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The Textiles Revolution

Welcome back. The first aspect of the industrial revolution we will look at is in the textile industry.

The Flying Shuttle

The flying shuttle was one of the key developments in the industrialisation of weaving during the early Industrial Revolution. It allowed a single weaver to weave much wider fabrics.

It started the path to mechanisation of this formerly manual process and halved the workforce required. Whereas broad-cloth loom previously required a weaver on each side, it could now be worked by a single operator.

The flying shuttle was patented by John Kay in 1733, but its adoption was limited by the unrest it caused among weavers. Kay also struggled to enforce his patent and eventually moved to France, where he was paid by the government to help improve the weaving industry there. He died in France, a poor man, in 1779.

The Flying Shuttle began to be adopted widely in Britain from the 1760s, but John Kay received little reward from his invention. Nevertheless, his ideas for mechanising the textile industry-inspired others.

The Spinning Jenny

James Hargreaves was an illiterate weaver. Once when repairing a spinning wheel, he realised that several spindles could be combined to allow several threads to be spun at once.

He made a machine for himself and several for his neighbours. Then he began to make and sell his spinning jennies widely. He was granted a patent for his invention in 1770. Hargreaves continued making his machines until his death in 1778

While the quality of the thread produced on the Spinning Jenny was considered poor, the invention stimulated others to improve his ideas. Richard Arkwright and Samuel Crompton came soon after with inventions that really did revolutionise the textile industry.

The Water Frame

Richard Arkwright was one of the world's first entrepreneurs. He was an inventor, but, perhaps more importantly, he knew how to take ideas, improve them, and then successfully promote them in the marketplace. It made him immensely rich, although not popular with his business partners.

Arkwright started his working life as a barber and wig maker in Bolton in the 1760's. He invented a waterproof dye for wigs, and the income from his patent funded his move into textiles.

In 1768 he teamed up with a technician called John Kay – no relation to the inventor of the Flying Shuttle – and created a spinning machine. Arkwright patented the spinning frame in 1769 without mentioning Kay in the patent. Unsurprisingly the two fell out, and legal battles would later arise.

Arkwright's spinning machine was originally powered by horses, and he set up a factory in Nottingham with some business partners in 1770.

Richard Arkwright realised that waterpower would be much more efficient and converted his spinning machine to waterpower – this is the water frame. He built the world's first water-powered mill at Cromford in Derbyshire in 1771. 200 people were employed there

A carding machine had been invented in 1748. Carding is the process of converting raw cotton to a continuous skein prior to spinning. Richard Arkwright improved on the original ideas and took out a patent for a new carding engine in 1775

Arkwright then built a larger mill at Cromford in 1776 that combined carding and spinning and employed 600 people – many of them children. He was an astute businessman, and he knew how to sell. Many other businesses bought his water frame, and Arkwright himself built at least five other factories, including the famous village at New Lanark in Scotland in partnership with David Dale

But Richard Arkwright was aggressive and domineering. He sidelined some of his business partners and bought out others. In 1785 John Kay and others brought a case against him, arguing that Arkwright was not the exclusive inventor of the spinning frame and should not have the exclusive patent. Arkwright's patents were annulled but, by that time, Arkwright was rich and powerful and dominated the textile market with the water frame. His wealth or success were not greatly diminished by the loss of the patent.

Thank you for listening to this lesson. In the next lesson, we continue our discussion of developments in the textile industry with the introduction of the factory system.

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Written by

Ross Maynard