-wheels, where sixty of these had been spinning thread for warp and the other sixty thread for weft, now all one hundred and twenty could devote their energies and their spindles to making the strong, firm warp, balanced by just one of Har-greaves’s Jennies.

Four years after the birth of Jenny, Richard Arkwright of Preston, still, be it noted, in Lancashire, home of the textile industry and particularly, thanks to these new inventions, of the new cotton industry, solved the problem. Like several other pioneers in the new industry of mechanical spinning and weaving, he had no connexion with either craft: he was a barber. His pleasant task, as a personable youth, was to roam the countryside buying the long hair of country girls, so much for blonde, so much for brown, so much for black. When he had filled his cases with the precious commodity, he took it to his employer’s shop in Bolton and together they made it into wigs for ladies and gentlemen of fashion. Somehow, during these wanderings, he was struck by the complaints of cloth workers about the faults of Hargreaves’s Jenny and he quietly put his mind to the problem. After all, he reasoned, human hair was not all that dissimilar to cotton.

Arkwright thought in a big way: he made a machine so vast no man could operate it. Yet, if that man were to provide himself with a water-wheel or even a horse, that was it, a horse, every man should have a horse, he could be assured of spinning yarn, strong enough for both weft and warp, far more rapidly than man had done before.

It was left to the shy, retiring Samuel Crompton to make a hybrid combining the best points of “Jenny” and the “horse” spinning machine which he christened his “Mule”. Crompton remembered how spinners, fearing the Hargreaves Jenny might throw them out of work (after all, it could do the work of one hundred and twenty men, even though another hundred and twenty were needed to make warp for it), had smashed the first Jenny. He wished no part in anything like this; he was a quiet, decent, Godfearing man, and so he hastily offered his machine to a manufacturer, He had spent years in its design and construction, dismantling it several times a week, hiding the pieces in the attic when he fancied he heard workers bearing down on him. Now, here it was, he was proud of it, and at the same time frightened.

The manufacturer took the machine away “to consider”, and promptly made a great many copies. Crompton received nothing for his idea, until many years later, when he was able to convince the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Spencer Perceval, that the nation was profiting hugely from his work. Perceval agreed, told him that he would press for a grant of £20,000. Almost immediately afterward Perceval was assassinated, and somewhat later Crompton was granted only £5,000. He accepted it graciously, the total reward of a man whose invention was the means of livelihood of a quarter of a million people.

Edmund Cartwright’s tale is much the same. He had been born in Nottinghamshire, in 1743, and though anxious to join the Navy had bowed to his parents’ wishes and taken Holy Orders, His life moved smoothly, unambitiously, on, in livings scattered about the countryside of Cheshire and Leicestershire, until he elected to take a summer holiday at Matlock, in 1784, when he was forty-one. Here he met a party of Manchester mill-owners, vociferously deploring the situation whereby spinning methods so outstripped weaving.

“Then”, said the Reverend Mr Cartwright, with a bright, ecclesiastical smile, “someone must invent a weaving machine.”
“Don’t be a fool Can’t be done.”
“Why, why I might even have a go myself-”
“Get back to your pulpit, Parson. Leave men’s work to men-”

Deeply offended, the parson set to work to make, within his vicarage, a weaving machine, a mechanical loom.

Eventually, with the help of a carpenter, he had it completed, but when he paid a visit to a mill to see how the existing looms functioned (at the time of his invention, Cartwright had never even seen a loom) he was disturbed to discover that the old-fashioned hand loom was faster, more efficient, than his own mechanical brainchild.

Undaunted, he modified his own, found it worked satisfactorily, and bought himself a small factory. Here his Automatic Loom ran happily day and night, driven at first by the exertions of a bull, then by a steam engine. Soon the Manchester mill-owners had beaten a path to its door. One of them installed a few looms as an experiment, and found that his weavers’ output was exactly doubled.

Instead of increasing wages or decreasing hours, the mill-owner simply halved the payment. Within a week of this decision, he was regretting it: his mill-hands burnt down the factory.

In some alarm, the Reverend Mr Cartwright closed down his own factory and fled to London. Here he devoted himself, without much success, to inventing gadgets for the textile industry. Eventually, in 1801, when he was fifty-eight, he was given, like Crompton before him, a grant by Parliament. He was more fortunate than Crompton: his grant amounted to £10,000, and he died in 1823, well off financially, proud of the fact that factories all over the world were now using his Automatic Loom.

Invention went on. The spinning inventions of Hargreaves, Arkwright and Crompton on the one hand, and the weaving inventions of Kay and Cartwright on the other, brought on the science of cloth-making more rapidly during the second half of the eighteenth century than in the previous thousand years. But none of these men could possibly have considered the power he was releasing, a power for evil as well as good. The Machine Age began with the Fly Shuttle and the Spinning Jenny, and it is still with us, but its first years were drenched in blood. With a Jenny supplanting a hundred and nineteen spinners out of a hundred and twenty, unemployment mounted and those that remained in work found, in this buyers’ market, that their labour was worth a great deal less. As this coincided with a rise in prices brought on by war, Lancashire, to name the most hard-hit area, was soon in the deepest distress.

The price of bread mounted steadily, yet the price for weaving twenty-four squares of cambric in Stockport fell from twenty-five shillings in 1802 to ten shillings in 1811. The Luddites, named after an apprentice who smashed his stocking frame in Leicester, were soon roaming the land smashing machinery. Eventually the riots died as workers began to see that the new machinery, though it might make a few jobs unnecessary in one part of industry, was opening up new ones elsewhere, and was also making cloth and clothing unbelievably cheap.

And so, with these not very complicated machines, designed to replace tedious manipulation, the Machine Age came to England, and the world. Its effects were widespread, for though some of the machines could be satisfactorily made of wood, the larger ones had to be of metal, to stand the strain, and now a metal industry had to he organized to keep pace with the work in textiles.

The Machine Age had come, and to stay.

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