Spinning Jenny Industrial Revolution?

The Spinning Jenny Industrial Revolution, just what was it?

Let’s explain what the ‘Spinning Jenny’ is before looking at why it was such an important invention of the Industrial Revolution.

The ‘Spinning Jenny’ is a spinning machine with multiple spinning frames. This allowed the workers to work with eight or more spools of thread at once. As the technology improved more and more spools were added greatly increasing the amount of cloth produced for the same amount of effort. There were limitations though as the yarn it produced was not strong enough.

The history behind the ‘Spinning Jenny’.

The textile industry was one of the sectors most associated with the Industrial Revolution. The emergence of cotton textiles was played out in the politics and laws of Britain.

Much of what emerged was pivoted around the Calico Act of 1721. The British cotton textile manufacturers were protected form Indian cottons in the domestic and colonial market and it was this factor that spurred the innovation in machinary in the C18th.

Cotton was a global commodity and the new machines, developed in the heart of woollen and later cotton industry, of which the ‘Spinning Jenny’ was just one, were simply responding to this global trade.

Problems abounded with mechanizing the process of producing cotton fabric. It was still necessary to use a linen yarn to make the warp for the material. Could cotton yarn be made to be used instead? Such questions drove technological innovation.

Dove – tailing other textile machine inventions.

In 1733, John Kay invented his ‘Flying Shuttle’, this device enabled one weaver to make a width of cloth it had previously taken two to make. It would take 27 years before the use of the flying shuttle became widespread but once it did, the looms now wove the cloth so fast that the spinners could not keep up with the demand for thread.

The mechanisation of the ‘twist’ to make yarn by the invention of Lewis Paul took twenty years to come to fruition but when at last in 1758, Paul patented a machine that could do the job then this, along with Kay’s Flying Shuttle set the environment for further mechanisation.

James Hargreaves is well known for his invention of the ‘Spinning Jenny’ but in fact it was a chap called Thomas Highs (Hayes) from Leigh in Lancashire who saw the potential to take the machine of Lewis Paul and turn it into a fully operational unit that spun yarn. He needed skills he did not have and so went into partnership with John Kay. It was not a successful venture and the two parted company but Highs continued with his idea and in 1764, eventually created a machine called the ‘Spinning Jenny’. Just what it was that he had invented remains disputed. His ideas were shared with many of the main players in British textiles at the time. It is alleged that he knew the limitations of his spinning machine but that he continued to develop his ideas at the same time as Hargreaves was also considering the problem.

Spinning Jenny
Thomas Highs Spinning Jenny

Enter James Hargreaves and Richard Arkwright.

As Thomas Highs continued to experiment and modify his designs, James Hargreaves, a carpenter and weaver from Standhill, Lancashire was also working on the spinning machine, although he was illiterate he knew there was a problem producing sufficient thread for the weavers. He began to consider the design for a machine that would increase the output of thread by increasing the number of spindles able to be operated by a single wheel. This was also the way that Thomas Highs thoughts were going.

So how did the machine operate?

A spinning wheel produced thread on a single spindle, Hargreaves invention would have eight spindles and eventually up to 120 spindles.

A metal frame had eight wooden spindles at one end. Eight rovings were attached to a beam on the frame, when extended they passed through two horizontal bars and the worker would move these bars along the top of the frame and the thread would be extended. At the same time the spinner would turn a wheel, the spindles turned and the thread was spun and wound onto a spindle. More and more spindles were added.

Spinning Jenny
James Hargreaves improved Spinning Jenny

Spinning Jenny Impact

Cloth workers were alert to any new labour saving machine proposed that would threaten their jobs. When it was discovered that James Hargreaves was building just such a machine, his house was broken into and the machine destroyed. These ‘machine breakers’ would go to extraordinary lengths to protect their jobs. It is difficult to imagine just how hard it was for these families in rural England to survive. The Agricultural Revolution was slowly unwinding, land that was previously used to raise crops for families was now enclosed, changes to agricultural machines and systems meant fewer agricultural labourers were needed and in the cold Winter months when it was not possible to work the land, entire families fell back on the textile trade to earn money from their cottages. Without this work they could starve to death or face the workhouse. 

The impact of both Kay’s Flying Shuttle and Hargreaves Spinning Jenny could potentially be devastating to a family, it is little wonder that they took to desperate measures.

But Hargreaves was not deterred, if he didn’t pursue his invention, someone else would. The Spinning Jenny was a small machine and cheap to construct, both these factors were important if it was going to be used in the domestic system, i.e the cottage industry. Hargreaves had not at this point considered his machine being built on a manufacturing factory scale.

So small, cheap to construct, it was also light enough to be used by a single female if need be. It did not require a large physical force and so women and children could operate it.

The Spinning Jenny’s limitation was that the thread it produced was coarse and lacked a certain degree of strength, making it suitable only for the weft, the threads woven across the warp.

In 1770 Hargreaves patented his Spinning Jenny. You can view the Patent for the Spinning Jenny , it is in the British Library Collection.