British Textile Inventions & Technology

Instructor: Cirrelia Thaxton

Cirrelia is an educator who has taught K-12 and has a doctorate in education.

In this lesson, study about British textile inventions and technology that have changed the history and science of fabric-forming systems. Learn how and why British textiles have contributed to social advancements.

Overview of British Textile Industry

With the mention of British textiles comes two distinct fibers — wool and cotton — to be spun and processed by either knitting or weaving. A common export from English territories, wool fabrics had been around since the 15th century. Preparing wool for processing and finishing, required a lengthy, labor-intensive process. Likewise, the preparing of cotton fibers to become spun yarns was tedious and handmade.

Before the 17th century, textile producers created cotton fabrics in great factories known as mills. England fostered a cottage industry in which textiles were created in workers' homes rather than in mills. More cotton textiles, however, were imported into England from other countries, such as India. For that reason, the British government passed the Calico Acts of 1700 and 1721, legislation that saved the domestic wool industry from being outdone by the cotton exporters. These acts banned cotton textile imports and set restrictions on the sale of cotton textile goods. All of these changes in society led Britain to be called the first nation focused on modern industrialization.

Key British Textile Inventions

John Kay's Flying Shuttle

In 1733, John Kay designed and developed the flying shuttle, an invention that would lessen the necessary yarn input of four spinners by quickly sending the shuttle across the loom. This invention helped to speed up the weaving process because one worker had the capability to weave the output produced by 16 spinners. As a result, the demand for yarn grew to astronomical levels, and inventors focused on creating equipment to offset these spinning deficits.

Portrait of John Kay

James Hargreaves' Spinning Jenny

One well-known inventor who responded by solving this problem was James Hargreaves. In 1770, Hargreaves received the patent for the spinning jenny, a machine that spun cotton by multiplying thread ends at a faster rate than ever before. Because it could spin a plethora of yarn ends between 20 and 30 spindles simultaneously, the spinning jenny could be substituted for the work of several spinsters. This made it an unwelcome advancement that threatened the livelihood of spinsters who formed angry mobs and ran Hargreaves from Lancashire, his hometown.

The spinning jenny of James Hargreaves

Arkwright's Water Frame

The desire to insert twist into yarns had increased as spinning evolved throughout England. One inventor conceived the idea to introduce twist into these yarns using rollers, and his name was Richard Arkwright. He created a water frame, having three to four roller sets, which used a drawing action to stretch cotton prior to twisting. By 1769, Arkwright's water-powered machine earned a patent. Unfortunately, many textile workers lost their jobs with the advent of Arkwright's new machine. After leaving Lancashire for Nottingham to find safety from disgruntled workers, he partnered with Jedediah Strutt, another inventor, specializing in the design of knitting machines for cotton stockings. The two men settled in 1771 in Cromford, Derbyshire, where they built water frames inside water-driven textile mills.

Crompton's Mule and Cartwright's Power Loom

More advancements continued to follow while British inventors, such as Samuel Crompton, saw the need to design changes that met the challenge of the growing textile industry. Crompton's invention, the mule, combined the drawing mechanism of the spinning jenny with the rolling action of the water frame. This powerful invention allowed one worker to control the spinning action of 1,000 spindles. Because of the hybrid nature of the mule's design, Crompton was never able to patent the machine, and in 1785, he lost all rights to a patent, giving manufacturing companies freedom to utilize the water frame.

Samuel Crompton (1753-1827)

Similarly, the mechanization of weaving was a problematic affair, and many Englishmen sought to solve some of the errors associated with loom preparation and the weaving process. Reverend Edmund Cartwright, of Leicestershire, designed a power loom that reduced the need for multiple steps during weaving; its aim was to decrease production time and increase efficiency. In 1785, Cartwright received a patent for this power loom and inspired other British inventors to develop better ways to handle the needs of weavers who desired more efficient mechanical fabric production.

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