Chapter 5: The Textile Industry
We’ll never know the names of the first farmers of the Neolithic Revolution, but we do know the names of the inventors who kick-started the Industrial Revolutions. Their simple innovations gave us a new world of nearly constant, explosive economic growth and a total restructuring of society everywhere and forever. This is how it happened.
In this episode, we’ll cover:
The growth of the global cotton trade in the 17th and 18th centuries
The flying shuttle
The spinning jenny
The spinning mule
The first cotton mills of northern England
The impact of the first industrial revolution in the new United States
Sources for this episode include:
Beckert, Sven. Empire of Cotton: A Global History. Vintage. 2014.
Fitton, R.S. The Arkwrights: Spinners of Fortune. Manchester University Press. 1990.
Harari, Yuval Noah. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. HarperCollins. 2017.
Herreld, Donald J. "An Economic History of the World Since 1400." The Great Courses. 2016.
Stearns, Peter N. The Industrial Revolution in World History. 4th Edition. Westview Press. 2013.
Weightman, Gavin. The Industrial Revolutionaries. Grove Press. 2007.
It’s impossible to compare, or really even measure, economic growth and technological advancement over the last 10,000 years.
But if it was possible, and you were charting it on a graph, what you would see is a velocity acceleration curve. Progress is very slow at the start, but it picks up as time goes on, especially when you see bronze, the wheel, the animal-drawn plough, writing, and other breakthroughs slowly introduced.
Then, around 1770, there would be a major inflection point. Growth explodes, and the pace of change today is unlike anything in history. With new inventions, growth recreates itself and fuels itself, so that economic revolution is made seemingly permanent.
As a result, progress becomes a given. We fully expect the world our children inherit to be nothing like the world we inherited. That didn’t used to be the case, and when we forget that fact, our understanding of history is clouded.
This epoch of ours is the most significant moment in human existence since (at least) the Neolithic Revolution of the Stone Age, when people started farming wheat and barley.
And once again, this new revolution would be the result of plants. In particular, four species of the
And most importantly, Gossypium hirsutum
These are the plants we commonly call cotton.
We’ll never know the name of the first farmer of that Neolithic Revolution, but we do know the name of the inventor who kick-started the Industrial Revolutions: John Kay.
Have you never heard of John Kay? That’s not surprising. Most people probably haven’t.
Kay was the son of a yeoman farmer, and he grew up around the town of Bury in northern England. Today, it’s part of the greater Manchester area – but like the Industrial Revolutions – the Manchester we know today is the product of a cotton industry that Kay catalyzed.
As a teenager, Kay became apprenticed to a maker of reeds for hand-looms, machines for fabric threading. Throughout the 1720s, he traveled through England, practicing that trade. He also started tinkering with the designs and getting patents.
Then in 1733, a breakthrough. The 29-year-old tradesman received a patent for his flying shuttle.
Originally, to weave a wide piece of cloth, two weavers were needed to push a crossways yarn around in a loom. But by putting a flying-shuttle – a simple piece of wood with wheels – in the machine, it could be done with just one weaver at double the speed.
In July that year, Kay started a business to manufacture his flying shuttles for textile weavers. But these weavers were not big fans.
You see, as simple as the invention was, the productivity it created was super disrupting. With double the output capacity, not all those weavers would remain employable, at least not while demand was what it was.
Others, meanwhile, created copycats. Kay nearly went bankrupt trying to fight patent infringements. Frustrated by the situation in his country, Kay eventually left for France, where the government paid him to produce the flying shuttle there. But things never did go much better on the continent.
John Kay never became an especially rich man, but his simple invention kick started a new world of nearly constant, explosive economic growth and a total restructuring of society everywhere and forever.
This is how it happened.
This is The Industrial Revolutions
Chapter 5: The Textile Industry
I’m not a fan of reading long passages from a book to you, but I’m going to make an exception in this episode, because this passage is too perfect. It’s from the introduction of Sven Beckert’s excellent book, Empire of Cotton, which I highly recommend you purchase and read for yourself.
Take a moment and imagine, if you can, a world without cotton. You wake up in the morning on a bed covered in fur or straw. You dress in woolens or, depending on the climate and your wealth, in linens or even silks. Because it is hard to wash your clothes, and because they are expensive or, if you make your own, labor intensive, you change them irregularly. They smell and scratch.
They are largely monochromatic, since, unlike cottons, wool and other natural fibers do not take colors very well. And you are surrounded by sheep: it would take approximately 7 billion sheep to produce a quantity of wool equivalent to the world’s current cotton crop. Those 7 billion sheep would need 700 million hectares of land for grazing, about 1.6 times the surface area of today’s European Union.
From an evolutionary standpoint, those species that tied their fates to homo sapiens were geniuses. Certainly, this was the case with those animals we use for meat, dairy, silk, and other human needs.
Today, human beings make up about 28% of the world’s large animal biomass. Our domesticated animals – cows, sheep, horses, chickens, pigs – make up another 64%. Only 9% of that biomass are the world’s large animals that are wild and free – like lions, elephants, monkeys, penguins, and sea turtles. And many (if not most) of those species will go extinct in the wild before you die.
With climate change, many plant species are threatened too. But once again, those plants that made themselves useful to humans will likely survive. Apple trees, sugarcane, grapevines, and soybeans have spread their genes across the planet in huge numbers. They’re going to be around a long time.
But of all the plant species, there were probably no others that saw such great success in their interactions with humans than wheat and barley, which spread out of the fertile crescent 10,000 years ago, making themselves indispensable so long as humans want bread or beer.
No others except, of course, cotton – that miracle plant we use to cover ourselves. It’s a fantastic fiber. When you wear it, you won’t get too hot, but you won’t get too cold. It stretches nicely. You can wash it easily, dry it easily, and do it over, and over, and over again. If you’re interested in making a fashion statement, there are few other materials as useful for carrying the colors you want to wear.
It was domesticated in both modern-day Mexico and Pakistan, and spread across both the old and new worlds before Columbus set sail. During the Middle Ages, it was grown in North America, South America, Africa, and Asia.
But it didn’t grow in Europe, at least not most places in Europe, where the climate is too cold. It was just as well, since Europe had a strong wool industry, and one of the primary benefits of cotton is how it breathes in warm weather.
But as the age of global empires continued, and Europe came to dominate all forms of trade, they started noticing the benefits of cotton. In particular, they found it useful to sell cotton from India to buyers in Africa. The cotton wasn’t only grown in India, but processed there too, using millennia-old techniques of spinning raw cotton into yarn and weaving the yarn into cloth. These operations usually took place nearby the cotton fields.
Occasionally the European traders would sell the cotton goods – calicoes or muslins as they called them – back in their own countries too. By the early 1600s, English merchants were importing cotton and getting it produced via their cottage industry networks of wool weavers, using the old putting-out system.
It didn’t always go well.
For one thing, it seriously alienated the traditional wool industry in Great Britain, which wanted to protect itself from new competition. English shepherds didn’t want to compete with Indian cotton pickers. Several attempts were made to ban cotton imports, with Parliament debating the matter in 1623. At one point, women wearing calicoes in London set off a riot when they were attacked by wool workers. By 1774, Parliament decided that all cotton goods sold in the kingdom had to be spun and woven in the kingdom.
But it wasn’t going well for British merchants either, who noted that the labor costs of weaving were much higher in Britain than in India. So began a concerted effort to improve the technology used in cotton spinning and weaving in order to boost productivity.
And to figure it out, they went to India to investigate the techniques used there for thousands of years. Several English traders – ostensibly there on site to buy finished goods from Indian cotton workers – would copy the techniques in their notes and publish them in merchant manuals.
You see, by the 18th Century, few countries were as well positioned to benefit from the cotton trade as Great Britain. Thanks to its ruthless East India Company, a growing market in its colonies, and its unique geographic position, with easy access to waterborne shipping, Great Britain was selling cotton goods to the Americas, Africa, Russia, and throughout Europe.
So, when John Kay’s flying shuttle came around, it was like a gift from heaven. By 1750 it was in wide use in England, even if it wasn’t benefiting Kay himself.
Weaving productivity had doubled. With that new economy of scale accomplished, English textile merchants were ready to make a fortune. But there was a problem – a bottleneck, to be more precise. Cotton couldn’t be spun fast enough to keep up. It now took 4 spinners to supply 1 weaver.
In the 1790s, weaving would be made even more efficient by Edmund Cartwright and his power loom. So, it was a problem that wasn’t going to go away. Unless, of course, someone could solve it.
It all starts by planting the cotton seed. When the cotton plant grows, you pick-off the white, fluffy fiber. Then you need to clean it, removing the seeds, and prepare it for spinning, a process known as scutching. From there it needs to be disentangled and intermixed in a process called carding. From there there’s a few more steps to turn it into a roving – a long, narrow bundle that can be used for spinning.
And spinning – that is, getting the cotton thin enough to be made into yarn for weaving – is a laborious process. By the 1760s, British artisans were looking for a way to scale that process.
It was an illiterate weaver named James Hargreaves who figured out how to do it.
Legend is that Hargreaves got the idea when he saw a traditional spinning wheel that had been turned over on the floor – so it was lying flat, rather than vertically – while the spindle was upright. Despite the state of it the machine, the wheel and spindle both continued to revolve.
And so, he thought, what if you added more spindles to the contraption, laid upright? You’d be able to spin several threads of yarn at once. The bottleneck of spinners supplying weavers would be fixed.
Hargreaves got to work. He wasn’t a man of means, so he was only able to build a few of these spinning engines for himself and a few neighbors. At first, he was able to make 8 separate threads at once. Then tinkered with the machine to get 16 more on there, tripling the speed of spinners.
The idea spread. Within 20 years, there were about 20,000 of these engines across Britain. Like many at the time, they didn’t call it an engine, but rather the abbreviated “gin.” And then they affectionately expanded that word with an N-Y. The device would go down in history as the Spinning Jenny.
Like fellow Lancashire native John Kay, Hargreaves never got rich off his invention, and today not very much is known about him.
But also like Kay, we know Hargreaves’ invention created a backlash. With the productivity created by the spinning jenny, the price of yarn fell sharply, angering the spinners in his community. Hargreaves had to leave his village for Nottingham.
The process of spinning was further improved by another Lancashire native of humble origins. Only this guy wouldn’t go down in poverty and obscurity.
Richard Arkwright was born just months before John Kay received his patent for the flying shuttle. Arkwright’s father was a successful tailor and guild member in Preston. But there were many children in this family, with Richard being the youngest of seven who survived into adulthood. There was no money left for his education. He had to be taught to read and write by his cousin Ellen.
Then, as a teenager, he became apprenticed to a barber and wigmaker in nearby Kirkham before setting up his own shop down in Bolton. From there he travelled around the country, collecting human hair for his wigs.
Like Kay and Hargreaves, Arkwright also had a knack for invention. He developed a new dye for wigs that allowed them to be washed without losing color, which in 18th Century fashion was a big deal.
The income he earned from this business allowed him to expand into other ventures. And around this time – no doubt because of the advancements he saw in spinning and weaving – he became obsessed with textiles.
At one point, he befriended a clockmaker named John Kay at a tavern. And don’t hate me, but no, it’s a different John Kay. I’m sorry. As it turned out, clockmaker John Kay had a neighbor and friend named Thomas Highs, an inventor who had previously developed his own Spinning Jenny and an improved carding machine.
Highs had asked the clockmaker to produce some metal wheels for this new spinning machine he tried building. As a result, clockmaker Kay became thoroughly familiar with the technology. Hearing Kay recount the story at the tavern, Arkwright pressed him for more information.
In 1768, Arkwright took the clockmaker back to his hometown of Preston and they locked themselves away in a room they rented in a boarding house. There they invented a new spinning frame, using rollers that would effectively automate much of the spinning process.
A few years later, Arkwright teamed up with two investors from the nonconformist religious community, Jedediah Strutt and Samuel Need, who gave him the funds he needed to put this new machine into use. From Nottingham, they headed northwest to a small village on the River Derwent. In the river they conducted a little experiment, to see if the water power would be useful to make the machine go without human labor.
This new water-frame would completely revolutionize manufacturing, and it would happen here, in this village: Cromford.
Arkwright was not the first to try cotton spinning by water mill, but he was the first to do it successfully. And the Cromford Mills would become one of the birth sites of the Industrial Revolutions.
In December 1771, Arkwright put an employment ad in the Derby Mercury, seeking some skilled mechanic types, but also weavers of all backgrounds. In all, Arkwright hired about 200 workers, mostly women and children. The operation ran day and night, with two 12-hour shifts.
Cromford Mills helped grow Arkwright’s fortune, and he went on to invent new machines – including a new carding machine he patented in 1775 – and build new mills at Wirksworth and Matlock Bath. He lost most of his patents in the mid-1780s, as guys like Thomas Highs successfully sued him. But he was still able to create a cotton-spinning empire that his son, Richard Jr. would inherit and continue to grow, amassing a larger fortune still. With that money, Richard Jr. would join the gentry and his son, Richard III would become a Member of Parliament.
Even Richard Sr. would have an opportunity to climb the social ladder in his lifetime. He was knighted Sir Richard Arkwright in 1786.
Arkwright came a long way, but his water-frame would not be the capstone of cotton spinning. For that, we need to head back to Lancashire.
The mule is an interesting animal – a crossover between a horse and a donkey. If only there could be some kind of crossover between the Spinning Jenny and Arkwright’s Water Frame.
Well, there’s about to be.
In 1779, Samuel Crompton introduced his Spinning Mule. It’s a huge machine with two parallel carriages, with the roving on one side and spindles on the other. Unlike the water-frame, the mule had to occasionally stop and start. But the yarn it produced was unlike any other spun by a machine. It was thin and strong, allowing it to serve as both the horizontal and vertical threads during the weaving process.
Crompton was born in Bolton. His father died when he was a boy, leaving his mother to provide for the family. She spun yarn, and she required the young Samuel to do the same to contribute to the household. Frustrated by the Spinning Jenny, he developed his own machine, powered by water, capable of spinning 200 (and eventually 1300) spindles at once.
Crompton’s mule would be the capstone of the spinning machines for years to come.
For one thing, the spinning machines were almost instantly recognized as world-changing. Britain treated these new technologies as intellectual property to be heavily guarded, even criminalizing the export of the new technologies for nearly 50 years, starting in 1786.
Spies from across Europe went to Britain to steel the secrets of their success, especially the French. Often posing as tourists or workmen, and often hanging around the local pub of an industrializing city, they would try to pick up details about how the new machines worked so they could take the ideas back to their countries.
For another thing, with machines the size of the mule, the mills they were put in got absolutely enormous. At 200 feet long and up to 6 stories high, they dominated the views of the traditionally pastoral countryside.
One of the first to expand the mill concept for this massive scale was the 26-year-old Samuel Greg, who set up his Quarry Bank Mill on the River Bollin, just south of Manchester, in 1784.
Born in Belfast, Greg was a Scots-Irish Presbyterian whose father sent him to Manchester when he was a child. The two uncles who raised him were successful textile manufacturers and invested their wealth into their nephew’s great endeavor. Greg was able to use other family connections – merchants in Liverpool – to procure reasonably-priced raw cotton off ships from Jamaica and Brazil.
By 18th Century standards, Quarry Bank Mill was incredibly profitable, earning Greg about 540 pounds per year, an annual 18% return on his initial investment.
Five years after building the mill, he married into a wealthy Unitarian family that made their fortune in the slave trade. With his wife’s family’s finances, he effectively had a line of credit for the remainder of his long life and career. It allowed him to invest in more spindles, build four more mills, and employ more than 2,000 workers.
How Samuel and Hannah Greg went about their business was similarly fascinating. At Quarry Bank, they recruited about 90 children between the ages of 10 and 12 from the nearby poorhouses to work in the mill as “parish apprentices” – basically, unpaid interns – to do all sorts of remedial labor. But historians stress that this wasn’t as bad as it sounds. The Gregs supplemented this labor force with 110 adult wage earners by 1800.
More importantly, they set up the mill as a factory village that could look after these children and their development in a responsible way. It would be a precursor to a similar system attempted by Robert Owen.
Almost from the get-go, people recognized that industrialization was creating some undesirable social effects, including child labor. And how the new bourgeoise and the new Proletariat would address these social questions would come to dominate debates in politics, philosophy, economics, and other social sciences in the centuries to come – right up to the present day.
On the one hand, these early textile mills were incredibly productive. British cotton spinners produced about 57,000 yards of yarn in 1775. By 1783 it was nearly 3.6 million yards. Between 1780 and 1800, the output of cotton products increased nearly 11% every year. Export revenues skyrocketed.
With traditional methods, spinners need about 50,000 hours to spin 100 pounds of raw cotton. After the Jenny, water-frame, and mule, it took British spinners just 300 hours to hit that quota. Further developments, especially with steam power, reduced that time to just 135 hours by 1835. In just a few decades, British manufactures made cotton spinning 370 times as efficient.
As a result, it didn’t matter that British spinners needed higher wages than Indian spinners. They were producing so much more. One of the top textile firms reported the prices for their high-quality yarns fell 50% between 1795 and 1811. A piece of muslin that cost 116 shillings in the early 1780s cost just 28 shillings fifty years later. Prices going so far in the opposite direction of inflation? Today we see it with new products all the time. But before the 19th Century, on this scale, it was unthinkable.
With that kind of productivity, and protectionist laws requiring cotton goods to be produced in England, merchants were crazy to look anywhere other than their own country for cotton spinners. Tens of thousands of English men, women, and yeah, children, got jobs.
On the other hand, this moment will mark huge shifts in the way work is done.
In the old putting-out system, in the age of cottage industry, merchants had to rely on their networks of independent spinners and weavers. The output was irregular, mobilizing new workers was challenging, transportation costs weighed you down, and often, the spinners and weavers resisted attempts to increase production, knowing what it would do to prices.
In the mills, though, the merchants were in charge. For the first time, the owners of machines would dictate your wages, your hours, and your working conditions. There was no guild to look out for you. The new capitalists would organize, supervise, and wholly control the entire production process – for their benefit, and usually not yours.
And that was if you were lucky. It was much better than being a cotton producer in India.
Between 1800 and 1810, Indian sales of cotton goods fell by more than 75%. Weavers who led the world in textile production for centuries were now unable to compete. A merchant named John Taylor, living in the Bengali city of Dhaka in 1800, reported that its great wealth was gone. The ancient textile metropolis was “reduced and impoverished.” Its houses “ruined and abandoned.” The depression led to famine, which led to death, and the local economy was never recovered.
But even that experience was tolerable compared to the lives of other workers in the cotton industry – because God forbid you born to pick cotton in the Americas.
Every American school child learns the name of Eli Whitney, the Massachusetts-born industrialist, for his 1794 invention, the Cotton Gin. But they don’t learn it because Whitney was an American, they learn it because of the role the Cotton Gin would play in the first act of American History.
Whitney was a teenager when the thirteen colonies finally defeated the British in 1783. And it was during these formative years the Revolution would serve as the foundation of his story. Not the American Revolution, the first Industrial Revolution.
You see, the increased productivity – created by Arkwright, Crompton, and others across the pond – was changing the landscape of the global cotton trade. With prices of cotton goods falling, demand for cotton products increased. That meant an increased demand for raw cotton.
And so, the British government began to press its plantation colonies to prioritize the cultivation of cotton. And with new slaves arriving in the Caribbean from West Africa every single day, the British colonists were able to deliver. Cotton farmers in Turkey, India, and China would never be able to compete with the large-scale, forced labor used in the New World.
The amount of cotton shipped from the Caribbean to Great Britain tripled in the 1780s. By 1791, an estimated 12 million pounds of this white gold arrived in the U.K.
The market established, the newly independent United States began exporting cotton to the equal trading partner it once called the mother country.
This exploded after Whitney graduated from Yale and made his way down to Savannah, Georgia. Within months of arriving in 1793, he built a new kind of cotton gin. There had been cotton gins for centuries, of course. They were used to clean cotton by removing the seeds from the fibers. Doing it by hand is terrible. But Whitney’s gin was something else. Overnight, the efficiency of cotton ginning increased 50 fold.
It was a simple machine and was copied almost immediately. Patent law barely functioned in Great Britain, much less the brand-new United States. As a result, gins like his spread quickly. American farmers stopped growing tobacco and potatoes to grow cotton instead. And they imported a lot of slaves to do the work.
Americans are usually taught that slavery would have died out in the United States within a few years (or at most, a few decades) after the ratification of the Constitution. But then Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin, and cotton plantation owners could no longer help themselves. The southern states they occupied would not allow the evil of slavery to die a quiet death.
Would it have really died that soon? Is Whitney really to blame?
Who knows? It seems unlikely that the cotton industry would have slowed down just because the gins were lousy. It’s not like that was the case in the 1780s. And getting cotton picked was a lot easier if you didn’t have to do it yourself.
Nevertheless, cotton fields did spread like wildfire after 1793.
And the Americans didn’t just steal people to harvest the lands. They went ahead and stole the lands too. The southern United States was the most important target of the so-called Indian removal policies. This is where we see the Trail of Tears, as the United States forcibly relocated the Cherokee, Creek, Seminole, and other tribes off their ancestral lands to stick in modern-day Oklahoma – all so we could plant more cotton.
The greatest leaps forward in the first Industrial Revolution of British history were inextricably linked to the greatest sins in American history.
But the first Industrial Revolution wasn’t limited to cotton, of course, nor to the broader textile industry. In fact, major advancements would be required of the land in Great Britain if textile advancements were to continue.
Increased food production was needed to fuel the growing workforce, metallurgy was needed to build the machines, and coal was needed to power the mill cities growing across the north.
Come back to learn all about it, in Chapter 6 of the Industrial Revolutions.
Chapter 6 is not going to be next Friday. I am traveling this weekend and will be unable to do enough research in time for you. So, it will drop on Friday, March 8th.
But fear not, there is another bonus episode! I’ll release that one on Friday, March 1st, so that you can space these out if you want. I’ll be talking to my friend Kate, a traditional textile weaver, about her work here in the 21st Century.
And if you’re super confused about these looms and gins and jennys and mules and water frames – don’t worry! I’m going to Tweet links to YouTube videos of these devices tomorrow – that’s Saturday, February 23rd, 2019.
So, you should follow the pod on Twitter! It’s @IndRevPod. That’s @ I-N-D – R-E-V – P-O-D, which is also the handle for Facebook and Instagram.